Pitchers and catchers have reported to Fort Myers, so glimmers of spring are slowly approaching. 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. Has the aftermath of the fight over truck tolls become personal for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello? Mattiello was measured in discussing that question this week, but he made clear that he thinks opponents likening him to a dictator have been overly shrill. "I'm a little saddened by the fact that they're being so political, so early, it's February," Mattiello said on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q&A. "And the name-calling is, quite frankly, beneath folks, it's a little childish. But come election-time, I think the infrastructure bill is something that's essential to move the state forward, it makes the state more competitive nationally, and it imposes the burden, 60 percent, on out-of-state truckers, so it's tax relief for our residents." Mattiello insists critics are flat-out wrong to predict a disruptive degree of migrating trucks on small town roads, and to assert truck tolls will cause higher costs for consumer goods in Rhode Island. "People just make statements without being factually correct," he said. "And you can't stop them. People have a right to talk; doesn't mean they know what their talking about." State GOP Chairman Brandon Bell has made clear that Republicans hope to capitalize on the truck toll issue during legislative races this fall. Whether the public is receptive, particularly with the installation of toll gantries being off in the future, remains to be seen. Given the speaker's understated pique after the truck toll fight, it won't be surprising if Democrats try this fall to unseat some of the loudest anti-toll voices, including Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick).
2. Now that truck tolls are law, the rest of the legislative session is expected to generally steer clear of controversial issues. A possible exception is the push to legalize marijuana -- and we're already seeing a divide between the House and Senate. In a coup for Sen. Josh Miller (D-Cranston), Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio and Senate Judiciary Chairman Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick) were among the lawmakers signing on as cosponsors of his legalization bill this week. The measure also has backing of six of 10 Senate Judiciary members. For his part, Speaker Mattiello remains unwilling to commit to a House floor vote on legalization in this session. "I haven't made that decision as of now," Mattiello said on this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable. "I am committed to be open-minded, and to listening to both sides. In the House of Representatives chambers, I have proponents that very much want us to pass it, and I have some folks that very much are against the passing of the marijuana bill." While Mattiello said he's in the middle on the issue, and will let the facts dictate the outcome following committee testimony, he doesn't appear to be in any hurry to move legalization forward in 2016. "If it doesn't come to a vote this year, we'll see what happens on the ballot in Massachusetts," where voters could legalize marijuana in November, "and we could be pretty nimble thereafter," he said. "If we don't pass it this year, and Massachusetts does, legislatively, if we chose to, we still have the option of dealing with it early in the next legislative session."
3. Damon Borrelli, who sharply criticized state Rep. Mia Ackerman (D-Cumberland) on the truck toll issue in a recent letter published in the Valley Breeze, tells me he's seriously considering running as an independent against Ackerman this year. If the matchup comes to fruition, it could make for a lively battle. Ackerman, a two-term rep, helped sponsor bills to eliminate the master lever and to cut the corporate tax rate from 9 to 7 percent -- concepts typically associated more with Republicans than Democrats. Yet Borrelli used Ackerman's vote in favor of truck tolls and what she later called a misunderstanding to call her out in the Breeze: "The time has come for all the Mia Ackerman’s to go," Borrelli wrote. "We are not helpless. Faith can be restored. It is time for the spectators to engage because time is running short for solutions. We can’t afford more problems, taxes, or tolls. We have had enough." If the former South Kingstown police officer launches a run, Democrats can be expected to cite how Borrelli was mentioned in a Channel 10 I-team story last fall on injured on duty public safety workers who still collect considerable public benefits. The Channel 10 story said Borrelli declined comment; he said he disputes a number of the story's findings, although he declined to specify his current compensation from his old job as he seeks a disability pension.
4. While many Rhode Islanders may be less than impressed by the pace of progress in the I-195 District, I-195 District Commission Chairman Joseph Azrack believes better days are ahead. It helps that Baltimore-based Wexford Science & Technology signed a purchase and sale agreement last month for two parcels in the district. "I think we've done all of the groundwork -- I mean that literally and figuratively" Azrack said in an interview with RIPR this week. "Literally in terms of getting the streets in and the utilities and having the parcels ready to go, as evidenced by the sale to Wexford and CV Properties. And figuratively in terms of the tax stabilization agreement that the mayor's office and the City Council passed last year; that takes away any uncertainty about tax policy for a new development. We've got the incentive programs, including the I-195 $25 million fund to plug any financing gaps. So I think all the pieces are in place." An experienced and highly successful real estate investor, Azrack even downplays the potential impact of a broader economic slowdown, asserting that Providence remains a good buy compared to bigger cities.
5. As Rhode Islanders look for Governor Gina Raimondo to deliver on the promise of her economic program, the governor continues to enjoy raves from out-of-town elites. The latest comes from former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent, who hails Raimondo for being a role model on pension reform: "In spite of stiff opposition from unions and others, Raimondo got her reforms enacted into law and then settled litigation challenges. Finally, with her success, she won election as governor. She is the light and the way. One hopes someone is paying attention."
6. In other action, Governor Raimondo is spending the weekend at the National Governors Association meeting in Washington, D.C. The governor's plan includes taking part in a panel discussion, "Climate and Clean Energy: Why Young Americans Are Taking Notice and Taking Action" and a Sunday dinner with the Obamas at the White House. Raimondo's husband, Andy Moffit, was slated to be on a panel, entitled, “First Spouses’ Changing Roles: From Campaign Trail to Public Office and the Final Year.”
7. Last August, when Cranston Mayor Allan Fung met with reporters to apologize for problems in the city's Police Department, he was unable to offer a total cost for the litigation spawned by the woes. Now that a figure is out for those and other expenses ($5 million-$8 million), Republicans charge it's part of Democrat Michael Sepe's campaign to dislodge Fung in this year's election. While Cranston is no stranger to partisan politics, Fung could cut to the chase by offering his own price tag for the past problems involving the Police Department.
8. A reader asks: Why not allow votes on bills that will fail, so voters know where state lawmakers stand? It's a great question. However, it also runs completely counter to the dynamics of the State House, where the coin of the realm is power and unexpected outcomes on votes are very few and far between.
9. When you've got lemons, make lemonade, or so goes the old expression. So while Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza faces a prolonged legal fight with firefighters and the ongoing challenge posed by Providence's finances, the mayor, unsurprisingly, touted the city's building boom during his recent State of the City address. Bonus points to Jef Nickerson, mindful of the fanciful bygone scheme to a create a luxury high-rise on Westminster Street, for noting, "[W]e should be careful not to count our Vaporscapers before they’ve hatched."
10. Twitter lit up with criticism of Speaker Mattiello after he last year told the ProJo, as part of the paper's #RaceinRI series, "I don't there think there is a white privilege." As I noted at the time, the speaker's points were more complex than indicated by that one sentence. Be that as it may, here are Mattiello's reflections on the episode, after being asked about on RI Public Radio's Bonus Q&A this week: "Sometimes you say things less than artfully. I took that as white entitlement, so to speak. I wasn't familiar with the term. If you listen to the rest of that interview, you would see that I was very sensitive to the needs. I think there are gaps out there. I think that folks from minority communities sometimes have trouble accessing services and benefits in society, so I'm very sensitive to those needs, and as a policy maker I work hard on that.I took that from the position of nobody has any more entitlement in society over anybody else, and that's how I live my life."
11. Providence native Tad Devine has gotten a lot more face time on cable news with the success of Bernie Sanders' presidential bid. Scott MacKay offers a deeper look at the Rhody native helping Sanders' upstart run.
12. The world lost a special person when former ProJo photographer Andrew Dickerman died at age 74 while doing what he loved -- roughing it in southeast Asia. Dickerman had a great eye and he was a legend for mixing it up with the Rolling Stones after the band touched down at T.F. Green in 1972. I knew Andy well enough just to exchange pleasantries when we ran into each other on assignment. He always had a gleam in his eye, and seemed younger than his actual age. Dickerman lives on in the experiences he shared on Facebook, the great photos he snapped, and in the colorful stories being retold by his many past colleagues and friends.
13. Moira Walsh emerged this week as a primary challenger to state Rep. Thomas Palangio (D-Providence). A waitress and former organizer with RI Jobs with Justice, Walsh said in a news release that she plans to focus on issues of concern to working families: "As a single mother, I have experienced what so many struggling families in our community deal with on a daily basis. I know what it means to choose between paying for gas or for electricity. To decide between buying groceries or getting clothing for my son. I understand what it feels like to work full time, to sign up for all the extra shifts you possibly can, and still fall short at the end of the month. People in our community are working eighty hours a week and spending no time with their families, just to keep their heads above water. It seems that no matter how hard we try, the system is rigged against us, and no one is fighting to preserve the community that has given us all so much. That is why I have worked to advocate for increases in the minimum wage, for protections for workers, and that’s why I’m running.”
14. The commonly held belief among close State House observers is that the governor, speaker, and Senate president take turns selecting judicial picks. We put the question of whether that's the way it works to Speaker Mattiello, during RIPR's Bonus Q+A. His response: "It's not that simple. Sometimes, I wish it did [work that way], but no, it doesn't work like that. Obviously, you chat and you talk and you give recommendations, and ultimately it's the choice of the governor. But I believe the governor respects other choices. Nobody's solely in charge of anything, it's a collaborative effort in government."
15. Colorado has gained attention for generating more tax revenue from legalized marijuana than alcohol. Yet supporters and opponents of legalization hardly agree that Colorado is a role model worth emulating. Expect to hear more about that viewpoint when Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, the Conference of Western Attorneys General, and Brown's Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy stage an April 5th forum at Brown's Medical School in the Jewelry District. The panel has not yet been finalized, although the focus will be on the experience in the Western states that have legalized marijuana.
16. More strong reporting by RIPR's Elisabeth Harrison and Chuck Hinman on the St. George's scandal: "In RI, One Law For Reporting Child Abuse, Two Different Interpretations."
17. State Rep. Blake Filippi (I-New Shoreham) on his proposal for a constitutional amendment that would allow citizens to sue the government over unlawful spending: "Unfortunately, R.I. and Federal case law generally prohibits the people from contesting the legality of government spending Hard-working Rhode Island families dutifully pay their taxes. Then, if the government unlawfully spends their money, they can’t sue. That is unfair and needs to change. It is the people’s money and they should have the right to bring an action when it is spent unlawfully. We must amend our Constitution to effectuate this reform. This particular legal topic is complex and changing our Constitution must be approached cautiously. However, providing Rhode Islanders with this legal right will ensure the people have recourse if their money is unlawfully spent. This change will act as a needed oversight mechanism by the people over their government.”
18. Coming next Wednesday, February 24, from 5:30 to 6:30 pm: ProJo political columnist Edward Fitzpatrick and James Vincent, president of the Providence NAACP, will lead a Providence Public Library discussion on civil rights, contemporary issues of race, and the creation of the NAACP. There is no charge to attend, but attendees are asked to RSVP to email@example.com
19. URI "ranked No. 25 among medium-sized schools on the [Peace Corps'] 2016 Top Volunteer-Producing Colleges and Universities list," the agency announced this week. "This is the first time since 2007 that URI has appeared on the annual list, with 13 alumni currently volunteering worldwide." All told, 416 URI alums have served in the Peace Corps since the agency was created in 1961.
20. RIPR's Kristin Gourlay has done a lot of strong reporting on the addiction crisis in Rhode Island. Give a listen to her latest: "When A Loved One Dies Of Overdose, What Happens To The Family?"
21. Congrats to local outfit Duffy & Shanley for winning the Dunkin' Donuts PR account for Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. We've seen how well Jon Duffy can slug on the softball field, so maybe it's time for him to do a commercial with David Ortiz.