Quite the busy week in Rhode Island politics, with RhodeWorks sprinting through the legislature. Thanks for stopping by. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.
1. With the speedy passage this week of RhodeWorks -- the plan to upgrade Rhode Island's crumbling infrastructure through new tolls on big trucks -- Governor Gina Raimondo checked off another box on her to-do list of Big Issues. If Raimondo and other supporters are right, the new law will create jobs, improve roads and bridges, and increase Rhode Island's attractiveness to business. Of course, critics are incensed. They warn of a variety of negative consequence from truck tolls and vow to seek retribution at the polls this fall (for more on the fallout, see items #2 and 3). Yet to some observers, the collective resolve displayed by Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed represents a possible watershed in moving Rhode Island beyond its crushing post-38 Studios paralysis. Peter Andruszkiewicz, chairman of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, picked up on that theme more broadly during a pro-tolls news conference Tuesday, pointing to how labor leaders George Nee and Michael Sabitoni called Chamber head Laurie White after Raimondo's election and asked to sit down with White and Andruszkiewicz. "And we sat over in Starbucks for over an hour and a half, as I remember that day," the Blue Cross Blue Shield of RI CEO recalled, "and at the end of the conversation we all sat there and looked at each other and said, 'You know, there's probably 80 percent of the issues that we deal with where we are completely aligned, and boy, what a difference if we worked together in a different kind of a way.' "
2. Opponents of RhodeWorks see the future quite differently. They believe truck tolls will cost jobs, send big trucks streaming through secondary roads in quiet Ocean State towns, and amplify a message that Rhode Island is anti-business. State Rep. Anthony Giarrusso (R-East Greenwich) had the most evocative line during Tuesday's House debate, invoking Pearl Harbor in likening the vote to a day that will live in local infamy. It will take time to assess the fallout, since the first gantry won't go up for more than a year. It's also true that mistrust of government -- an understandable sentiment in scandal-prone Rhode Island -- drove much of the opposition, along with a suspicion that truck tolls will one day be extended to cars. There's also the question of whether RhodeWorks can be successfully challenged in court. In addressing a possible legal challenge, Governor Raimondo said, "with every creative idea, there's always some risk. But we've got a great case, and that's not a reason not to act. That's what I said with pensions.We knew there will be legal risk. We have problems. We're going to act. We're going to solve problems and we'll deal with the legal issues as they arise."
3. Will voting for truck tolls be a firing offense when voters go to the polls this fall? That might be a stretch for a few reasons, including how the tolls aren't going up in the short term and how they will target big trucks. Yet state Republican Chairman Brandon Bell sees the issue differently; he expects about 54 challengers to take on incumbent state reps this fall. Truck tolls "directly impacts everyone in the state," Bell said on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q+A. "You don't need to drive an 18-wheeler [to be impacted]. Debate before the House, it was absolutely pathetic. One of the most unbelievable things [was] where you had reps Googling what the code of federal regulations said. They didn't even define what a truck was. And it should come as no surprise that I'm not a big fan of Obamacare, but at least on the first page of the Obamacare bill, it defined what health insurance was. It was an embarrassment .... I don't believe for a minute that this was not rushed through. It was done early enough so that they think that in November there won't be an institutional memory. We'll keep it alive."
4. Give legislative Republicans credit for staking out a clear position of opposition during the truck toll debate. While the GOP has struggled for years to increase the party's legislative presence, Republicans arguably punched above their weight by outlining a litany of RhodeWorks-related concerns that may or may not come back to haunt the state. Then again, Rhode Island had Republican governors (6 years of Ed DiPrete, and eight years each of Lincoln Almond and Don Carcieri) for 20 of the last 30 years, and none of them succeeded in using the bully pulpit to push through a major infrastructure plan. It's also true that mismanagement has festered for years at the state Department of Transportation, under both Democratic and Republican governors. GOP Chairman Bell cites the institutional strength of General Assembly Democrats in downplaying GOP responsibility for moving the ball on infrastructure. Sure, there's plenty of blame to go around; it's telling that Rhode Island's roads and bridges had to get so bad before someone -- in this case, Gina Raimondo -- led the move to reverse course.
5. Thousands of people turned out last weekend to say goodbye to Buddy Cianci, many of them with memorable stories. While Buddy had a well-known dual public persona as a charmer and bully (or is it the other way around?), some of the anecdotes didn't fit neatly into that narrative. Ana Cruz of Providence, for example, after an initial interview, stepped out of the line alongside Washington Street to tell me about how Cianci helped her overcome discrimination in her job as a banquet waitress: "I didn’t know what to do, who to go to get help, and I came over to his office. I didn’t ask permission. I just walked right in there. He looked at me, he says, 'could I help you?' " Cruz said Cianci became her protector and champion. "I was a single mom with five kids, and he made sure that I kept that job," she said. "I didn’t believe in welfare, Food Stamps, no nothing, I wanted to do it on my own. And he made sure that that happened."
6. As Governor Raimondo turns her attention to new goals, now that RhodeWorks has been passed, the issue of long-term stagnant wages remains a broader political challenge. Economic news has been all over the place lately, from wage growth to the possibility of a recession. Yet wages have been mostly stagnant for decades, and that could explain why a lot of Rhode Islanders remain cranky about economic issues. Raimondo has talked since she was a candidate about how the Ocean State needs to foster growth, and she continued that refrain during a recent interview at RIPR: "We don't have enough economic growth -- that is the problem." Yet economists debate whether the economy has moved past growth. As Paul Krugman noted, Northwestern's Robert J. Gordon "has repeatedly called for perspective: Developments in information and communication technology, he has insisted, just don’t measure up to past achievements. Specifically, he has argued that the I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication." If Gordon is right, it could be particularly bad for economic under-performers like Rhode Island. On the other hand, if the Ocean State can replicate growth seen in other states, the picture could be more promising.
7. The truck toll debate is a reminder of the importance of tone in political combat. Speaker Mattiello's slowing down of last year's proposal led to a sharp reduction in the number of planned gantries and cut the one-way cap for trucks passing through the state from $60 to $20. Could the final deal have come out even more favorably for truckers? Perhaps. But opponents may not have helped themselves with sharp rhetoric down the stretch and threats of pink slips for lawmakers even after Tuesday's House Finance vote.
8. The governor's working group on healthcare deciding against making a recommendation on capping pay for healthcare executives, but lawmakers are giving it another shot. The compensation issue has received more public attention since the now-defunct Providence Phoenix reported in 2009 on George Vecchione's plush package.
9. Five other peeks into General Assembly culture from this week's truck toll vote: 1) While the marathon House session on Tuesday led Majority Leader John DeSimone to call it a fine example of representative democracy, the ultimate outcome had all the suspense of a Moscow show trial; with very rare exceptions, legislative leaders don't call a vote unless the outcome is predestined; 2) the lighting-fast passage of RhodeWorks -- through Finance Committees on Tuesday and into law on Thursday -- is reminder of how quickly the legislature can move in unusual instances; 3) Critics call it bullying, but Speaker Mattiello's removal of three no-toll votes by his Democratic membership (Reps. Ray Hull, Joseph Solomon, and Robert Phillips) from their committee assignments is a practical way of keeping his leadership intact; 5) While 9 Democrats joined with the 12-member GOP caucus in voting against tolls in the House, it's worth noting how few Ds broke ranks. (Whip Jay Edwards (D-Tiverton), an outspoken critic on Sakonnet tolls a few years back, was among the yays.) In the end, there's strength in numbers, because if a few more reps wanted a pass, the number of lawmakers seeking an out would only increase.
10. State Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) tells me he introduced a bill that legalizes "the taking of wild migratory birds by crossbow" at the request of the NRA.
11. Congrats to WPRI-TV investigative reporter Tim White (and his tw0 co-authors) on the forthcoming publication of their book on the Bonded Vault robbery, The Last Good Heist. As Tim noted on FB, " 'The Last Good Heist' " is the true story of a brazen robbery from a secret bank of safe deposit boxes used by members and associates of the New England mob. It was tucked away in a fur storage building in Providence. Eight daring thieves hijacked millions in cash and jewelry in 1975. Their lives after the heist... well, it wasn't good. I was fortunate to co-author this with two amazing journalists: Wayne Worcester and Randall Richard. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon." Part of what's really cool about the project is how it builds on the knowledge Tim picked up from his dad, the late, great investigative reporter Jack White, as I noted in a story a few years ago.
12. According to Providence City Hall, Buddy Cianci's family will compensate the city for "a significant portion" of the approximately $13,000 costs associated with the former mayor's wake and procession.
13. State GOP Chairman Brandon Bell believes legislative intransigence on restoring state Ethics Commission oversight of lawmakers could be a good issue for Republican legislative candidates this year: "When we're walking door to door and we say the word 'ethics,' I think people can relate that in the state of Rhode Island." Bell said that's important, since the nuances of the 2009 state Supreme Court that weakened the Ethics Commission can be a bit esoteric. But voters can certainly grasp the notion of lawmakers standing against stronger ethics enforcement. Said Bell, "Once they hear ethics, they understand that, and that's how we get that message out."
14. RIPR analyst Scott MacKay thinks it's time for Rhode Island to legalize marijuana. House spokesman Larry Berman tells Scott that Speaker Mattiello is becoming "more open-minded" on the subject.
15. It might have little chance of passage, but Rep. Blake Filippi (I-New Shoreham) has a bill that would eliminate many of the exceptions to the revolving door law.
16. The New York Times' Mark Leibovich is an ace at sketching the power of people and institutions, so his recent profile of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is quite the read. While Goodell has taken a beating at times in the court of public opinion, Leibovich makes the point that he's functioned like a speaker in taking the hits for his members. Now, with NFL revenue passing $12 billion in 2015, the question is whether the league can keep growing while warding off concerns about concussions and other life-altering injuries.
17. In a note to readers of The Block Island Times, Michael Schroeder -- known for his role in the Adelson family's purchase of the Las Vegas Register-Journal, introduces himself without mentioning that controversy: "We are happy to have this chance to be a positive force in the community, and truly appreciate your business now an[d] in the future."
18. Kind of fascinating: an excerpt from author Jhumpa Lahiri -- who was raised in Rhode Island -- on why she wrote her new memoir in Italian: "Well, I've always been searching to arrive at a certain voice that will probably elude me forever; in fact, it will. So it's the search for that voice, that for me, drives the whole thing forward. I wrote my first book and I thought, 'Well, OK, how can I express myself more clearly in a way that's more true and more satisfying?' So then I write another, and then I write another, and then I write another, and I don't feel any satisfaction in the end."
19. Can Marco Rubio -- or any presidential candidate -- bounce back once he's become a figure of ridicule?
This post has been updated.