There's just one week until Christmas, so I want to wish a very happy holiday season to my readers, and offer my thanks for stopping by in 2015. (Program note: TGIF is taking next week off and will return December 31.) As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.
1. With a unanimous (and speedy!) budget vote last June, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello had a pretty good 2015. So how will the man often called the most powerful politician in the state use his considerable influence in the new year? During an end of year interview in his office (set to air Monday morning on RI Public Radio), Mattiello was uncharacteristically ambiguous on that question. "Our focus and our drive is to work collaboratively to creating a better economy," the speaker said. "You know, everybody wants grand slams overnight; solid singles every day, just moving in the right direction, and creating a policy which best serves the citizens of the state and our commerce is what we have to do." Mattiello said he has not yet determined his specific tack on the economy, although increasing the estate tax exemption may get a look. "We're collaborating now with outside interests, experts, the governor, and we'll come up with some policies that hopefully move our economy in the right direction." One wild card is how forthcoming recommendations by a branch of the Brookings Institution will make their way into legislation in the new session. There's also the contentious issue of truck tolls, of course (see item #2). Beyond those items and the budget, lawmakers can generally be expected to try to avoid controversy before hitting the campaign trail in the forthcoming election year. (Note: an earlier version of this item should have included the word "exemption" in connection with the estate tax; my bad.)
2. When it comes to Governor Gina Raimondo's controversial truck-toll proposal, Speaker Mattiello vows, "We will get a bill that best serves the citizens of the state, because it's about time that our infrastructure is acceptable and safe and something we can be proud of." The speaker said he agrees with the governor's framework and overall premise on RhodeWorks, adding, "We're looking at different ways to put checks and balances in the bill. We certainly want some type of oversight in the bill. We want a good idea of what the tolls are going to be; want to try to get the toll amount down; want to look at the repayment period, see if we can reduce it. If we can make it more efficient, cut down the repayment period, I think it best serves the citizens." After putting the brakes on the governor's truck toll plan in the 2015 session, Mattiello is now using messaging similar to the governor in talking up the concept: "The toll proposal injects a lot of money into the economy in a very short period of time," he said, "and that will be a good economic stimulus; not only do we get a better infrastructure, which we all want, but we get the additional benefit of improvement to our economy." Meanwhile, watch for the next fusillade from the Rhode Island Trucking Association, particularly with the state poised to get almost $21 million a year in additional highway money over each of the next five years.
3. Zen question: If Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio has Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed's blessing to one day succeed her as president of the Rhode Island Senate (which he does); and Paiva Weed shows no public interest in stepping down (she tells me she plans to seek re-election as president in 2017), when does this change occur? (My year-end interview with Paiva Weed and Ruggerio will air next Wednesday on RI Public Radio.)
4. Governor Raimondo and Speaker Mattiello tell me they're keeping a close eye on Providence's financial condition, although they talked about the situation somewhat differently in separate interviews. Mattiello: "It's something that we have to monitor, the administration's going to have to take a look at, and I'll provide whatever assistance I can." Raimondo: "The only way to deal with the fiscal issues there is to start tackling them -- whether that be healthcare expenses or pension expenses or legacy expenses. Unfortunately, that is just the challenging work that has to happen. And there is no silver bullet or bucket of money from the state. There is support from the state, and there will continue to be support from the state. I will work collaboratively to help the mayor, but the only way out of fiscal troubles is to make those tough decisions, and I think the mayor knows that and is trying to do that."
5. As the high-stakes fight over General Electric's possible relocation plays out, how will Rhode Island's under-performing public schools influence the decision? Perhaps not at all since GE execs can afford to live in Barrington or East Greenwich, or to send their children to private schools. Yet local business leaders warned for years about the connection between good public schools and a better Rhode Island economy, and the state has made only marginal progress in the interim. That slow pace of improvement can't be much of a selling point as state leaders try to attract other businesses to the Ocean State.
6. David Place, a Republican on the Burrillville Town Council, is considering a run next year against Democratic state Rep. Cale Keable, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Place said he plans to zero in on a decision after the holidays.
7. Speaking of next year's legislative contests, 2016 will be the first presidential election year since 1992 when Democrats held both the General Assembly and the governor's office. Despite some potentially tough races, RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell said he's feeling positive on the outlook, in part due to the elimination of the master lever. "The competitive presidential primary is creating new energy and interest in the RI GOP," Bell said, via email. "This energy will be a positive force and enhance the outlook for GOP incumbents and challengers. The contrast between Obama and the GOP on national security matters is enhancing the GOP brand in RI. This coupled with the difference with Democrats on issues like tolling and creating a better business climate will mean 2016 should be a good year for GOP legislative incumbents and challengers. If the GA rubber stamps the governor’s agenda, this will make it easier to contrast GOP solutions to the Governor’s programs. The key to increasing GOP representation starts with recruiting solid candidates that represent the interests of middle-class Rhode Islanders and providing them with the tools that will help them get elected. This effort is well underway. We are a more united party today then anytime in recent history. Recently we had a very successful unity dinner. Also we've been hammering away at protecting the taxpayer and pushing for good government measures such as ethics reform." Bell said the GOP "will start with making certain we can hold onto the seats we have, but [build] on that foundation .... to grow the number of GOP lawmakers."
8. Don't be surprised if supporters of legalizing marijuana in Rhode Island back a bill calling for voters to decide the issue through a referendum on the 2016 ballot. Speaker Mattiello, who said he's keeping an open mind on the legalization question, said he has no plans at this time to put the question to voters next year through a referendum.
9. State Police Colonel Steven O'Donnell, US Attorney Peter Neronha, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin are among those slated to take part in an open discussion with Muslim community leaders at 5 pm Monday at the Islamic School of Rhode Island in West Warwick. According to a State Police news release, "Principal Abdelnasser Hussein, leaders of the Muslim community representing the Rhode Island Council of Muslim Advancement (RICMA), ISRI parents and members of the Muslim community will meet to create and maintain an ongoing dialogue between the Muslim community and law enforcement. Parents and community members will be able to ask questions and discuss concerns. It is of note that the above partnership has been going on for years, but in light of the current state of affairs, we all felt it was critical at this point to collaborate, educate to condemn what transpired in California, and also to work together to try to prevent any hate-type crimes and give everybody a greater understanding of the complexities of this issue."
10. Don't miss my colleague Scott MacKay's RI political re-interpretation of T'was the Night Before Christmas.
11. Governor Raimondo said she still supports the idea of offering driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, although she declined to say when the state will actually move ahead. "I want every driver on the road in Rhode Island to be driving with a license and with insurance, because that makes it safer for everyone," Raimondo said in a recent interview. She said her team is looking at other states, most of which have used legislation to move the issue forward. "Then the question would be, what other strings would be attached: how long would the person have had to show residency in the state? How long would the person have to show that they've paid taxes in the state? Those are the things we're trying to get a handle on."
12. State senators are wearing wrist bands in a show of solidarity with Senator William Walaska (D-Warwick) as he battles lymphoma. We wish the senator good luck in his fight.
13. GateHouse Media, the owner of the ProJo, is usually known for buying up newspapers. But it was GateHouse's sale of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, to an initially unknown buyer, that attracted national interest this week. This led to an odd state of affairs in which the paper broke the news that its new owner was billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson. As one wag tweeted, "The @reviewjournal is either going to win a Pulitzer for investigating itself or get everyone fired or both"
14. University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato sees the 2016 presidential race as a coin-flip at this point. Check out his 10 Factors That Will Determine the Next President.
15. Seth Magaziner had an active year as treasurer, as he recounted in a "Year in Review" fundraising note to his email list: "In case you missed it, we have: * Established a state infrastructure bank that will put Rhode Islanders back to work retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient and expanding renewable energy across the state. * Made Rhode Island’s pension system one of the most transparent in the country, by requiring that the state only invest in funds that allow us to publish their performance, fees and expenses. * Hired a new nationally recognized financial advisor for the state and taken steps to revamp the Rhode Island CollegeBoundfund. * Unveiled a plan to strengthen oversight and management of the state’s debt, making it more affordable and accountable to the taxpayer."
16. Rest in peace, former ProJo reporter Robert W. Stewart, who died unexpected last week. After Rhode Island, Stewart, a Brown alum, went on to work as a reporter and Washington correspondent at the Los Angeles Times, a VP of public affairs for a trade group representing the nation's largest private equity firms, and the public affairs VP for a DC financial accounting foundation. RI Courts spokesman Craig Berke, a former ProJo staffer, recalls succeeding Stewart at the old Pawtuxet Valley Daily Times. "Rob had left the PVT for a bigger pond at the Journal .... I had the unenviable task of competing against Rob on the beat he had covered for years -- West Warwick, where he also worked alongside the likes of John Lake, Greg Smith, and Bill Pugh. Legend has it the town council president once threw a phone book at Rob when he got caught with his ear to the door during an 'executive session.' He basically fell into the room when someone inside opened the door. That’s when the phone book flew. I loved that story. He did, too."
18. Pass the pancakes! Rhode Island gets props for doing some useful research on the salubrious effects of maple syrup.