Budget. Truck Tolls. Presidential Politics. It's all going on, so 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. It's not easy to concisely sum up a budget representing almost $9 billion in proposed spending. Governor Gina Raimondo touts her latest plan as a way to continue Rhode Island's comeback. The governor and her people point to a spectrum of approaches -- from a hike in the minimum wage, new education spending, and a big cut in business cost for unemployment insurance -- in asserting that a range of short-, medium- and long-term needs are being tackled. House Republicans say the philosophy is all wrong and they charge that the plan lacks ambition (for more on that, see item #3). For now, the immediate hot buttons are cutting money for charter schools and taxing medical marijuana. As lawmakers get set to dig into Raimondo's spending plan after their February break, here's a simple takeaway: Rhode Islanders who take a skeptical view of the governor will view her budget proposal the same way. Conversely, if people like Raimondo or are willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, the spending plan will likely strike them as a good document.
2. The months-long debate about using truck tolls to pay for bridge improvements reaffirms the primacy of the House speaker in Rhode Island's political universe. Nicholas Mattiello was the one who slammed on the brakes when the state Senate quickly passed the RhodeWorks last year. And it's due to Mattiello's support that the revised truck toll bill is expected to cruise through House and Senate Finance committee votes Tuesday, on close to party-line votes; it could go to the House floor as early as Wednesday. "We have to stop listening to the loud minority voice of 'no,' " Mattiello told reporters Tuesday, in some of his strongest comments to date in support of the truck toll concept, "and do something productive to better [the state's infrastructure]. The governor put forth a plan that we studied for a long period of time. We did a professional economic impact study. We showed it to economists and it appears to me to be the best way to go forward. And we have agreement between the House, the Senate and the executive branch that this is the best way to go forward." Mattiello said he stayed afterward at public forums on truck tolls and asked if people had better ideas. "Not a lot of better ideas come forth," he said. Once a skeptic, the speaker now touts the truck toll plan as an "economic development initiative that will put people to work." All this is cold comfort to the GOP lawmakers who think there is a better way, observers who believe the public has been poorly served, and small businesses owners who say even a small cost increase will hurt their operations. Yet in the realpolitik of the Statehouse, discussion has already moved away from whether there will be truck tolls. Instead, conversation is focusing on steps intended to raise oversight on the state DOT, and to separately help ameliorate the impact of tolls on Rhode Island businesses.
3. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) offered a mixed response to Governor Raimondo's budget proposal. Speaking with reporters in the House Lounge after the governor's speech, he praised the increased investment in education, the avoidance of broad-based taxes, and the wiping out of $30 million in unemployment insurance costs for business. Yet Newberry offered some sharp criticism of the spending plan, including what he described as Raimondo's approach of intervening in the economy (incentives, giving more money to the Commerce Corporation). He rapped the extent of borrowing represented by $230 million in proposed borrowing. Newberry also lamented an absence of structural changes, adding, "When I saw the budget outlined, it struck me as a very safe budget proposal. And by safe, I mean easy politically, particularly for the Democratic Party; it's not going to offend anybody .... I think you're going to find this budget is very vanilla. But that's exactly the problem. Rhode Island doesn't need vanilla, Rhode Island needs more than vanilla. Rhode Island needs something -- as the governor said, if you listen to her speech, and I agree with her focus on economic development -- but Rhode Island needs more bold moves."
4. Speaking on RIPR's Bonus Q+A this week, Governor Raimondo rejected assertions that her economic development approach amounts to government trying to pick winners in the economy. "That is absolutely not the strategy," she said. "In fact, it's the opposite of that. What we're saying is, if you look at -- you say to yourself -- where are the jobs being created in America today? Where are the good high-wage jobs? The answer is in advanced industries, you know, industries that have a lot of research and development, a lot of innovation. That's a fact. And Rhode Island has lost more jobs in that sector than any other state in the country in the past 20 years. As I said, you have to skate where the puck's going to be, you have to go where the good jobs are. The good jobs are in these industries, and we need to position ourselves for success in those industries."
5. Scores of Rhode Islanders will turn out to say goodbye to Buddy Cianci this weekend during his official wake at City Hall (noon to 6 pm, Saturday and Sunday). Arrangements include the following details: "On Monday, February 8, at approximately 8 AM, former Mayor Cianci’s casket, draped in the American Flag, will be carried down City Hall’s front steps on Dorrance Street. Uniformed members of the Providence Police and Fire Departments will line the steps and salute Buddy in his final departure from City Hall. The casket will be placed on a horse-drawn carriage as a procession, accompanied by the Providence Police Department’s Mounted Command, instituted by Mayor Cianci, will travel from City Hall to Weybosset Street, passing by the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC), to Broad Street, arriving at the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral. At 10 AM, a Mass of Christian Burial, presided over by the Very Reverend Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, will be held. The pallbearers are as follows: Dr. Jay Turchetta, Todd Turchetta and Dr. Brad Turchetta, Buddy’s nephews; Joseph R. Paolino, Jr., Mayor of Providence, 1984-1991; Sgt. Steven Courville, Providence Police Department; Manuel Vieira, former head of the City’s Communications Department; former Chief of Staff Artin Coloian, former personal assistant Robert Lovell, former Director of Constituent Affairs, Scott Millard, and former member of the Mayor’s staff Rick Simone. Bishop Tobin and the Diocese have graciously reserved the first four rows on the right side of the Cathedral (when facing the altar) for members of the press. At approximately 11:15 AM, a procession will leave the Cathedral for St. Ann’s Cemetery in Cranston. At the request of the family, burial services are private. The procession will travel to the Arch on Atwells Avenue and along the length of Federal Hill’s acclaimed district reclaimed and revived under Mayor Cianci, where those wishing to provide Buddy with a final salute and cheer may wish to line Atwells Avenue. The procession will then travel through Olneyville and Silver Lake, where Buddy grew up, to St. Ann’s Cemetery. The family asks, that in lieu of flowers, donations in Buddy’s memory may be made to the Mayor Vincent A. Cianci, Jr. Library and Research Center, P.O. Box 6184, Providence, RI 02940."
6. Some of the dignitaries coming to Cianci's funeral: former Ambassador Ray Flynn; Bill Shields - from Washington; former Mayor Angel Taveras; Mike Knipper; Majorie Sundlun; former Governor Ed DiPrete; Governor Gina Raimondo; Mayor Jorge Elorza; Representative David Cicilline; and former city Council Joan DiRuzzo.
8. Could Governor Raimondo's proposed regulatory scheme for medical marijuana make it easier to move ahead with legalizing recreational marijuana in the Ocean State? "I think she is looking at tax revenue from marijuana, so a lot of people can see the parallel there," Jared Moffat, executive director of the pro-legalization group Regulate RI, tells me. Moffat notes that raising the state Department of Business Regulation's regulatory responsibility jibes with the legislative approach of legalization supporters. For their part, DBR director Macky McCleary and Mike Raia, spokesman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, say the state has no plans to legalize marijuana. Speaking on RIPR's Bonus Q&A this week, Raimondo called her medical marijuana approach an attempt to improve oversight, adding, "We've looked very closely at what other states do who have legalized marijuana. I wouldn't make a link, necessarily, between this and recreational -- whether we go there." Meanwhile, marijuana advocates remain opposed to the governor's proposal to tax medical marijuana plants. Moffat calls the effort misguided, since prescription drugs aren't taxed. "The governor, I think, has good intentions," he said. Moffat believes a better approach would involve doing "more serious consideration around taxing and regulating marijuana for adult use. You get the tax revenue, you create more regulation and control, and you make more access available for the people who are going to an illicit market right now."
9. The state Department of Business Regulation is taking a look at what it can do to bolster Rhode Island's growing craft beer industry. Spokeswoman Melissa Czerwein confirms DBR "is currently working closely with industry stakeholders to discuss how to make RI a better place to do business," while examining "possible statutory and regulatory reform. While we are very early in that process, we think that this industry area is a promising potential growth area for RI business owners and entrepreneurs, and are looking to remove hurdles to that growth in partnership with brewers, vintners, distributors, and retailers." As Lou Papineau's ace beer blog, Bottles & Cans & Just Clap Your Hands, has noted, there's considerable room for improvement in the sales restrictions facing local brewers.
10. Evan Shanley, the Democratic challenger to state Rep. Joe Trillo (R-Warwick), is staging a somewhat low-profile fundraiser Tuesday (5:30-8 pm) at the Remington House. Although it's not a formal kickoff, Shanley said he plans to offer some brief comments on his campaign and what he hopes to accomplish. As it stands, Shanley pulled in just under $30,000 in Q4 -- a bit less than half the roughly $65,000 in Trillo's war chest. For his part, the longest-serving House Republican vows to have enough resources to ward off the challenger. "I will put in whatever it takes," Trillo said. "If it takes another $100,000, I'll put it in." As TGIF first reported in November (#2), the Trillo-Shanley contest looms as one of the marquee legislative races of 2016. Shanley is a labor lawyer and the nephew of Providence College President Brian Shanley. Trillo, a well-known figure in the RI GOP, is minority whip in the House and chairman of Donald Trump's RI campaign.
11. Don't miss Scott MacKay's analysis on the New Hampshire primary. Excerpt: On the Democratic side, the contest between Sanders and presumptive front-runner Clinton has become as chippy in the closing days as a UNH-Providence College hockey game. Clinton has abandoned her strategy of ignoring Sanders and focusing on Republicans. Sanders, from neighboring Vermont, pressed Clinton to a virtual tie in Iowa. He has been leading in pre-primary polls and even his allies acknowledge that he must win tomorrow to keep his underdog quest alive though the next round of events in Nevada and South Carolina. The challenge for Clinton is to keep the race close enough to avoid the perception of a blow-out in a state that since 1992 has voted in the general election for every Democratic presidential nominee except Al Gore in 2000. She needs to cut into a slice of Sanders lead among the young and liberal. The Democratic joust has sugared off to Clinton’s pragmatism against Sanders idealism.
12. Congressman David Cicilline shared word this week that Chelsea Clinton will be in Providence on February 12, from noon to 2 p.m., to raise money for her mom's presidential campaign. Contribution levels range from $250 to $2,700 .... Meanwhile, Cicilline's Republican challenger for 2016, H. Russell Taub, won the endorsement this week of the New Jersey-based Empowerment PAC. According to a statement released by Taub, the PAC was founded by Brian D. Goldberg, a former US Senate candidate who owns "a small business in the decorative concrete industry" (web site). Added Goldberg in the statement, "With our targeted outreach to groups that are historically underrepresented in the GOP such as women, minorities and youth, Russell's proven leadership is exactly what we need to attract more young conservatives and independents to The G.O.P. of the Future, the party of Growth, Opportunity and Prosperity in Rhode Island and across the country."
13. Will momentum and bandwagon-jumpers keep Donald Trump on top of the GOP side of the presidential race? Or, as some seasoned observers expect, will Marco Rubio emerge as a more formidable challenger to likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton? For now, Rubio is unveiling his leadership team in tiny RI (four electoral votes). Beyond chairman Gary Sasse, the team includes Sen. Mark Gee of East Greenwich; Rep. Anthony Giarrusso of East Greenwich; former Sen. Frank Maher of Exeter; Rep. Robert Nardolillo of Coventry; House Minority Leader Brian C. Newberry of North Smithfield; Sen. John A. Pagliarini Jr. of Tiverton; and Rep. Daniel P. Reilly of Portsmouth. In a statement, Sasse said, “These Rhode Island leaders are backing Marco Rubio because they understand that we need a nominee this fall that will unite our party and can win a general election. I’m glad these elected officials are a part of our leadership team and will be working to promote Marco’s inspiring message of a New American Century heading into the April primary.” Meanwhile, there's good news for Rubio. A Boston Globe poll released Friday shows him closing the gap on Donald Trump ahead of Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.
14. David Norton, the Democratic primary challenger to state Rep. David Coughlin (D-Pawtucket), picked up the endorsement this week of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats. The backing was unsurprising, consider how the progressive group's state coordinator, Sam Bell, has been a persistently sharp critic of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Meanwhile, the reinvigoration of the Rhode Island Young Democrats looms as a counter-balance to the RI Progressive Democrats in this legislative election year. Although the Young Dems have waxed and waned over the years, the group is now on an uptick, led by the group's president, Charon Rose, a staffer in General Treasurer Seth Magaziner's office, as well as such peers as Executive VP Zack Mezera; VP of Programming and Policy Amy Espinal; Treasurer Jordan Day; Secretary Alex Krogh-Grabbe; and communications director Michael Beauregard. Among other efforts, the Young Dems have re-started the Politics & Pints series once known as Drinking Liberally. UPDATE: Sam Bell wrote in to express his puzzlement at the idea that the Young Democrats would be a counter-balance to the Progressive Democrats: "The new Young Dems group is run by great people, and I feel it's unfair to imply that they represent the political right. In the new iteration, the Young Dems represent our party and our party's values. Some of our members are also involved in the Young Dems. We see the Young Dems as an ally, and we look forward to working with them to advance our party's values in Rhode Island." Bell also points to the YDRI platform and the Progressive Dems' issue page in citing overlap between the two groups.
15. Rhodes Alderson, who was David Cicilline's communications director for part of Cicilline's eight-year stretch as mayor of Providence, not surprisingly, was no fan of Buddy Cianci. Yet via Huffington Post, Alderson has also crafted one of the more original essays on Cianci's passing, likening Buddy to an early version of Donald Trump. Excerpt: "Telling the whole story of Buddy Cianci is like doing a Schwarzenegger impersonation. Everyone tries but no one gets it exactly right. Buddy was too many things at once to conceive of, much less to articulate. He was a city of a man, and the boundaries between himself and Providence were never easily definable."
16. Congrats to WPRI-TV's Susan Campbell on being named the station's new consumer affairs reporter .... Huzzahs, too, to Peter Phipps, on being promoted to deputy executive editor; Michael McDermott, moving up to be AME/metro; and Maria Caporizzo, newly named as managing editor/digital, as a result of recent changes at the Providence Journal.
17. A fascinating read about one of the downsides of the Internet: swindlers posing as locksmiths are manipulating Google search results to rip off consumers, and the search giant isn't exactly rushing to fix the problem, according to this deep dive from The New York Times.
18. The PawSox got considerable media attention this week with "A Letter to PawSox Nation," from Larry Lucchino and Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, stating that "new ballpark planning has been put on the back burner, and our primary focus this year is on our fans and the McCoy Stadium experience." To some, the letter was the long-sought raising of the white flag on the team's consideration of a move elsewhere. Yet the call for "a fresh start in the next great era of Rhode Island, PawSox and Red Sox baseball" -- as Lucchino and Grebien note -- is closely related to trying to reverse the downward trend in PawSox attendance. It follows a number of others steps, including the unveiling of a new slate of daily promotions, meant to mend ties with ticked-off fans. And there's no guarantee that the PawSox will remain at McCoy in the long term.
19. Two sharp critiques on a strange season in presidential politics. Former GOP Senator and ex-defense secretary Chuck Hagel calls out Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in this interview with NPR. On the whole, he said, the discussion on national security issues has been "dangerously simplistic. I know campaigns are simplistic. The campaigns are about bumper stickers and glib 10-second responses in debates and all that goes with that. I get that. I think the foreign policy element of this campaign -- I hope is going to get fleshed out far more as we get closer to our eventual nominees. You know, we've been in this -- through this nutty season that we have, and we love the entertainment, and there's been more entertainment this year than ever, but I hope we sober up like we normally do. And we'll pick two candidates, and then let's get on with the big issues and the serious issues. The next president of the United States is going to be confronted with immense challenges, and most will be international." Historian Andrew Bacevich, an emeritus professor at Boston University, sounds a similar theme in this essay outlining 6 National Security Questions the Candidates Don't Want to Answer: Above all in the realm of national security, election 2016 promises to be not just a missed opportunity but a complete bust. Recent efforts to exercise what people in Washington like to call 'global leadership' have met with many more failures and disappointments than clear cut successes. So you might imagine that reviewing the scorecard would give the current raft of candidates, Republican and Democratic alike, plenty to talk about. But if you thought that, you’d be mistaken. Instead of considered discussion of first-order security concerns, the candidates have regularly opted for bluff and bluster, their chief aim being to remove all doubts regarding their hawkish bona fides."
20. Another year, another round of bills aimed at creating an office of inspector general to be a watchdog on government spending. Reps. Dan Reilly (R-Portsmouth) and Jean Philippe Barros (D-Pawtucket) have separate IG proposals, carrying on the campaign led in the past by former Rep. Larry Valencia. As I wrote back in 2014 (#9), Valencia argued "that the estimated cost of creating the office ($500,000 to $1 million) would more than pay for itself by rooting out waste and mismanagement. Valencia argues an IG would help to preclude the kind of boondoggles that sometimes take place at the state's many quasi-public agencies, like a squander of $75 million at Resource Recovery a few years ago." FWIW, House spokesman Larry Berman said the current crop of IG bills will go through the committee process, and that Speaker Mattiello has not yet taken a position.
21. Governor Raimondo on whether she plans to change what she calls Columbus Day now that Brown University faculty voted to rename it as Indigenous People's Day: "I think the tradition here is that it is Columbus Day. I know in Rhode Island, being an Italian-American, it's a big deal for Italian-Americans, and I look forward to it every year -- marching in all the parades. So I'll keep calling it Columbus Day."