Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: June 27


Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com, and follow @tednesi on Twitter.

1. Who’d have thought one week ago that this year’s General Assembly session would collapse prematurely – over chicken coops? That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s clear the Senate’s unwillingness to pass the chicken bill, a House priority, was a key trigger for the breakdown of negotiations on Thursday. Speaker Mattiello acknowledged as much when I spoke to him late that night, saying: “When you can’t get agreement on non-consequential bills one after another after another, it’s just time to take a break.” Tensions had already been rising between the two chambers, and senators were privately infuriated that the House was holding up their priorities over what they viewed as the minor matter of chicken coop regulations. Nor did it help that Mattiello has blocked passage of Governor Raimondo’s toll proposal, a major priority for Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, who was a key player in the negotiations. The Senate won an initial PR victory Thursday night by taking the initiative and going home first. But Mattiello argues the passage of a “transformational” budget had already made the session a major success by then from his perspective.

2. Speaking of that budget, the number-crunchers on Smith Hill estimate its provisions will increase the state’s projected deficit for next fiscal year (2016-17) from $75 million to $125 million.

3. We haven’t seen the last of Rhode Island’s legislators for 2015. Speaker Mattiello has committed to bringing the House back this fall to pass some sort of infrastructure-funding bill, a plan he reiterated at a private meeting with Governor Raimondo Thursday. Appearing on this week’s Newsmakers, Mattiello suggested that part of the House’s effort will involve examining other options to fund bridge repairs – including a higher gas tax. Raimondo’s team and Senate leaders are frustrated that Mattiello didn’t pass the billion-dollar proposal in the month after it was announced, particularly since he joined them at the press conference for its unveiling. But Mattiello may have the edge in public opinion – the fact that he wants to spend more than a month examining the economic impacts of such a huge undertaking won’t strike most voters as crazy, regardless of what he pledged behind the scenes. While the Senate has made no commitment to come back and pass whatever the House comes up with – Senate President Paiva Weed explicitly suggested they’d hold off until January in her closing comments Thursday – it’d be tough for the upper chamber to let the toll proposal die out of pique.

4. Regardless of how you feel about RhodeWorks, it’s probably a good thing that Rhode Island is now having this big debate about infrastructure. The 2008 report by Governor Carcieri’s Blue Ribbon Panel – still a good read – put the problem plainly: “In order to maintain our highway system in a state of good operation and repair, the State would need to spend approximately $640 million per year. Current state and federal funding provides about $354 million. The funding gap is $285 million per year.” And with Rhode Island already more reliant on federal highway funding than almost any other state, it seems resources will probably have to come from local sources. That opens up a conversation about where the money should come from. Tolls? The gas tax? Spending cuts elsewhere? A combination? Something else? And the conversation shouldn’t stop there – the spending side of the equation deserves scrutiny too. The Week’s Ryan Cooper has cited three culprits for the high cost of American infrastructure projects: expensive labor, out-of-control private contractors, and “a crap procurement process.”

5. Hey, podcast fans – good news! You can now subscribe to your favorite WPRI shows as weekly podcasts on iTunes – click here for Executive Suite and click here for Newsmakers.

6. It’s safe to say we all know a lot more about Cranston’s Park Avenue railroad bridge now than we did a week ago, huh? The Chris Christie comparisons are irresistible, but also dubious: it’s hard to believe the Raimondo team would be dumb enough to think closing a bridge near Speaker Mattiello would have been an effective way to convince him to pass the toll legislation. And if it was supposed to be punishment, it would have made more sense to close the bridge after the House closed up shop, not while there was still the possibility he might green-light the bill. (And then there’s the small matter of the bridge’s documented deterioration.) More plausible is that administration officials ordered the accelerated inspection program knowing full well that any legitimate problems it turned up would only buttress their case for action. Regardless, it clearly boomeranged against them. And it does raise questions about how RIDOT is managing its current stock of structurally deficient bridges amid funding shortfalls.

7. The Rhode Island Republican Party is getting more aggressive under new Chairman Brandon Bell. The GOP put out multiple press releases this week needling Governor Raimondo over tolls and the bridge closure (as well as Speaker Mattiello over the PawSox) in a bid to fan the flames. It will be interesting to watch how much Bell is willing to play the traditional attack-dog role of a vocal party chairman.

8. Does Dominick Ruggerio want to be the next Senate president? “Never even thought of that,” he quipped when I put the question to him this week. Pressed a little, the 66-year-old North Providence Democrat – Rhode Island’s longest-serving state senator – acknowledged some ambition: “Would I consider that at the appropriate time? Yes, I would. I’d be interested.” While he’s not looking to push out Teresa Paiva Weed, who’s now held the job for nearly seven years, the Smith Hill rumor mill is eternally speculating about when she’ll give up the gavel and who’ll take her place. Ruggerio’s rising profile was on display in recent weeks as he led the charge on two high-profile Senate priorities: the toll proposal and tax breaks for the old 195 land. He’s also developed a solid working relationship with Governor Raimondo. He’d likely have to give up his lucrative day job with the Laborers union to lead the Senate, but he’s approaching retirement age as it is, so the timing could be right. Would Mike McCaffrey, Dan DaPonte or someone else challenge Ruggerio? Or could he clear the field? Should be interesting, whenever the day comes.

9. Lawmakers talked a lot about cutting regulations this year, but they also added them in some places, or at least tried to. Two examples: a new licensing regime for auto glass repair shops spearheaded by Senator DiPalma and Rep. Lima, and a requirement that younger plumbers (those whose combined age and years of experience equal less than 80) pay for continuing education to get their licenses renewed every two years, sponsored by Senator Archambault and (“by request”) Rep. Abney. (Apparently older plumbers don’t need to bother refreshing their skills.)

10. Remember the PawSox stadium deal? It ain’t dead yet. Speaker Mattiello reiterated this week that the state is continuing talks with the team and he’d like to bring a proposal up for a vote in this fall’s special session if it’s ready. “When we come up with a proposal – and there’s no rush – we will air it out with the public and get the public’s input and feedback, and hopefully the public likes the proposal, and I believe [the public] ultimately wants the PawSox to stay in the state of Rhode Island,” he said on this week’s Newsmakers. He added: “If the public’s on board, and I think ultimately they will be, we will proceed forward. If they’re not and they hate the idea, well, that’ll be the end of that initiative. I think the public wants them to ultimately stay.” The dozens who protested the stadium proposal on Thursday would probably disagree, but Mattiello is hopeful they’ll wind up being in the minority – particularly if he can make the deal “revenue-positive,” as he suggested on the show.

11. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, as Rhode Island charter school advocates learned firsthand this week at the General Assembly. Even though all signs pointed to lawmakers backing bills that would make it more difficult – some, including Governor Raimondo, said impossible – for new charter schools to be built or existing ones to expand, the legislative session ended with none of the controversial pieces of legislation being transmitted to the governor. The chambers passed similar but not identical bills to require members of the Board of Education to ‘make an affirmative finding’ that a new or expanding charter school would not have a negative fiscal impact on a sending district, but they never approved the exact same wording. So what happens now? Make no mistake, while school reformers can breathe a little easier for the time being, the General Assembly has not had a change of heart about charter schools. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle remain deeply concerned about the financial impact on school districts that send students – and the per-pupil expenditure that follows each child – to charters. It is very likely Raimondo, who supports charter schools and came close to threatening to veto the bills in question, will move quickly to form some sort of commission to study and make changes to the state funding formula in the next year. In the interim, no one is expecting a flood of new charter schools to pop up in the middle of the night. Here’s one other factor to keep in mind: 2016 is an election year for every member of the House and Senate, and with no statewide races on the ballot, special interests will have the opportunity to play an even larger role in this debate. That doesn’t just mean the teachers’ unions, either. Remember, the pro-school reform group 50CAN Action Fund spent more than $100,000 to support Lt. Gov. Dan McKee and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza last year. A director at the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy has already launched the Hope-Ed political action committee, although that group isn’t required to file its first campaign finance report with the Board of Elections until July 31.”

12. Two presidential candidates are coming to Rhode Island to raise money next month: Democrat Martin O’Malley will be in Jamestown on July 7, and Republican Carly Florina will be at Pawtucket’s Blackstone Valley Tourism Center on July 14.

13. David Wasserman on the demographic headwinds facing the GOP presidential nominee in 2016.

14. It’s starting to look like Senator Whitehouse’s push for a federal carbon tax may not be just a pipe dream. New York’s Chuck Schumer, speaking at Whitehouse’s annual Rhode Island Energy and Environmental Leaders Day event this week, suggested the proposal could get traction if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency and Democrats retake the Senate next year. Considering Schumer will be replacing Harry Reid as Democratic leader, that’s pretty noteworthy. And the response from The Wall Street Journal, perched on the other side of the ideological spectrum, wasn’t as hostile as you might expect. “Our view of a carbon tax is that it might be acceptable as part of a tax reform that eliminated – entirely – some current revenue source such as the payroll or corporate income tax,” the editorial board wrote Wednesday.

15. One of the stranger things about the $267-million Interlink transit complex at T.F. Green Airport is the fact that it’s not, in fact, an Amtrak stop. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed wants to change that: he got language added to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s transportation funding bill this week for a study to look at the feasibility of having Amtrak stop at the airport. Reed calls it “a smart first step toward determining what the viability is and what the hurdles may be.” MBTA ridership at the T.F. Green station stood at 412 a day last time RIDOT checked.

16. Two highly recommended long-reads about the economy: Martin Wolf offers a pessimistic take on the impact of modern innovation, and Derek Thompson examines fears about “a world without work.”

17. Say a prayer for Capitol TV’s Dave Barber. According to Speaker Mattiello’s office, Barber was in his home state of Michigan on Thursday for a friend’s wedding when he suffered an apparent cardiac arrest; after further complications at the hospital, he is now in an induced coma. Dave is always a gentleman when I see him at the State House, and I hope he recovers soon.

18. A roundup of local reaction to the Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision. My thoughts are here.

19. “How theme parks like Disney World left the middle class behind.”

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Collette President and CEO Dan Sullivan. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). You can catch both shows back-to-back on your radio, too: Sunday nights at 6 on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. And you can subscribe to both shows as iTunes podcasts – click here for Executive Suite and click here for Newsmakers. See you back here next Saturday morning.Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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