The temperature is rising, the General Assembly's budget vote is drawing closer, and a PawSox deal still hangs in the balance. So thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. Your tips and thoughts are always welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and you can follow me on the twitters. Here we go.
1. Truckers and other critics aren't happy, but Rhode Island's infrastructure challenges are well known. That's why Governor Gina Raimondo on Wednesday unveiled an ambitious proposal to boost the state's infrastructure spending by more than $1 billion over the next 10 years. Raimondo argues it's sensible to charge truckers for the damage caused largely by big rigs, in part since most Northeast states use similar fees. Local truckers objected, saying it's not fair to target a single industry and that using a fuel tax is a better approach. Yet labor had a strong showing at the governor's Olneyville news conference, construction workers are thirsting for jobs, and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed were there to lend general support. (The legislative leaders signaled their desire to examine the impact on local truckers, although there are questions about whether a local carve-out is possible.) Still, with America facing a broader infrastructure crisis, the money for fixes needs to come from somewhere. With her initiative, Raimondo has followed through on an earlier pledge by making infrastructure funding a focal point within the first six months of her administration. And ultimately, as my colleague Scott MacKay observed during this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable, "There is no magic bulldozer in the sky."
2. Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio injected a shot of vitality into a somewhat bland legislative session when he unexpectedly unveiled a bill Thursday to create a standardized tax break approach for the I-195 District in Providence. "We cannot afford to wait any longer," Ruggerio said, in what could be seen as a reference to Providence officials' delay in developing their own standardized tax-stabilization approach. "The development of I-195 is critical to Rhode Island’s economic recovery and this legislation will encourage investment, job creation and economic growth." Ruggerio's bill is slated for a Senate Finance hearing next Thursday. While some might question if the state should control tax treaties for the I-195 District, a city council committee report last October recommended adopting a standardized approach to tax stabilizations. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said in late April that the city was close to competing that process, but it had yet to publicly move forward ahead of the emergence of Ruggerio's bill.
3. If nothing else, critics of the PawSox' proposed move to Providence have succeeded in slowing down consideration of a possible deal. Governor Raimondo rejected the team's initial ask as too costly for taxpayers, and the governor has staked out a middle ground of wanting the PawSox to stay -- at the right price. A vote on a PawSox deal, if one emerges, is unlikely to take place as part of the budget, according to Speaker Mattiello's office. "It looks like we're running out of time," spokesman Larry Berman said, since the House's version of the budget may emerge as soon as next week. "The speaker has made clear he wants to hold public hearings on this should an agreement be reached." The content of talks between the PawSox and the state remain hidden from view for now (see item 4). Yet critics have generated enough of an impact that elected officials seem inclined to step carefully.
4. Boston Red Sox President/CEO Larry Lucchino, a principal owner of the PawSox, shared few fresh details when he sat down with myself and other reporters this week. If there's a between-the-lines takeaway from our conversation, it's that Lucchino wants the team to land in Providence, or as he plainly put it, the PawSox won't pursue other possibilities until they get a definitive answer from Rhode Island.
5. There's intrinsic merit in expanding government transparency, as General Treasurer Seth Magaziner is doing with an initiative that he unveiled this week. H. Philip West Jr., the longtime former executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, was among those on hand for Magaziner's presentation, and he described it as a significant advance. "This commitment to transparency will make us more accountable to the public, producing better financial results for our state," Magaziner said. Still, it's not hard to imagine some of this presentation winding up in a future campaign commercial, perhaps including the treasurer's touting of other steps, including releasing his income tax return, having his staffers sign an ethics pledge, and joining other treasurers in calling for federal regulators to back stronger disclosure measures.
6. Don't get your hopes up if you thought Governor Raimondo's infrastructure plan might lead to the wiping out off fee hikes included last year as part of the General Assembly's infrastructure-funding formula.The legislature last increased the cost of registrations, from $39 to $55, and raised the good-driver fee from $25 to $50. But Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Paiva Weed showed little interest in revisiting the issue when asked about the fee hikes at Raimondo's Rhode Works news conference. "I think they serve different needs," Mattiello said of the two different infrastructure initiatives. "I would just echo the speaker," Paiva Weed said. "and just point out that this fund is looking at the [6/10] connector and is looking at the bridges. The ongoing maintenance fund was primarily targeted toward the roads and the other two bridges in the Turnpike & Bridge Authority's focus."
7. With US Defense Secretary Ash Carter questioning the ability of the Iraqi military to go up against ISIS, (and more talk of US boots on the ground), Congressman David Cicilline maintains that Iraqis must lead the fight. "Secretary Carter was making an important point -- that ultimately the United States along with our allies can support the Iraqis in this effort, can help with training, help with equipment," Cicilline said this week on RI Public Radio, "but in the end, this is a fight which [the Iraqis are] going to have to take to defend their way of life, and in they're country to defend their territorial sovereignty .... We have to be very resistant to this idea of re-engaging for the third time in a decade in a conflict in that region and sending brave men and women from our armed services to go fight a battle that may take years and years to conclude."
8. With small breweries popping up around Rhode Island in growing numbers, should they be limited to selling individual visitors a mere 72 ounces of beer? Lou Papineau took on this issue recently in his excellent Bottles & Cans & Just Clap Your Hands beer blog: "There is a lot of potential upside to lifting the restriction: it would boost sales [um, duh] which would lead to increased production — and more jobs! Win-win-win!" As noted by Lou, an esteemed colleague during our Providence Phoenix days, changing beer sales involves thorny politics. "But we hope that Rhode Island will make strides to help small breweries thrive, to have more choices at stores, and to motivate a beer lover in Woonsocket to drive allll the way to Westerly — and to explore and enjoy our many other hoppy stops in between."
9. When a bill was introduced this week concerning public-private partnerships, it was natural to wonder if has any relation to the PawSox proposal. The word from the Statehouse is that it doesn't. Meanwhile, in 2013, Pew Charitable Trusts reported that cash-strapped states were turning to these so-called P3 partnerships and offered this explanation: "Under the P3 strategy, private companies typically cover the upfront costs of projects, in exchange for the right to run the facilities and to collect tolls or other payments. Privately-run toll roads have been around for a while, but now other types of P3s are drawing interest, in large part because states are running out of bonding authority and other public revenue-raising methods."
11. Although Cuba has been formally removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, Congressman Ciciline believes a normalization of relations will take far longer than expected. "My sense after my visit to Cuba is that this is going to be a much slower process than many people think," Cicilline, who traveled to the country in February, said on this week's RIPR Bonus Q+A. "We've had an embargo in place for 50 years. There are serious human rights issues that still exist in Cuba. They are a very different form of government, and there's been a lot of bad will that has developed over 50 years of this embargo. I think the beginning of normalization of relations and the opening of embassies will allow for greater engagement with the Cuban people; we have the best chance of helping promote democracy and freedom around the world when people see the product of it here in the United States and when there's interaction between our two countries. But it's a country that's not well-equipped to deal with issues like foreign investment and property rights and all the things that are necessary to encourage investment from outside the country, so they have a lot of work to build those systems."
12. Central Falls Mayor James Diossa had a good week: Moody's offered another upgrade for the city's bond rating. And then on Thursday, Diossa was the beneficiary of a Hope Club fundraiser attended by, among others, the last three mayors of Providence.
13. Brown University produces more "Genius Grant" winners than MIT, as RIPR's Elisabeth Harrison reported this week: "Although Brown's top 10 ranking is impressive, it remains lower than nearly every other Ivy League school including Harvard, Princeton, which ranked second, Yale and Cornell. Columbia narrowly beat out Brown with 15 grantees. Only Dartmouth did not make the top 10."
14. Get ready, world. Lincoln Chafee is set to announce his presidential campaign in Virginia next Wednesday.
15. Carol Hagan McEntee, the winner of the Democratic primary to succeed state Representative Donald Lally, picked up endorsements this week from Clean Water Action RI, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Planned Parenthood Votes! RI PAC. She squares off in a June 9 special election against Republican Robert Trager, and independents Elizabeth Candas and Jamie McKnight Jr.
16. The 10 Most Important Things Announced This Week by Google, via Bloomberg.
17. We almost toppled over at our standing desk this week when Kim Kalunian shared the news that Travel + Leisure dubbed Providence 18th best in the nation for barbecue. The sad fact, as I've occasionally tweeted, is how Rhode Island is largely bereft of the offerings found not just in the Barbecue Belt, but Boston (see here and here and here, for example.) So since Governor Raimondo has a lot on her plate, and the free market has yet to fill the void, we'll just quietly pine for modest improvements.