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TGIF: 17 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Happy Friday, and thanks for stopping by for my weekly column.

Happy Friday, and thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. 

As usual your tips and thoughts are welcome, so feel free to drop me a line at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, or to follow me on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Governor Gina Raimondo is throwing a lot of stuff against the wall in responding to questions about the hiring of Donald Lally, four months after he stepped down as a state rep. Should her administration have been more concerned about the perception created by the hiring Lally? "It's a good question," Raimondo said during a taping of this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. The governor reiterated that her administration considers the hiring "squarely within the rules" under an exemption, even though the state GOP, among others, think otherwise. "We are absolutely changing the way business is done," Raimondo added, pointing to a number of out-of-town hires and the caliber of newcomers like Joseph Azrack, chairman of the I-195 Redevelopment Commission, and Peter McNally, the commission's executive director. "I'm putting people in place who are going to do the job, and by the way, we're going to hold them accountable," the governor said, "You know, my take on all this: I'm just about results. People should judge me based on the results. Whether it's Don Lally or Joe Azrack or whoever, they've got to do their job, and if they do their job and deliver results, I'll be happy and if they don't, they won't have the job for long." Raimondo might be right to suggest this controversy will be a blip if and when RI's economy takes flight. Yet putting this episode in the rear-view mirror is a little tougher when the ProJo's editorial page (generally a strong supporter of the governor) cites "a familiar odor of political cronyism," and a South County Independent editorial says Lally -- the second-longest serving state rep when he stepped down -- "was unresponsive to the towns he represented for years."

2. The big public unveiling of 38 Studios court documents is expected to take place some time mid-to-late next week, according to Superior Court Clerk Henry S. Kinch Jr. On Friday, Judge Michael Silverstein decided to keep confidential, for now, a relatively small portion of Wells Fargo commercial information considered tangential to the 38 Studios case.

3. What happens after the press conference is over? That's a question I examined in looking at the impact of Rhode Island's highly touted Iran divestment law. Lincoln Chafee, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, and other supporters were full of praise when the bill was signed into law in 2013. But as it turns out, Rhode Island has not divested any money from Iran (and it has cost taxpayers about $16,000 so far).

4. Goveror Raimondo said she plans to take another crack at overhauling the personnel rules that she calls an obstacle to improving state agencies. Article 22 in the governor's budget proposal this year would have given her more flexibility, but the legislature dropped it. "Rhode Island's personnel systems are antiquated, and I am going to continue to push for them to be modernized," Raimondo said on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q+A. How will she proceed? "I need to figure it out, to be very honest. I'm trying to figure out, are there regulatory changes that can be made, does it have to be a legislative change? But it's clear to me that we need more accountability and measures that allow more accountability." Raimondo said Administration director Michael DiBiase is taking a lead on the issue, and that union negotiations could be part of the answer. 

5. As a candidate, Governor Raimondo supported driver's licenses for undocumented Rhode Islanders, and though the issue went nowhere during the most recent legislative session, WJAR-TV's Bill Rappleye reports that the governor is still working on the issue. While some describe licenses for the undocumented as a safety matter, there are also some thorny questions. In particular, how will people be able to get car insurance if they lack a Social Security number and a credit rating? Spokeswoman Marie Aberger said the governor "has a team across state agencies working on this, but no decisions have been made on process/timing," so the answer remains unclear for now.

6. A hat tip to the ProJo's indefatigable Kathy Gregg for digging out the documents linked in one of her stories this week on the ongoing drama involving the state Department of Transportation.

7. Governor Raimondo said she's concerned about the mixed news in the latest unemployment numbers from the state Department of Labor and Training. Meanwhile, her playbook for growing the economy is similar to the prescription outlined in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece this week by J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. Raimondo is pursuing three of Dimon's five target areas: supporting investment in infrastructure; targeting skills; and focusing on fiscal problems (through such efforts as changing the state's approach to Medicaid and backing tax cuts). For a counter-example, consider how Chicago is looking at the biggest tax increase in its history to shore up unfunded pensions.

8. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello hasn't been in any rush to move forward the legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island. Yet is there a point at which tempting revenue possibilities change the balance? Citing Colorado Department of Revenue figures, the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project says the Rocky Mountain State collected more in marijuana-specific taxes (about $70 million) than in alcohol-specific taxes (just under $42 million) during FY 2015. 

9. Holy Raimondomania! There was some unintended irony when a sub-headline in Fortune gushed, "How tiny Rhode Island suddenly became a case study in good government." The instance was a flattering look at Governor Raimondo ("This governor is worth keeping tabs on") published around the time when the Lally story broke. Yes, the gov's trajectory is well worth following -- and positive national press could lift Rhode Island's image, which could help the economy. But the story questionably asserts that Raimondo's "budget passed unanimously." It would be more accurate to say the governor got most of her key budget priorities, even as the her budget proposal -- as is always the case on Smith Hill -- went through a host of legislative changes.

10. Chris Chivers has always been a quick study as a reporter. He sized up the waning patronage empire of North Providence Mayor Salvatore Mancini in the '90s, and moved on to raise questions about the luster of the ballyhooed Providence Renaissance years before Buddy Cianci landed in prison. Chivers went on to win a prestigious Livingston Award (in international reporting, no less) for a series of stories on the depleted Atlantic fishing banks. So it's no surprise that the former Marine brought a lucid intelligence to his subsequent 14 years of work as a war correspondent for The New York Times. Esquire has a great read on why Chivers -- "the best war reporter in a generation" -- decided to abruptly change course. Not surprisingly, the South County resident still has an intense passion for fishing.

11. Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, the incoming president of the RI League of Cities and Towns, is trying to renew the focus on getting the PawSox to stay at McCoy Stadium. In a letter to Governor Raimondo this week, he wrote, "Please let this letter serve as a formal request for your office, the Pawtucket Red Sox Organization and other state stakeholders involved, to meet with me and the Pawtucket team to develop a comprehensive plan that will preserve PawSox here in Pawtucket and best-serve the needs of Rhode Island. I believe that a combination of state, local, and private investment is a successful pathway to retaining the Pawtucket Red Sox in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Join me in making this success a reality." The governor said she does plan to meet with Grebien, but she's non-committal about the PawSox -- other than saying her impression is that the I-195 site no longer in play, due to cost factors. "I would love for the PawSox to stay here," in Rhode Island, Raimondo said during our Roundtable conversation. "I hope the owners would consider Pawtucket if they think they can make a good business out of it. My position is, I'd love you to stay in Rhode Island. I can't open up the kitty entirely and give you buckets of money, because we don't have it, so we just have to take our time and be thoughtful."   

12. If you want to catch up on the intense reactions to RI's HPV requirement, check out this excellent story by RIPR's Kristin Gourlay.

13. Drones in the news: 1) House Finance chairman Ray Gallison (D-Bristol) said he plans to renew an efforft to regulate drones. His approach would require registration for drones, while banning their use near the airport and some other locations, and prohibit their use to capture or transmit images from inside occupied buildings;  2) Rep. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick) said he has written to US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, "urging the federal government to formulate regulations for drone usage in Rhode Island." The Warwick rep said his top concern is "an increasing presence of drones near T.F. Green Airport."

14. Rhode Island Taxpayers, which sends out an informative daily news bulletin, is staging a September 30 fundraiser in the McCormick & Schmick's at the Providence Biltmore. The headliner is former Maryland governor and congressman Robert Ehrlich Jr. In an email promoting the event, RI Taxpayers' communications director Monique Chartier said, "Little movement on the state's business climate; a wasteful, destructive toll program lurking on Smith Hill; almost no progress on waste, fraud and unnecessary spending. Meanwhile, state officials focus on non-productive matters like a baseball stadium in Providence, not to mention last week's outrage, the I-know-a-guy, insider hire by the governor of a former member of House leadership. It is clear that state taxpayers need a strong advocate more than ever."

15. Don't miss Dan McGowan's comprehensive look at the defining issue of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza's first year in office -- the high-stakes clash with the local firefighters' union. On a related note, Scott MacKay wonders whether residency would help ameliorate this kind of situation.

16. The Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU is staging a downtown Providence scavenger hunt to celebrate Constitution Day on Saturday, September 19. The focus will be the civil liberties history of Providence, starting at 1 pm, "when the ACLU of RI will share its first clue via its Twitter (@riaclu) and Facebook page (Rhode Island ACLU). Participants will follow the clues on a self-guided tour to various landmarks around downtown Providence. Participants will take photos along the way and will share them using the hash tag #ConstitutionHunt to receive a Constitution Day souvenir at the end of the event. The ACLU hopes the event will show students and adults alike how the Constitution plays an important role in everyday life and how they can exercise their rights."

17. First, Connecticut raises taxes. Then, Bridgeport voters picked ex-con Joe Ganim, convicted of 16 counts of corruption in 2003, in a mayoral primary this week. Is Connecticut the new Rhode Island?

TGIF: 17 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media
TGIF: 17 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media