1. Will lawmakers offer a nod to angry voters this year by giving citizens the chance to strengthen the state Ethics Commission on the November ballot? Stranger things have happened, even though the ethics stalemate has dragged on since the state Supreme Court sided in 2009 with former Senate president William V. Irons. To judge by testimony during a Senate Judiciary hearing on Tuesday, lawmakers agree with those asserting that better ethics would bolster Rhode Island's reputation. As Sen. Edward O'Neill (I-Lincoln) told the committee, "Quite frankly, ladies and gentlemen, the public, the voting public, they don’t trust us. And the more astute ones tell us, 'why should we trust you? You won’t even pass ethics reform.' " Yet early agreement during the committee meeting soon gave way to a split. The clash comes down to how, on one hand, good government groups want the Ethics Commission restored to what voters approved in 1986. Lawmakers point to the commission's broad original power to investigate, try, convict and punish, in calling for serious ethics violations to be vetted by a separate jury trial. So will the General Assembly give voters the chance this year to weigh in on whether to restore the Ethics Commission's oversight of lawmakers? The General Assembly hasn't made this a priority since the 2009 Supreme Court cases, and it's not hard to imagine the issue going sideways. Yet some of those working on the issue, including Sen. James Sheehan (D-North Kingstown) and John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, hold out hope that this could be the year for action on the ethics issue. The political calculus could help, too; lawmakers could point to an ethics vote in defending their good intentions.
2. "You're all crooked!" That's what Sen. Harold Metts (D-Providence) said an angry woman once told him at a Dunkin' Donuts before he could interject that he hadn't yet taken office. The longtime lawmaker shared the anecdote during Tuesday's Judiciary hearing, and certainly, voter angry has only grown exponentially in the interim, fueling the success of outsider candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Curiously, Rhode Island Republicans were unable to meaningfully add to their legislative numbers during Rhode Island's bruising experience with the great recession. So does vote anger have an outlet in Rhode Island this year, beyond the April 26 presidential primary? Could this anger be effectively channeled into a single-issue campaign, for example, to add Rhode Island to the overwhelming majority of states that have a line-item veto?
3. Speaking of voter anger, RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell seems to think he has a winning issue in focusing critical attention on House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. "If you don't want to be called a dictator, stop acting like one," Bell said via news release this week, not long after Mattiello objected to what he called partisan name-calling. The Republican chairman called on Mattiello to restore the previous committee assignments of three anti-toll Democrats, to give voters the chance to vote on tolls, to allow the public to decide whether to restore Ethics Commission oversight of lawmakers; and to adopt House rules, suggested by Common Cause's John Marion, that would lessen the speaker's power. Three of those four have about zero chance of happening. Still, Bell said, "Unless he does these four things, Speaker Mattiello's easily bruised ego will just have to get used to being called Rhode Island's dictator." For his part, Mattiello likes to point to a litany of economic initiatives undertaken during his time at the top, and as we've noted before, the speaker is far more of a pragmatist than an ideologue. Yet as Marion noted in his ProJo op-ed, the speakership does hold enormous power, with no small effect on the relative priority attached by rank and file reps to their own constituents. So Bell has strategic reasons for focusing his fire on the guy at the top.
4. The Raimondo administration is hailing its move to reduce Medicaid spending. The governor's office says the state is projected to achieve more than $75 million in Medicaid savings this year "without cutting eligibility or reducing benefits." The savings are expected to be larger in the future, including nearly $120 million in the next fiscal year. In a statement, Medicaid Director Anya Rader Wallack said, "Because of the governor's leadership, the Working Group's focus and the determined work of the dedicated Medicaid staff, we have provided a national model for how states can bend the cost curve and expand access to high-quality health care services."
5. The new Rhode Island Working Families Party has kept a low public profile since Chris Torres started as state director of the group last November. During an interview at RI Public Radio this week, Torres said the union- and community group-backed organization hopes to replicate the now-defunct Ocean State Action's role in fighting for progressive policies and candidates. On Political Roundtable, Torres said RI Working Families three priorities for this year are a minimum wage of $15 an hour, earned sick time, and climate change. "We are definitely going to prioritize the legislative session to pass good legislation," Torres added on RIPR's Bonus Q&A, "but we are also interested in electing a new generation of progressive legislators who are going to speak to the issues of working people. We are looking at it. We haven't made any decisions. We don't know anybody yet. We're going to have a thorough vetting process." Torres said he expects RI Working Families to run primary candidates in some cases.
6. Deepwater Wind's Block Island wind farm is expected to start producing electricity around November, so it seemed like a good time to revisit the question of whether the project's cost is worth it.
7. Deepwater is owned by D.E. Shaw, a financial and technology company. The ProJo is owned by GateHouse Media, which is owned by New Media Investment Group, which is owned by Fortress Investment Group. Notice a trend here?
8. Nearly 190 Rhode Islanders filed to run for presidential delegate in Rhode Island's April 26 presidential primary, fewer than the 253 who filed in 2008, according to Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. Fifteen Democratic delegates and 19 GOP delegates will be chosen for the respective party conventions. Gorbea said 44 delegate candidates have filed for Hillary Clinton and 28 for Bernie Sanders. On the GOP side, Marco Rubio topped Republican candidates with 42 delegate candidates, followed by Donald Trump with 34, John Kasich with 21, Ted Cruz with 19, and Ben Carson with one.
9. Chris Christie, who came to Rhode Island to back Allan Fung for governor in 2014, is now supporting Trump's presidential run. Fung remains a supporter of Rubio. Meanwhile, the latest Brown University poll echoes findings in Massachusetts, where Trump has a big lead and Clinton and Sanders are part of an unsettled race that still leans toward Clinton.
10. A great read from WPRI.com's Dan McGowan on Kevin Jackson, the majority leader of the Providence City Council, and how he didn't pay much attention to his campaign finance reports until he learned of Dan's impending story. Here's the sequel. A relevant footnote is how despite a years long inquiry into Jackson's campaign finances by the office of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, Jackson said he has not been contacted by Kilmartin's office.
11. The hiring of Robert S. Hull as the state's new head of the Department of Revenue points to the Raimondo's administration's ability to attract high-caliber talent. As a former exec as Providence Equity Partners, Hull could certainly attract a higher salary than working for the state.
12. Twin River's plan to create a convenience casino in Tiverton may be Rhode Island's best strategy to preserve the state's third largest revenue source. Yet the push to build a third casino in Connecticut strikes some critics as further evidence that relying on gambling revenue is a race to the bottom.
13. Domestic violence continues unabated, despite significant reductions in other forms of violent crime. The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence released a report on the subject this week, documenting the deaths of 54 people who lost their lives to domestic violence between 2006 and 2015. Key findings: Domestic violence homicide is a violence against women issue; Guns and domestic violence continue to be a deadly combination; Many of the intimate partner homicide incidents shared common elements that are known to indicate a heightened risk of homicide. The report also includes five recommendations: "1. Rhode Island must continue to invest in a coordinated community response to domestic violence and foster collaboration between and among law enforcement, courts, and victim advocates; 2. The State of Rhode Island must implement dangerousness assessments and screen all domestic violence criminal cases for lethality risk factors; 3. Rhode Island must pass legislation to prohibit convicted domestic violence perpetrators and perpetrators subject to domestic violence restraining orders from possessing guns; 4. Rhode Island must pass legislation to strengthen the state’s current laws against stalking and consistently enforce protective orders; 5. Rhode Island must take steps to stop domestic violence before it happens in the first place and establish a fund that will support evidence-substantiated public health approaches to the primary prevention of domestic violence."
14. On a related note, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner introduced a bill this week that would enhance compensation for victims of domestic violence, raising a cap on relocation expenses from $2,500 to $5,000 and increasing compensation for burial expenses from $8,000 to $10,000. Another bill backed by Magaziner would allow victims of domestic terrorism that occurs outside RI but in the US to be eligible for assistance through the Crime Victim Compensation Program.
15. Gary Sasse dropped a hint on Twitter this week that he may run this year against Congressman Jim Langevin in the Second Congressional District. "Time will tell," the longtime former RIPEC director who served in the Carcieri administration and now heads the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership said, when pressed for detail.
16. Staffer news: Congrats to Meaghan McCabe, who starts Monday as Rhode Island press secretary for Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and to Rich Davidson moves to Whitehouse's DC office as deputy communications director.
17. Anthony Spiratos, would-be legislative challenger to Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, offered this explanation on FB about why he folded his run: My fellow supporters, I have done an enormous amount of soul searching over the past 4 months. I ran a campaign back in 2002 and I know what it takes time wise. I own and oversee one of the most successful real estate companies on the island. I want to put 100% into the campaign and the more time that goes by I see less and less that I am able to do so. I put 100% into whatever I do. The voters deserve that and it has become clear to me at this time that I am not able to do that. Back in 2002 when I ran the first time and captured almost 49% of the vote I was not in business yet and could devote 100% of my time to running. As my company continues to surge to new heights it takes more and more administrative time on my part to see that it continues to be successful and unfortunately leaves me with less time to devote to outside causes. Therefore, at this time I will be suspending my run for State Senate, District 13 in order to give enough time to someone who can devote the time that will be necessary to win. My family and my State Senate Exploratory Committee are both in agreement that this is the best course of action. I want to personally thank the Chairman of the State Republican Party Brandon Bell for his continued effort in recruiting fantastic and serious candidates to win back the General Assembly. I love this city and I love this State. I want to thank all of my supporters for the kindness that you have shown me over the past year. It means a great deal to me. I will not forget you. I will still stay active and engaged in the community which I love. Someday I hope to return to the political arena. Thank you and God Bless."
18. The US Navy is bringing back celestial navigation.
19. An image of Jim Baron now graces the outside of the basement press office at the Statehouse. The veteran and highly respected political reporter died in January 2015.
20. Another installment in our occasional look at whether Rhode Islanders are too negative: We can't be all that bad if we've got what a writer in Bon Appetit calls "a legendary medicine soup," adding, "I relegated the soup to one of the many things that Rhode Island has that New York simply doesn’t—like large, affordable apartments with crown moldings and big windows."
21. It's the last Friday in February, so it's prom night in Rhode Island (although the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies takes place, of course, at the Venus de Milo in Swansea, Massachusetts.) See you at the bar.