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Rhode Island's Biggest Stories Of 2015

1. Gordon Fox Goes from State House to Prison Gordon Fox rose from humble roots to hold what is often called the most powerful job in Rhode Island...

1. Gordon Fox Goes from State House to Prison

Gordon Fox rose from humble roots to hold what is often called the most powerful job in Rhode Island politics. That's because the Speaker of the House has enormous influence over the state budget and which bills get passed or rejected.

Yet after a year-long investigation, Fox admitted he took a $52,000 bribe as a member of Providence's licensing board to approve a liquor license for an East Side restaurant. He also conceded using about $100,000 in campaign contributions for personal expenses, including mortgage and car payments and a bill from Tiffany's jewelry store.

Fox is now serving a three-year prison sentence in Pennsylvania. Reacting to his conviction, the state's top federal prosecutor expressed frustration about the persistence of corruption in Rhode Island.

2. PawSox Stadium Controversy

Questions about future of the PawSox emerged after a new ownership group bought the team early in the year. In April, the PawSox unveiled plans to move from McCoy Stadium to a riverfront ballpark in Providence. As part of that plan, they asked for $120 million in public subsidies over 30 years.

The public backlash was fast and furious. In the aftermath of the state’s losing investment in 38 Studios, many Rhode Islanders scorned the idea of using a big subsidy to help a minor league baseball team. Politicians got cold feet. And the PawSox faced another setback when the most vocal member of the new ownership group, Jim Skeffington, died unexpectedly in May.

By September, the PawSox pulled the plug on their Providence riverfront proposal. In the short term, the team will remain at McCoy Stadium, although plans for the longer term remain unclear

3. 38 Studios Documents Release

When baseball star Curt Schilling’s company went bankrupt several years ago, it left Rhode Island taxpayers holding the bill. The state had approved a loan guarantee worth millions of dollars, and the fingers of blame are still being pointed at the Statehouse and the courthouse.

This year, thousands of pages of court documents and deposition testimony provided inside accounts of the 38 Studios loan. The documents show that former House Speaker Gordon Fox met secretly and earlier than he had disclosed with a lobbyist named Michael Corso and then-House Finance Committee Chairman Steven Costantino. The documents also show that some leaders at the state economic development agency raised questions about the deal, but later approved it. This matter promises to spill into 2016 as Statehouse oversight hearings and the state lawsuit continue.   

4. Rhode Island Continues To Battle The Overdose Crisis

This year the stark total of lives lost came to light: in the past five years, Rhode Island has lost more than a thousand people to accidental drug overdoses. The number of deaths has been steadily increasing. And more of those deaths have involved heroin and other illicit substances. That’s different from previous years, when overdoses involved mainly prescription painkillers. The state’s health department reports that emergency responders have administered more than a hundred doses of Narcan, an overdose rescue drug, every month this year. And a statewide overdose prevention task force is currently hammering out the details of a plan to reduce the number of overdose deaths by a third.

5. Governor Raimondo's First Year In Office

Governor Raimondo took the oath of office as Rhode Island's first-ever female governor on a freezing day in January, warning that change would not come easy in a state plagued by high unemployment.

She unveiled a series of new initiatives aimed at adding jobs and reducing the cost of services like health care. In a victory for the governor, a dispute over pension benefits that she spearheaded as state treasurer was largely resolved. Raimondo’s administration also opened reviews of troubled agencies like the State Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Raimondo has faced criticism over crony-style politics and a lack of transparency. Meanwhile, her proposal to use truck tolls to pay for bridge improvements faced sharp opposition. The legislature is expected to pass a version of the infrastructure plan in the new session that starts in January. 

6. Lincoln Chafee's Unsuccessful Quest For The Nation's Top Office

As a Democrat, Chafee positioned himself as a more liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton, but that position was quickly usurped by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

Still, Chafee pressed on in a campaign frequently described as Quixotic. He polled at less than one percent in some states. And Chafee provided fodder for late-night comedians thanks to a campaign endorsement of the metric system, and the occasional gaffe, like admitting that he voted for a bill he did not understand when he first got to Washington as a senator.

Chafee departed the race after just six months, before any primary votes were cast. During his final address, he spoke of the need to increase government accountability and end conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. True to his offbeat style, Chafee referenced the ancient Greek heroine Lysistrata, who urged women to refuse marital relations until their husbands signed a peace treaty.

7. Embattled Big City Mayors

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has been locked in a protracted legal battle with city firefighters over a cost-saving plan that changes their hours. So far the court decisions have not been going his way. And the new mayor faces millions of dollars in budget red ink. The problem is exacerbated by the cost of pensions and retiree healthcare. Meanwhile, in Cranston, longtime Mayor Allan Fung faced a scandal over the police department. A report from State Police found serious dysfunction in the department and favoritism by top brass. The report faulted Fung for failing to take action. After that, the Cranston City Council gave Fung a “no confidence” vote.

Democratic Council Chair Michael Sepe plans to challenge Fung’s bid for reelection in the New Year.  

8. Construction Begins On The Block Island Wind Farm

Pylons in the water for the Block Island Wind Farm are paving the way for the United States to catch up with Europe and China when it comes to wind energy and putting Rhode Island on track for the first offshore wind farm in the country.

Construction for the tiny pilot project began this summer three miles off the coast of Block Island. The second phase of construction picks up again next summer. The wind farm is scheduled to be online before the end of 2016, producing enough energy to power 17-thousand homes.

The project has garnered broad support from federal and state officials to environmental advocates. But some Block Island residents remain unhappy about the cost of the project and the sight of wind turbines in what used to be a pristine ocean view.

9. New Education Commissioner, Standardized Test

In 2015 Rhode Island said “goodbye” to controversial Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, and “hello” to a new commissioner and a new standardized test.

Many teachers were not sorry to hear that Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist had taken a job as superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools. Gist raised controversy by pushing for teacher evaluations tied to student test scores. And many people objected to a plan to require test scores for a high school diploma.

To replace Gist, Rhode Island hired Ken Wagner, a former New York State education official. He recently rolled out the results of a brand new standardized test called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. The results showed just one in four Rhode Island students met the bar in Math. Roughly a third were proficient in Reading. 

10. A Mixed Economic Portrait For RI 

At the end of the last decade Rhode Island held a dubious rank among states with the highest unemployment rates. At the peak in 2009, the jobless rate reached 11.3 percent.

But this year, the unemployment rate fell to its lowest point since the start of the Great Recession.

The year also rang in one of the strongest tourism seasons in recent memory, and the housing market continued to rebound. Tax revenues rose above expectations, easing the state budget.

But Rhode Island’s economic struggles have not come to an end. Many of the jobs recovered since the recession fail to pay high wages, and advocates for the poor say many who are working are struggling to pay for basics like housing. The state’s iconic skyscraper, known as the Superman Building, remains vacant and much of the Interstate 195 land envisioned as a hub for high tech and health care jobs remains undeveloped.

Rhode Island's Biggest Stories Of 2015
Rhode Island's Biggest Stories Of 2015