1. RIDOT’s argument for its debt-heavy RhodeWorks plan makes some logical sense: it’s rational to borrow money if doing so will leave you with more in the long run. The challenge for RIDOT is its own track record has created skepticism about whether its numbers are trustworthy – and as currently proposed, the backup for RhodeWorks relies heavily on RIDOT’s internal math. RIDOT’s toll forecasts have gotten the most attention, but that’s only one piece of the equation. Another is the method RIDOT is using to project the cost of bridge projects at different points in time – the agency is arguing that just a few years of additional deterioration would more than double the cost of fixing some bridges. There’s also the question of whether RIDOT actually has the institutional capacity to “surge” its annual spending on bridge construction from less than $100 million to nearly $300 million. The recent study of RIDOT by Gordon Proctor praised the agency for how it handled the influx of stimulus funds in 2009, but attributed that success to “unsustainable, heroic efforts.” The projected savings from the $500-million RhodeWorks bond could evaporate if the agency doesn’t spend the money as quickly as it claims it will.
3. Just how much campaign cash will Gina Raimondo have by the time she runs for re-election in 2018? She’s already sitting on $519,000, and could easily pull in $1 million over the course of 2015 – every dollar of which can be donated again by the same donors in 2016, 2017 and 2018 under Rhode Island law. So money probably won’t be a problem for Raimondo in ’18. If she has a decent approval rating by then, too, the combination of money and popularity could help her scare off some potential challengers. Is all that a long, long way off? For sure – but don’t think her advisers aren’t thinking it.
4. Rhode Island Republicans will face presidential-year headwinds in 2016, so they’re laying the groundwork already to defend their 2014 legislative gains. The state GOP held its first-ever General Assembly Republican Unity Dinner on Thursday night, attracting a crowd of about 150 to the Metacomet Country Club for speeches by Chairman Brandon Bell, House leader Brian Newberry and former RIPEC chief Gary Sasse. Bell estimates the event – organized over the last two weeks by Tony Bucci and Bob Cusack – raised between $10,000 and $15,000, which will be distributed to incumbent lawmakers, particularly freshmen. They’re already planning another event for late winter.
5. One sign Allan Fung is serious about putting Ticketgate behind him and winning another term as Cranston mayor: shortly after the critical state police probe came out, Fung’s campaign paid $3,650 to Targeted Strategies, the consulting firm owned by Pat Sweeney, the mayor’s 2014 campaign manager. The payment covered early efforts in anticipation of a 2016 re-election bid.
6. Jamia McDonald may have the hardest job in state government right now. McDonald – who came to Rhode Island in 2008 from former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s office, and has now held top jobs under three successive governors – is de facto director of the troubled R.I. Department of Children, Youth & Families. And to hear her tell it, the agency she inherited was about as messed up as it could possibly be. “We have an incredibly dedicated work force that is out there every day making sure our kids are safe,” McDonald said on this week’s Newsmakers. “What we saw was, all of the processes behind them that are supposed to be in place to help were fractured, broken.” According to McDonald, DCYF workers spend 40% to 60% of their time on paperwork, partly because their IT systems still don’t allow remote Web access. Tackling those and other front-office issues, then, is a key priority for her team as they try to improve the agency’s performance. (And McDonald’s team could be in charge for awhile: there is no search going on right now for a permanent director to replace her.)
7. Moody’s latest Rhode Island economic outlook, presented this week at the twice-annual revenue conference, is a mixed bag. On the plus side, the state faces lower risk than other states from a drop in stocks, a decrease in exports, or the decline in oil prices. (Then again, Rhode Island might have had a better economy if its residents had more stock equity or its businesses were stronger exporters.) Other pluses: the job market and personal income both appear to be improving, and net migration (residents moving in versus moving out) turned positive in 2014 for the first time in a decade. But the state is still struggling to create middle-wage jobs, new home sales are weak, and parts of the forecast have been downgraded since May. Click here to see the full outlook (PDF).
8. Rhode Island’s wonky Twitterati has long had a contingent advocating that the state should spend money to speed up transit between Providence and Boston, particularly on the MBTA commuter rail. They’ll be glad to hear, then, that the idea is also getting close attention from the Brookings Institution team preparing the economic-development report for Governor Raimondo.
9. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “If you’re keeping score at home, the Providence Teachers Union this week entered its 15th month without a new contract, even though the membership has voted to approve a proposed pact twice since May 20. (The union previously voted down a contract offer from former Mayor Angel Taveras.) The problem the first time around was the so-called ‘me-too’ clause, a provision that guarantees one union the same raise that any other city union later negotiates for a set period of time. Because the Elorza administration gave Providence’s firefighters an 8% pay increase for a 33% increase to their work week, some teachers – including union president Maribeth Reynolds-Calabro – made the case the teachers would be entitled to a similar raise. Lawyers for the city said they didn’t believe teachers would be eligible for the raise, but after the City Council voiced concern, they agreed to remove the provision in exchange for slightly more job protection for senior teachers. Those changes were approved Sept. 21, but the contract has lingered in the council Finance Committee ever since. The panel will hold a public hearing on the agreement on Thursday, but Chairman John Igliozzi still hasn’t signaled his support. Igliozzi has penned three letters to the Elorza administration since April explaining that he wants to see health care and pension benefit changes in all union contracts moving forward, but he complained this week that no one has responded to his requests. Of course, the longer the teachers go without the new deal in place, the less the city can realize in any possible savings (teachers are currently working off a deal that was negotiated back in 2011). The hope among city officials is to have the contract approved by Thanksgiving, but they’re certainly cutting it close.”
10. Helena Foulkes was not happy with how Lincoln Chafee was running the EDC just before 38 Studios collapsed. Tim White reports on her critical March 2012 memo.
11. With Paul Ryan taking the gavel as U.S. House speaker, perhaps you’re wondering the last time a Rhode Islander was in the running for the job. The answer: 1856, shortly before the Civil War, when Benjamin Thurston of the American Party (aka the “Know-Nothings”) got 11 votes. Thank you to the smart folks at the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics site for that bit of trivia.
12. “How Democrats Suppress The Vote” – provocative headline on a 538 piece about how some Democrats prefer low-turnout off-year elections at the local level. Until recently a classic example would be Central Falls, where receiver Bob Flanders got the city charter changed to move mayoral races from odd-numbered years to even-numbered ones. Woonsocket is also moving to even-numbered municipal elections, with Lisa Baldelli-Hunt to face voters next year. (And she’s already commissioned a poll.)
13. Good news for Pawtucket from Fitch Ratings this week: “Management has achieved financial stability in its general and school funds after experiencing operating pressures during the fiscal period of 2008-2011,” according to the agency. But Fitch is still alarmed by legacy costs in Rhode Island’s fourth-largest city, saying its liabilities for pension and retiree health benefits are “very high and costs are growing.” Pawtucket’s shortfall for its biggest pension fund is $142 million and the shortfall for retiree health is $310 million, according to the most recent valuations.
14. Why is Massachusetts so much richer than Rhode Island? Because it’s smarter.
16. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott and R.I. Department of Behavioral Health, Development Disabilities and Hospitals Director Maria Montanaro on the opioid crisis; Jamia McDonald on turnaround efforts at the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Torey Malatia, general manager of Rhode Island Public Radio; Greg Cunningham of the Conservation Law Foundation. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). Catch both shows back-to-back on your radio 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 (email@example.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi