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TGIF: 20 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

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Thanks for stopping by for my weekend column. Your tips and thoughts are always welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and you can follow me all week...

Thanks for stopping by for my weekend column. Your tips and thoughts are always welcome at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and you can follow me all week long on the twitters. Here we go.

1. With an expected budget vote in House Finance on Tuesday, the biggest question is what becomes of Governor Gina Raimondo's ambitious proposal to use new charges on big commercial trucks to pay for infrastructure improvements. Statehouse sources variously describe the plan as being on life support/being something that will be resurrected in time for a vote early next week. Transportation funding is always a thorny issue -- just look at what happened with Don Carcieri's attempt to make progress near the end of his time in office (see item #5). It's also true that DOT director Peter Alviti was among the latter additions to Raimondo's administration, leaving a compressed amount of time to develop the infrastructure-funding formula promised by Raimondo as a candidate. Meanwhile, Mattiello's application of the brakes, after he stood with the governor at her infrastructure news conference last week, has some observers suspecting a late-session show of power. Yet that theory may not hold up; Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed added the caveat during Raimondo's Olneyville event that they wanted to screen Rhode Works for its impact on local business. "My guess is that the concept itself is not the issue," House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) tells me. Rather, he says, the slowdown relates to the complexity and scale of the governor's proposal. (Raimondo herself made a misstatement during her event -- she said the new "user fee" would apply only to 18-wheelers. Then again, there's little dispute that Rhode Island's infrastructure is in awful shape and that waiting longer will only cost more to fix it.) Raimondo appears likely to get a considerable part of what she wants on two other big issues in the House budget -- cutting Medicaid spending and creating new incentives meant to spark economic growth. So if all else fails when it comes to sorting out a new infrastructure-funding formula, the General Assembly could alway return during a special session later this year to amend the budget. (For more on how a special session would work, see item #10).

2. Lincoln Chafee's presidential announcement on Wednesday can only be described as, well, Chafee-esque. Speaking at George Mason University in Virginia, Chafee offered earnest views on foreign policy, peace, and equality, and he emphasized his 2003 vote as the only Senate Republican to oppose the war in Iraq. Yet then came his call for the US to adopt the metric system. Doing so, he said, would show "we're not arrogant and unilateral." It didn't take long before some policy stances -- like an unwillingness to rule out talks with ISIS -- made headlines. So do Chafee's idiosyncrasies undermine his self-description as a principled counterpoint to Hillary Clinton? Does his guerrilla marketing (the metric system!) help Chafee stand apart in a growing field of presidential candidates? Or as my colleague Scott MacKay wonders, does Chafee ultimately suffer from a lack of campaign organization (with former campaign adviser and RI native Tad Devine now working for rival liberal Bernie Sanders)? At any rate, Chafee seems far happier as a presidential candidate than he was during his latter time as governor; that reflects how he prefers standing for values over fighting battles with lawmakers, for example. And as I reported earlier this week, University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato says Chafee's campaign ma be more about a reset in the candidate's own thinking, rather than a resurrection of his political brand: "I don’t think he’ll ever become prominent enough in the campaign for that to occur. But in his own mind, and in writing maybe the last chapter of public service in his long career, it gives him the opportunity to say. 'I stood for A, B, and C in my career, and that’s what I stressed in my unsuccessful presidential campaign.' "

3. The Republican Policy Group's critical report on the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority is online now, so you can read it for yourself. It chronicles a series of problems and shortcomings. But in an interview this week, RICCA executive director James McCarvill asserts the authority is operating well and he says there's little substance to the RPG's criticism.

4. In the day or so before Chafee launched his presidential run, the print version of the Providence Journal carried no word of the impending announcement. When the actual news came, the ProJo relied on an AP reporter's dispatch from the scene in Virginia (although staffers Tom Mooney and Tracee Herbaugh contributed to the report.) Dylan Byers, the media reporter for Politico, weighed in with a story -- headlined "Lincoln Chafee can't win his local paper" -- noting a disconnect between the first-ever major party presidential campaign by a Rhode Islander and how "his hometown paper has offered nothing more than wire reports and a stinging editorial suggesting that his bid will give Rhode Island a bad name." ProJo editorial page editor Edward Achorn emailed Byers to say, "There is no bad blood on our part, certainly. We have simply expressed the view that Mr. Chafee was not a particularly successful governor." Yet even with big changes in the newspaper industry, there's a sharp contrast between the ProJo's recent Chafee coverage and how former staffer Tony DePaul wrote a finely etched 3000-word feature, headlined "The 'lone Republican' rides again," when Chafee made his third run for mayor of Warwick in 1998. (That story is currently hidden from view as part of the Journal's paid archives; posting it online this week might have added to the paper's coverage.) As recently as 2000, some Democratic operatives thought a "pro-Chafee bias" was at work on Fountain Street (Stephanie Chafee's father was part of the Journal Company, and she made a lot of money when the paper was sold to Belo in the late 1990s). Ultimately, with all the national media attention he's getting, Chafee might not be too concerned about how little attention he's getting in Rhode Island's statewide daily.

4. Tough year for charter schools on Smith Hill, and now goodbye to the PARCC exam?

5. Former Governor Don Carcieri had his own attempt to come up with a plan for funding infrastructure improvements; a blue-ribbon panel issued its report in 2008. One member of the panel, Robert E. Cusack, offers this view on why a new approach didn't move ahead: "I would be speculating, but given the resistance to tax and fee  increases (gas tax and registration fees) and to new taxes (petroleum products), and tolls generally, as we saw later with the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls, it’s not surprising that it would take a great deal of political capital to be expended by elected officials  in order to put into place the options the panel proposed. Raising $285 million per year from residents (and yes, from non-residents paying tolls, too) is not easy in an economy the size of Rhode Island’s and the pain would be felt. Like most people, elected officials prefer announcing good news to inflicting pain on others. Another factor was the timing, coming as the global financial crisis was beginning and the Great Recession becoming apparent to all of us. I would note that tolls imposed on large trucks only was not proposed for consideration and to my recollection was not discussed. One aspect of transportation infrastructure unlike other public finance issues is that there is little debate about the need. The disagreement is about who should pay, which is always an issue at every level of government."

6. Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee doesn't sound particularly optimistic that municipalities will win the fight at the General Assembly over who controls overtime for local firefighters. McKee, who helped organize a Statehouse news conference on the subject this week, said it was important to speak out. "If you were silent on the issue, the municipal leaders could be held that they were acquiescing to a situation where the state was pushing back on local issues that they should solve locally," he said during this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. "So I would expect that the voice has been heard and that there'll be consideration in terms of keeping the mayors in charge of their communities and the way they run public safety." McKee also joined us on Bonus Q+A to talk charter schools and other issues.

7. Check out these remarkable photos of a young Lincoln Chafee from his farrier days.

8. In the back-and-forth drama over whether Providence can finally move forward with a standardized approach to tax incentives, the noteworthy quote of the week (h/t Kate Bramson) came from the City Council's Majority Leader, Kevin Jackson: "If economic development is being dragged, it's because developers can't get their act together to request tax-stabilization agreements."

9. Rhode Island Public Radio and Brown University's Taubman Center for Public Policy are co-sponsoring a public forum on the PawSox' proposed Providence ballpark, next Tuesday, June 9, from 6-8 pm, at the Friedman Auditorium, 190-194 Thayer Street. Our panel will include sports economist Victor Matheson, urban planning and design expert Jack Robbins, Jeff White of the Red Sox Foundation, and yours truly will be moderating. We welcome suggested questions; tweet them to us using the hash tag #PawSoxForum .... Meanwhile, also on for Tuesday, David Norton of the group Organizing for Pawtucket (which wants to keep the PawSox at McCoy), said he plans to deliver petitions to the Statehouse at 3:30 pm.

10. With Larry Lucchino acknowledging more time and public discussion are needed to build support for a PawSox ballpark in Providence, the General Assemble may consider a revised deal during a special session later this year. So if the legislature is going to approve public dollars for the project after the fiscal 2016 budget has already been passed, how would that work? Here's the word from House spokesman Larry Berman: "IF there is a special session, it would have to be a budget amendment. In the past, we have had to enact supplemental budgets early in the new session, essentially making changes to the budget after it has already been enacted. Of course, there is no plan for doing so at this time, but if a stadium proposal would be deemed acceptable after public hearings are held, then that would be the process that is followed."  

11.  Bone up on Lincoln Chafee's pet issue -- the metric system -- with this selection of videos: Metric America came out in 1973. Here's one on converting highway speeds into the metric system. There's Americans Discover the Metric System, and Bill Nye's Introduction to the Metric System. Lastly, old friend Dan Kennedy tweets that back in 1977 he wrote a five-part series for the Call of Woonsocket on the inevitable US embrace of metrics.

12. Is Warwick the new center of Rhode Island's political universe? It's the historic home of newly minted presidential candidate Lincoln Chafee. Representative Joseph Shekarchi, who has close ties to both Governor Raimondo and Speaker Mattiello, is a Warwick guy, as is state Democratic chairman Joseph McNamara. In the latest move, the Rhode Island Democratic Party is relocating its HQ from Providence to Raimondo's former gubernatorial campaign office at 200 Metro Center. And of course, RI Republicans have long had their office in Warwick, not far from the traditional Chafee/Avedisian campaign HQ at Airport Plaza.

13. Where are they now: Andrew Childs, field director for Raimondo's 2014 gubernatorial campaign, is now campaign manager for Rick Smith, a county chairman candidate in Virginia.

14. Gordon Fox, the biracial kid from Mount Hope who rose to Rhode Island's most powerful political post, is scheduled to be sentenced in US District Court Thursday, June 11, following his admissions of corruption. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors recommended a three-year sentence, although Judge Mary Lisi is not bound by the recommendation.

15. Not much of a big surprise via Pew Research Center: "When it comes to where younger Americans get news about politics and government, social media look to be the local TV of the Millennial generation. About six-in-ten online Millennials (61%) report getting political news on Facebook in a given week, a much larger percentage than turn to any other news source .... This stands in stark contrast to internet-using Baby Boomers, for whom local TV tops the list of sources for political news at nearly the same reach (60%)." Yet as Pew points out, younger Americans' reliance on social media raises questions about how this will impact politics. And the biggest question of all remains how to maintain journalistic resources with the collapse of the media's traditional economic revenue model.

16. Following the recent retirement of Tim Murphy, Fountain Street veteran Peter Phipps is now running the ProJo's PolitiFact operation.

17. Americans' general aversion to talking about death impacts end of life care and a lot of other issues. So it's worth noting this New York Times review of NPR weekend host Scott Simon's new book, about his mother and how he publicly chronicled her last days on Twitter. Excerpt: "In the past two years, other end-of-life advocates have joined Mr. Simon in using social media to make their cases. Brittany Maynard, who received a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, spent her last months creating a series of heartbreaking but instructive YouTube videos to jump-start the end-of-life choice movement .... “Social media is giving people a socially acceptable place to talk about death, and somebody with a voice who is respected and heard is giving people permission to talk about something that’s socially taboo,” wrote Carla Sofka, an editor of “Dying, Death, and Grief in an Online Universe,” who credits these developments with opening up a much-needed conversation."

18. Seven charts, via The Fix, on why Congress has set a new record for polarization.

19. The idea that apps like Tinder and Grindr may promote STDs proved irresistible to news organizations near and far. Few Rhode Island stories have blown up to such a degree in recent memory. Yet is there really direct evidence linking dating/hookup apps with STDs? RI Public Radio healthcare reporter Kristin Gourlay went looking for answers. Here's an excerpt from her findings: "[Researchers] tell me there is no solid evidence that Tinder or Grindr are directly to blame for the increase in new cases of HIV, syphilis, or gonorrhea. In fact, they say it’s really difficult for researchers to make that association. But, they say there is a lot of evidence that people who use apps like these tend to engage in riskier sexual behavior. We’re talking about anonymous sex, sex with multiple partners, unprotected intercourse, that kind of thing. Also, they’re finding that it’s not necessarily Tinder or Grindr. They’re discovering that, especially with men who have sex with men, they’re using other social networking sites to find sexual partners. The point is that all of this online networking is enabling people to find partners faster, and it’s creating – as Amy Nunn [of the RI Public Health Institute] called it – these dense networks of sexual partners where infections can be transmitted much faster."

20. It's time for Gaspee Days.

TGIF: 20 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media
TGIF: 20 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media