Happy New Year! Welcome to another edition of the Saturday Morning Post. Ted Nesi lent me his column for one more week, but he’s promising a swift return. As always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow @danmcgowan and @tednesi on Twitter.
1. How will Gov. Gina Raimondo handle her first 100 days in office? What will happen to former House Speaker Gordon Fox? Ted and I took a peak into our crystal ball to predict the 12 biggest stories we’ll be talking about in 2015.
2. How can Providence claim to have finished in the black during the 2013-14 fiscal year when it is still paying down an $8.6-million deficit from several years ago? It all comes down to accounting. The city spent less than it took in between July 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014 by $1.1 million, giving it an operating surplus. But that doesn’t mean Mayor-elect Jorge Elorza will take office Monday with a bucket of cash somewhere under his new desk. That $1.1 million went toward paying back the city’s rainy day fund, which fell from $22 million in 2008 to its current negative balance of $8.6 million. (It’s worth noting that the city actually budgeted for $3.9 million in deficit reduction in 2014, but only managed to save $1.1 million.) While the city is scheduled to pay the remaining deficit off by June 30, 2017, “no actual payments are made to anyone and cash isn’t transferred anywhere,” according to Matt Clarkin, the city’s internal auditor. That’s why “it’s an accounting issue rather than a payment issue,” Clarkin said.
3. The more Gov.-elect Gina Raimondo is labeled a rising star nationally, the more she sounds like she knows it. When the New York Times asked her what message she sends to Wall Street supporters, here’s what she said: “I need you to double down on America. We need you. We need your brains, we need your money, we need your engagement — not because it’s Wall Street versus Main Street, but because you’re some of the smartest, richest people in the world, and you need to be a part of fixing America, because you want to live in an America that’s the best country in the world.”
4. In case you were wondering, neither Mayor-elect Jorge Elorza nor Gov.-elect Gina Raimondo will be spending taxpayer dollars on their inauguration festivities over the next week. Elorza’s three-day celebration that begins today will be paid for by private donors and contributions will be capped at $15,000. All donors will be listed in Elorza’s inauguration program Monday afternoon. Similarly, Raimondo has set a $15,000 cap for her private donors and has pledged to release a list of all contributors next week. The new governor’s festivities begin Tuesday and will continue next Saturday with an open house at the State House as well as a public event at the skating rink downtown.
5. Turning the tables, here’s a Saturday Morning Post dispatch from our usual ringleader, Ted Nesi: “Rhode Island voters turned out for last fall’s election at the 19th-highest rate in the country, with 41.6% of the state’s voting-eligible population coming out to the polls, according to numbers crunched by the University of Florida’s Michael McDonald. On the plus side, turnout here was slightly better than in some of the states with U.S. Senate races that drew national attention, such as North Carolina (40.9%), Arkansas (40%) or Georgia (38.1%). On the other hand, turnout in neighboring Massachusetts hit 44%, and Maine’s 58% turnout was the highest in the country. By McDonald’s estimation, turnout was notably lower in Rhode Island in 2014 than in the previous three gubernatorial years, down from 51% in the Chafee-Whitehouse year of 2006 and from a shade under 45% in both 2010 and 2002. Will 2014 be an outlier, or is Rhode Island voter turnout going to trend lower in non-presidential years?”
6. And here’s another Saturday Morning Post dispatch from Ted Nesi: “Rhode Island’s minimum wage rose to $9 an hour on Thursday, boosting the incomes of an estimated 53,000 local workers. Increasing the minimum wage is a perennially popular proposal, and Governor-elect Raimondo is on the record as supporting a further rise to $10.10. It’s worth noting, though, that a recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper found the most recent federal minimum wage increase reduced employment among low-skilled workers. That followed an October NBER paper which found ‘the best evidence still points to job loss from minimum wages for very low-skilled workers – in particular, for teens.’ Now, even if minimum wage increases reduce employment, that doesn’t necessarily settle the issue: policymakers may well decide the benefits are worth the costs. But perhaps such research will make them at least examine an alternative way to raise the earnings of the low-paid: through a more robust earned income tax credit. Rhode Island’s EITC is less generous than those of Massachusetts and Connecticut.”
7. Rhode Island may have the highest percentage of regular marijuana users in the country, but don’t expect 2015 to be the year where lawmakers legalize it. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has said it is “not on his agenda for the 2015 session,” according to House spokesman Larry Berman. Don’t expect that to deter Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, and Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston, from sponsoring a bill to legalize and tax pot, just as they did last year.
8. Lower oil prices are expected to boost economic activity in Rhode Island more than almost every state in the country.
9. Federally-funded streetcar plans across the country have been “imperiled by cost overruns, lower-than-expected ridership in some places and pockets of local resistance,” according to a story published this week by Politico. That doesn’t mean all streetcar projects have been a failure, of course. The article points to Tucson, Arizona, as a success story. Providence has been approved for a $13 million grant to fund its plan for a 2.5-mile streetcar system, but incoming Mayor Jorge Elorza has said he wants to make sure the city can find a way to pay for the project. Meanwhile City Councilman Luis Aponte, the frontrunner to be voted council president next week, told me he fully supports the streetcar plan because he thinks it can bridge the lower South Providence area with downtown and the East Side. Aponte said he expects the city to learn more about paying for the project in the coming months.
10: And you thought you had pension problems. Check out Ted’s report on Fall River’s finances.
11. The massive drop in GED recipients both in Rhode Island and across the country is striking, but don’t be surprised if we see a major rebound in 2015. Because of the changes made to the test, GED students were required to pass the exam before the end of 2013 or forced to start from scratch in 2014. That resulted in a big spike in GED recipients in 2013, just as it did in 2001, the year before the last changes were made to the test. (In 2002, about 360,444 students nationwide earned their GED, down 47% from 2001.) It’s true that the drop off in 2014 was far larger than the one in 2002, in part because the test is considered more difficult and has jumped in price from $50 to $120, but the number of GED students hasn’t seemed to fall all that much, at least in Rhode Island. That could mean that a large number of students only need to pass one or two sections of the four-part exam before earning their GED this year. Of course, if 2015 sees results similar to last year, don’t be surprised if Rhode Island lawmakers start pushing for alternative tests, as some states have done.
12. Trivia question: When then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo traveled to Rhode Island in 1988, who was he stumping for? Answer: Richard Licht, who was challenging Republican U.S. Sen. John Chafee. According to a Providence Journal report from the time, then-Providence Mayor Joe Paolino treated Cuomo to a meatball grinder from Tony’s Colonial Food Store on Atwells Avenue. Cuomo died this week at the age of 82. Here’s video of the 1984 Democratic National Convention speech that made him famous.
13. Congressman David Cicilline takes to the New York Times to make the case for mandatory ethics training for all members of Congress.
14. If you’re looking for things to read this weekend, don’t miss these stories. The king of clickbait … How Mario Cuomo won the long game … The finances of Millennials aren’t as bad as you think … The plot to overhaul No Child Left Behind … Everything you need to know about border patrol … Los Angeles has cracked down on street gangs … A look at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first year in office … Interesting profile on potential presidential candidate Bernie Sanders … How James Patterson has sold over 300 million books … Even if you’re not a fan of mixed martial arts, this look at the best fighter in the world is fascinating … The most powerful conservative in America … Why you probably don’t need to detox.
15. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Fall River Mayor Sam Sutter. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Bruce Van Saun, CEO of Citizens Bank. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). See you back here next Saturday morning.Dan McGowan ( email@example.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan