The New Year is here, so let's review the top political questions facing Rhode Island in 2015.
1. Can Gina Raimondo deliver? The governor-elect has been downplaying expectations (see #1), even if the national economy is heating up and she faces a smaller deficit than the first one that greeted Lincoln Chafee. Yet the state unemployment rate continues to decline, the local real estate market keeps recovering, and Raimondo has already demonstrated a different tone of leadership than her predecessor. The governor-elect's political future remains an open book. But first, she's got to nudge along economic improvements, and Raimondo faces a big challenge in achieving her stated goal of better results with less spending (see #2).
2. How does Rhode Island offset a potentially big hit on gambling revenue? Plans to add casinos in Masschusetts could wipe out about a $100 million a year in annual money for the state. There aren't really solid answers on how to overcome that, other than how -- as Raimondo said during a recent interview (see #11) -- the state needs a combination of fewer expenses and more revenue.
3. Can state officials settle the pension dispute? The smart money says the Superior Court trial process slated to start April 20 is unlikely to take place. Why? Because of the same reason that the state almost sealed a pension settlement last April: certainty is better than an unpredictable outcome in court.
4. Can Jorge Elorza deliver? Like Angel Taveras, Elorza comes into office without elective experience. And like Taveras, the whip-smart has been a compelling bio and the ability of matching his own skill set with the demands of the job. Providence is poised for a series of construction projects and it should benefit from how Gina Raimondo is a resident of the capital city. But Elorza's relationship with the City Council remains an unknown quantity, and Providence's central challenge -- a lack of sufficient revenue -- remains unresolved.
5. What happens with the Gordon Fox case? State and federal investigators sent shock waves across Rhode Island's political landscape -- and triggered a change in the speakership -- when they raided Fox's East Side and Statehouse office last March. In sharp contrast to that flashy show of force, officials have remained largely silent about the high-profile case since then. It's not unusual for some investigations to proceed slowly; about two years elapsed between the April 1999 Plunder Dome raid on City Hall and Buddy Cianci's indictment in 2001. Yet the unresolved nature of what began with that high-profile raid raises questions about what happens next.
6. What's the next fiscal crisis? Is it a municipality, a fire district, a state agency, or something else?
7. Can Speaker Nicholas Mattiello keep rolling? Mattiello had a strong session after winning the leadership fight to succeed Fox last March, and he's got the unchallenged control of his chamber. The speaker and governor-elect could both benefit from an effective partnership on jobs and the economy. So do common goals unite them, or does politics get in the way?
8. Is this Senate President Paiva Weed's last term in leadership? The Newport senator is the most senior in experience in the troika of the state's three most powerful elected officials. During a recent interview, Paiva Weed indicated she doesn't really want to be a judge, and she said this won't be her last term as Senate president. Maybe it's that simple. Then again, it would be impolitic for a legislative leader to signal in advance a move to give up power.
9. How long does the honeymoon last? Governor-elect Raimondo, Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Paiva Weed remain publicly gracious with one another. Yet what happens when things get real?
10. Does Luis Aponte win the Providence City Council presidency, and what does it mean if he does? Aponte has remained the favorite in the race to succeed outgoing council president Michael Solomon, although the outcome won't be known until the votes are counted. So if he wins the race for the council presidency, does Aponte emulate Solomon in working as a partner with the mayor, or does he focus more on his own political power base?
11. Can the Providence Journal improve its standing? The Boston Globe keeps beefing up its journalistic resources, and over the years, the paper has hired a string of former ProJo standouts. Closer to home, Gatehouse Media has built a host of holdings across southern New England, including the Journal. Yet it remains to be seen if Gatehouse and its parent, New Media Investment Group, can reverse the prevaling mode on Fountain Street of cutting resources.
12. Will RI Republicans remain relevant? Although the GOP made some minor gains in legislative representation, Republicans are locked out of state and federal offices in Rhode Island for the first time in more than 40 years. Some GOP partisans think the party will make broader gains on Smith Hill in 2016, thanks to the absence of the master lever. Yet Republican struggles to increase GOP ranks in the General Assembly over a lengthy period of economic distress raise questions about the party's ability to fare better in RI.
13. Do the state general officers make a real impact? Secretary of State-elect Nellie Gorbea has talked about taking on lobbying reform, while Treasurer-elect Seth Magaziner and Lieutenant Governor-elect Daniel McKee say they want to help foster economic improvements. What happens next?
14. Does the state keep funding HealthSource RI? Governor-elect Raimondo wants to keep the exchange, while Speaker Mattiello says he's not yet convinced of the merits. Stay tuned.
15. What's the next ethics lapse involving a public official? Sure, New York and other states keep giving us a run for the money, and many of the peccadilloes involving state lawmakers in recent years have been unrelated to public dollars. Rhode Island politics nonetheless remains the gift that keeps on giving (beach concession-gate in 2014) , so will 2015 prove any different?