The General Assembly is back, and the political year kicks into gear. Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.
1. The vigor of anti-toll sentiment in the East Bay can be seen in how Tiverton Republican John Pagliarini defeated Portsmouth Democrat Jim Seveney in this week's state Senate special election. The state GOP responded with a news release, headlined, "Toxic Tolls Take Their Toll on Democrats." Republican Chairman Brandon Bell added, "If the General Assembly votes for new tolls, Seveney's defeat will be just the beginning of the toll which [Gina] Raimondo's toxic toll plan will take on Democrats." Yet are voters statewide really that worked up about a toll set to be imposed on big trucks? There isn't evidence, particularly when only about 100 people turned out for the StopTollsRI coalition's heavily promoted State House rally on Tuesday. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello staked out his ground after the session that day, telling reporters that he wants to eliminate or cut the governor's proposed $600 million in bonding while making the toll plan "as efficient as possible." What's more, House Minority Leader Brian Newberry seems resigned to the passage of truck tolls (although, like other Republicans, he'd like to see bridge repairs funded through money already in the budget). For now, the truck toll debate seems more likely to be an internal debate between Raimondo, Mattiello and state Senate leaders, over the precise details and composition of the plan. Seveney, meanwhile, said he plans to seek a rematch against Pagliarini in November, when the elevated turnout of the presidential election will aid at least some Democratic candidates.
2. One argument from toll opponents: even if current officials have no intention of extending tolls from trucks to cars, what's to stop the next governor or future legislative leaders from making the bite of tolls more pervasive? Raimondo spokeswoman Ashley O'Shea responds in part by saying, "The proposal the governor put forth, and as passed by the Senate, has a provision clearly prohibiting collection of tolls on passenger cars. Rhode Island can’t remain on the sideline while our roads and bridges continue to deteriorate." Senate spokesman Greg Pare pointed to the same provision. Speaker Mattiello, meanwhile, offered this statement: “As long as I am speaker, there will never be tolls placed on cars. Large commercial trucks, many from out of state, are causing the damage to our roads, bridges and overpasses. If we do nothing and continue to neglect our roads and bridges, which are already rated the worst in the nation, it is foreseeable that the state will have an emergency situation and it will be inevitable that future state leaders would be forced to place tolls on all vehicles. In order to prevent tolls on cars in the future, we need to make the investment now in road and bridge repairs and pay for them by tolling strictly heavy commercial trucks."
3. Elizabeth Roberts, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, says the state's United Health Infrastructure Project, will be worth the investment, even though the cost of UHIP nearly tripled, to $364 million. "It's really important to note that this project has grown because it began just as a platform for healthcare, just for Medicaid and Health Source Rhode Island," Roberts said during this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q&A. "We're a state that took advantage of those dollars -- they were 100 percent federal dollars. We now have taken advantage of additional dollars from the federal government to have an entire eligibility enrollment system, across all types of service. This will now be a single computerized system, so that we don't have duplication and a lot of inefficiencies as we have now. You will have one person [who] will have one place in that system no matter what they need. The state investment is only about 24 percent [of the cost]. We anticipate we will save that money within two full years of the system being up and running. It is an investment well worth making."
4. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse says House Speaker Paul Ryan is his dark-horse prediction for a Republican presidential candidate to emerge during a brokered GOP convention. Whitehouse, a true-blue Democrat, predicts that Hillary Clinton would drub Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.
5. Lots of out-of-town developments this week in the far-flung empire of GateHouse Media, owner of the Providence Journal: ProJo editor David Butler traveled to Las Vegas to lend advice at the embattled Review-Journal; he "was brought in by management to discuss guidelines on how to cover [casino billionaire Sheldon] Adelson and his corporate interests, according to a reporter at the meeting," The New York Times reported. (Update: “I was trying to get guidelines in place to protect good journalism, not to hinder it,” Butler tells Ken Doctor.) The same story detailed how Michael Schroeder, the manager of the company that bought the Las Vegas paper in December (he's also the new owner of The Block Island Times) is no longer associated with the Review-Journal. Schroeder separately apologized "for a controversial December article, written under a fictitious byline, that has drawn national attention and harsh media criticism."
6. Considering that Rhode Island has yet to regain its pre-recession level of employment, you might be surprised to learn the Ocean State ranks 22nd nationally in its ability to weather a recession, at least according to the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Meanwhile, despite the gradual improvement of Rhode Island's economy, the state is once again staring at a budget deficit as the General Assembly session begins. The current figure is a moving target, although House fiscal staff puts it in the neighborhood of a relatively modest $50 million.
7. Another General Assembly race to watch: the challenge by David Norton -- a leader in the fight against moving the PawSox -- to state Rep. David Coughlin (D-Pawtucket). In a message to his PawSox email list, Norton outlined part of his task: "I know that many of you are turned off by politics or don't follow Rhode Island politics. But I also know that the PawSox issue became an issue that united our State, and in spite of all of the turn offs in Rhode Island politics, we engaged in State politics and we WON! Transitioning from the single PawSox issue into a political candidate is going to be a big challenge for me." One issue that Norton said he plans to highlight: Rhode Island's car tax .... Meanwhile, Democrat Linda Finn has formally launched her challenge to Republican Rep. Dan Reilly of Portsmouth, which we reported on last month (#6).
8. Nick Hemond's star is on the rise with the resignation this week of Providence School Board president Keith Oliveira. A graduate of Classical High, Hemond has a savvy understanding of politics and a first-hand appreciation for the challenges of improving public education in Rhode Island's capital city.
9. Governor Raimondo's Healthcare Innovation Working Group looking at capping compensation for the CEOs of nonprofit healthcare organizations before ultimately deciding not to make a recommendation. The issue is pertinent due to how, for example, former Lifespan CEO George Vecchione received more than $9 million in compensation in 2009. In explaining the decision not to offer a recommendation, HHS Secretary Roberts said, "These are not for profit organizations with boards that set those compensation levels ... It is a real challenge with not for profit organizations, kind of where the government's role is. We in Medicaid clearly have an interest that the dollars ... and right now as we're thinking about the budget, we're talking about how to target dollars in our healthcare system to frontline workers, many of whom make just above minimum wage. And we need to attract and keep people in those roles."
10. Coming at 11 am January 19: After six months of analysis, the Brookings Institution is set to unveil "Restart Rhode Island: A Competitiveness Strategy for the Ocean State." The event is taking place at the Rhode Island Foundation, with invitation-only seating being offered on a first-come, first served basis.
11. State Rep. Lauren Carson (D-Newport) says it's wrong that taxpayers will bear the brunt of a $315,000 federal fine stemming from the state's failure to properly monitor storm water runoff on highways around the state (a story first reported by RIPR). In an op-ed distributed this week, Carson writes in part, "This fine will ultimately be paid by the taxpayers of Rhode Island, who have already suffered the damage to their environment and the mismanagement of their state’s limited resources that this fine is supposed to punish. Forcing Rhode Island taxpayers to pay the civil penalty to the federal government assigns the punishment to the victims while doing nothing to mitigate any of the harm caused by storm water pollution in Rhode Island. If there is going to be a monetary penalty, shouldn’t it be a requirement that the department commit specific resources to fixing the problems, like buying street sweepers or hiring staff to clean storm drains?" Meanwhile, Carson has also filed a bill calling on the state Department of Transportation to report to the General Assembly annually on compliance with the DOJ consent order.
12. On Thursday, January 14, Steven Costantino, House Finance chairman time when a job creation guarantee bill set the stage for 38 Studios, is set to return to talk with the House Oversight Committee.
13. Does the overwhelming early influence of parents and teachers on children influence subsequent political support for political candidates with authoritarian tendencies? That's the suggestion of some social science research suggesting "that hierarchical thinking comes more easily to people than egalitarian thinking."
14. State of the Union guests: Senator Jack Reed is brining Providence NAACP President Jim Vincent .... US Representative David Cicilline is hosting Carol and Peter McKenna, the parents of U.S. Army Special Forces 1st Sgt. P. Andrew McKenna Jr., who was killed in Afghanistan last year .... US Representative Jim Langevin is bringing Tim Hebert, the president and CEO of Atrion, the Warwick-based IT services firm .... Senator Whitehouse has invited Ryan Borden, a special education teacher in South Kingstown and JWU doctoral student.
15. Providence lands in spot #33 (better than 38, right?) on The New York Times' list of 52 places to go in 2016.
16. The Atlantic offers a detailed look at the Working Families Party (being led locally, as RIPR reported last year, by Chris Torres). Excerpt: "Is all this enough to deserve the 'Tea Party of the left' label? That may be premature. Democratic divisions have yet to develop into the sort of government-shuttering national drama of the GOP’s fractures, and the party’s presidential primary has turned into a tedious coronation. The WFP’s victories to date have been numerous but small-bore—a far cry from the Tea Party’s attention-getting mass rallies and defeats of veteran U.S. senators. But the WFP would argue that, with Congress gridlocked and in Republican hands, more effective policymaking happens at the state and local level. The WFP’s focus on municipal office also represents an attempt to leverage Democrats’ concentration in urban areas. Like the Tea Party, the WFP bedevils mainstream Democrats. One Democratic elected official in a jurisdiction where the party is active lamented that its absolutist demands sometimes make governing impossible: 'They’re bomb throwers.' ”
17. A fun read from former Providence Journal reporter and longtime press advocate Linda Lotridge Levin on how she drove as a college student from Michigan to Massachusetts in the time leading up to President John F. Kennedy's 1960 election.
18. The Pew Research Center plans to raise the proportion of mobile phones it calls to 75 percent in 2016. This link has Pew's answers to commonly asked questions about polling cell phones.
19. Darrell West, ex of Brown University, and now with the Brookings Institution, speaks at the Newport Art Museum at 2 pm this Sunday, January 9. "I will discuss the candidates, issues, and strategies involved in the 2016 elections," West writes via email. "What should people watch for and how should they evaluate the complicated nominating processes in the Republican and Democratic primaries? With major challenges in domestic and foreign policy, the 2016 campaign is shaping up as one of the most important in recent years. Tickets are available through the Newport Art Museum."
20. Sure, we have some strange politics in RI. Now the Show-Me of Missouri has a bill that would make sex between lawmakers and lobbyists a gift. As one news outlet reports, "The 2016 legislative session began Wednesday with a focus on legislative ethics laws. That focus comes after a year that saw two Missouri lawmakers forced to resign over scandals involving interns."
This post has been updated.