Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Oct. 24

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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. Well, that was weird.

2. Governor Raimondo’s billion-dollar toll proposal has a new lease on life now that Speaker Mattiello is publicly warming up to the idea – though the path to passage has been far from smooth, and success still isn’t assured. State House buzz suggests top lawmakers want to tackle the issue early in 2016 rather than let it linger for months (and thus require a vote closer to election season). The trucking industry – and critical advocacy groups – aren’t going to give up their fight, however. Opponents have seized in part on the plan’s pricey financing mechanism: the toll money isn’t going directly to bridge repairs, but instead to pay principal and interest on a roughly $620-million bond. (Since it’s a revenue-backed bond, lawmakers can authorize it without a voter referendum.) So why not skip the bond and just use the toll revenue as it comes in each year? “We’ve actually done the math on this, and it turns out it’s more expensive to do the pay-as-you-go because you can’t fix as many bridges quickly enough,” she said on this week’s Newsmakers, before not entirely ruling out the option. She insisted, too, that regular state revenue won’t be required to make bond payments if the tolls don’t bring in enough. “If that were to happen, you’d have to increase the toll,” she said. “Taxpayers will never be on the hook for this bond.” Where have we heard that before? Expect continued close scrutiny of the math behind RhodeWorks in the months to come.

3. Remember Governor Raimondo’s pledge during our debate to order an independent 38 Studios inquiry, a la Bruce Sundlun and RISDIC? Now that she’s in office she’s changing her tuneTim White reports.

4. The Raimondo administration is making progress toward inking a deal for Wexford Science & Technology to build its million-square-foot-plus life-sciences complex on the old 195 land. The I-195 Commission recently signed a letter of intent with Wexford and developer CV Properties to sell them about five acres of property, with the project’s first phase slated to be a lab/office building and a mixed-use facility including a hotel. Raimondo told me Friday she hopes to have an agreement with Wexford in place by the end of this year – an aggressive but achievable timeframe if things fall into place. Brown University officials, whose involvement is make-or-break for the Wexford project, are also expressing confidence. “We’re very optimistic,” Brown provost Richard Locke told me Wednesday. The school has a planning committee in place working on the Wexford project. The focus, Locke said, is on brain science, translational science, entrepreneurship and the School of Professional Studies. Raimondo is set to roll out the state’s new economic-development incentives Monday; Wexford will be among the first in line.

5. Brown should have the money to pay for the Wexford development – and a whole lot more – thanks to the $3-billion capital campaign Brown President Christina Paxson officially kicked off Friday night. The school says it’s already raised $930 million toward meeting that goal. The money of course matters a lot for Brown and for Paxson, whose legacy will be tied up in how she spends the funds. But it also matters a lot for Rhode Island – most of those billions will be harvested from outside the state but spent in and around Providence, a huge infusion of capital into the local economy. “Rhode Island’s success is Brown’s success,” declared Paxson, who’s prioritized Brown’s relationship with the state and has developed a close working relationship with the governor. “Some of our areas of investment – around medicine, public health, science and technology, data sciences, entrepreneurship – these are things that mesh very well with some of the plans out there for Rhode Island economy.”

6. Governor Raimondo is taking an active role in pushing the latest round of Lifespan-Care New England merger talks. She’s met with Lifespan CEO Tim Babineau and Care New England chief Dennis Keefe – who disclosed months ago that the Women & Infants parent is exploring its options – and made clear on Newsmakers that she supports a tie-up. “If they feel that they should come together because they can run a more efficient, higher-quality hospital they ought to do that, and I really don’t want them linking up with a neighbor out of this state, because I think that’s bad for Rhode Island,” Raimondo said. Her big fear: Care New England gets gobbled up by a Boston medical giant such as Brigham and Women’s parent Partners and becomes a remote, low-investment outpost. “I would love for Rhode Island to have a really top-notch academic medical center that is a real engine of growth,” she said. (Christina Paxson is likely taking a keen interest in the hospital groups’ futures, too.)

7. Is Rhode Island any closer to luring GE over the border from Connecticut? Governor Raimondo isn’t saying, and probably can’t under the terms of the sorts of nondisclosure agreements that are standard practice in such talks. But she acknowledged on Newsmakers that she’s made the attempt. “I certainly picked up the phone and called them,” she said. “I read the paper every day, The Wall Street Journal, and if there are CEOs in other states complaining, I call them. So I called GE and said, Rhode Island’s a great place to do business.” A long shot, surely, but you never know.

8. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan: “Last spring’s battle over charter schools at the State House clearly served as the fuel Governor Raimondo needed to call for a review of the education funding formula, but don’t think her new 29-member working group will simply serve as an offshoot of the General Assembly-led commission that focused largely on charters a year ago. In fact, only one member of that panel, Rep. Gregg Amore, is serving on Raimondo’s group. On this week’s Newsmakers, Raimondo said she isn’t looking to completely overhaul the formula, but acknowledged she wants to take a look how the state spends on special needs students and funding for school district with a large population of English-language learners, which was not addressed when the funding stream was adopted five years ago. She also said she’d be willing to consider incentivizing school performance, acknowledging that while Rhode Island is among the biggest spenders in the country on education, the state isn’t ‘getting the bank for the buck’ with ‘middle of the pack’ results. She stopped short of explaining what a pay-for-performance system might look like, but if she’s truly committed to pursuing that type of controversial policy, the dismal PARCC scores soon to be released will likely boost her argument. Of course, it is almost a guarantee that any legislation she puts forth will change the way charter schools – which house just under 5% of the entire public school population in Rhode Island – are funded. But judging by the membership of the working group, you can expect the conversation to have a much more reasonable tone than we’ve seen in recent years.”

9. There’s a new property boom underway in Newport.

10. Speaker Mattiello isn’t usually one to hide his plans and priorities, so it’s worth taking notice of this comment in his remarks to RIPEC Monday night: “We raised the exemption on the estate tax from $921,655 to $1.5 million dollars, and I am going to look closely in the coming session to raise the exemption even further or look at doing away with the tax.” If the speaker really wants it, the speaker usually gets it.

11. Two more on Speaker Mattiello: don’t miss my recap of his interesting interview with Buddy Cianci from last weekend, including some very frank remarks about his relationships with Gordon Fox and Bill Murphy … and here’s my piece on how a $2,500 legislative grant got his name on some hockey jerseys (though not for long).

12. Here’s the list of seven candidates seeking Chris Ottiano’s Senate seat. Someone keeping an eye on the race reports the district is 69% Portsmouth, 23% Bristol and just 8% Tiverton – which could give the four hopefuls from Portsmouth a leg up. The primary is Dec. 1 and the general is Jan. 5.

13. A rough week for Senator Whitehouse, who took to the Senate floor Wednesday to rail against the “masters of the universe” who he says blocked his amendment to a pending cybersecurity bill. His proposal, to increase penalties under the 1998 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, was opposed by 20 civil liberties groups; he blamed its struggles on “some hidden pro-botnet, pro-foreign cybercriminal caucus here.” And the hits just kept coming for Whitehouse: late Thursday his office admitted it had wrongly believed a pared-back version of the amendment was now being added to the bill. Whoops. On the plus side for Whitehouse, the bipartisan criminal justice bill he’s been working on got through committee.

14. It will be Mayor Grebien vs. Mayor Diossa at the North Attleboro 99 restaurant on Tuesday night as the pair face off in a guest-bartending contest to raise money for the Boys & Girls Club of Pawtucket. Details here.

15. The juiciest political story these days may be the Synod of Bishops in Rome.

16. An illuminating read from a different angle on the Hillary Clinton emails.

17. Rhode Island is home to some fantastic Halloween light displays.

18. On a personal note, a sincere thank you to everybody who passed along their kind congratulations after I got engaged last weekend. I’m a very lucky guy.

19. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersGovernor Raimondo. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Wright’s Farm Restaurant owner Frank Galleshaw; Doctor’s Choice founder and president Dr. John Luo. 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 (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesiAn earlier version of this post described the relationship between Partners and Brigham and Women’s incorrectly. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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