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TGIF: 21 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

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. Ther...

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. There's lots going on, so we'll get right to it.

1. As the fight over Governor Gina Raimondo's truck toll plan continues to play out, House leaders need to weigh two competing demands: On one hand, the more time that passes without the emergence of a bill, the more time that opponents have to wage attacks and attempt to erode legislative support. On the other hand, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is the one who effectively killed the governor's truck toll plan last year. The speaker seems mindful of one of the key lessons of 38 Studios: there's no sense in rushing a controversial matter involving a huge amount of public spending. That said, a truck toll bill is expected to emerge soon, perhaps as early as the coming week. “Speaker Mattiello and his leadership team are working diligently with DOT and the Administration on revised legislation," said House spokesman Larry Berman. "There is no timetable, but they are working hard to reach an agreement and get the details out as soon as possible.” In theory at least, the speaker could quietly sanction votes against the truck toll bill (or the ever-popular taking of a walk) by reps whose districts include the 14 preliminary gantry sites. House Majority Whip John Edwards (D-Tiverton), who represents the anti-toll hotbed of the East Bay, said Mattiello is "very aware of our members concerns." Edwards says leadership is trying to assemble a bill that balances those concerns with the needs of the state's crumbling infrastructure. "It's going to be a fine needle to thread, but I think it's doable." The idea, Edwards said, is to "make it so our members can vote on it and vote on it with a clear conscience." 

2. The languid pace of Thursday's House Oversight Committee meeting featuring Steven Costantino may have seemed unusual at first blush. Even with the September release of tens of thousands of pages of documents related to the state's lawsuit over 38 Studios, there's a pervading sense that key details remain unknown. Costantino was a key sponsor of the job creation guarantee program later used to attract the company, and a once-powerful House Finance Committee chairman as well. So as Capitol TV enjoyed a likely bump in viewership from curious politicos, the question remained: When was the Code Red moment going to come? That question faded as committee counsel William Dimitri put Costantino through hours of deposition-like questions, including some that seemed far off-point (How far is Maynard, Massachusetts, from Providence? Is Curt Schilling a renowned pitcher?) Yet there were some solid reasons for this approach. By taking up the questioning after Costantino lashed out at Oversight Committee chairwoman Karen MacBeth (D-Cumberland) for comments she made to reporters, Dimitri provided a buffer ahead of the sharper questions from MacBeth and Committee Vice-Chair Michael Chippendale (R-Foster). More significantly, by striking an easygoing rapport with Costantino, Dimitri used the battle-tested lawyers' approach of trying to lull a deposition subject into a rhythm of responses. Costantino seemed aware of what was going on, even if the tactic elicited a bit more candor at times. Was there anything new of value in information on 38 Studios? Perhaps a little. While Costantino repeatedly blamed the EDC for approving the 38 Studios deal without proper vetting, he offered this response when Chippendale asked why the company invited Costantino for a 2010 visit to Maynard if the EDC was the decider: "I think they knew they had to use the Finance Committee as the vehicle [to move ahead]."

3. To the surprise of almost no one, General Electric this week chose Boston over Rhode Island, although Governor Raimondo held out the possibility of landing some GE jobs. A few reads on the subject: The Hartford Courant says the move reinforces the idea that Connecticut is hostile to business; Aaron Renn says Boston's win reflects the re-emergence of cities; David Sirota wonders if the big win is bad for taxpayers and the environment; the Tax Foundation says the move reflects the impact of tax policy; and Bill Kole notes how GE's future home is an example of Boston making something out of nothing.

4. Cranston City Hall is maintaining radio silence on the curious case of the man who dressed as a woman, aka the PR stunt that went bad -- a story that has gotten national traction ("What the hell is going on up there," an old colleague emails) after emerging on Wednesday. On one level, the story is plainly absurd (who thought of this? Why didn't any of those at the initial news conference raise questions?), yet it also comes as another unwelcome controversy for Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, following last year's highly critical State Police report. Fung's Democratic challenger, Michael Sepe, didn't resist the opportunity to lob a few salvos. "Proper protocol would suggest that the Mayor’s office and department heads coordinate events such as this, especially when it is being covered by the media, during a high-profile news conference," Sepe said in a news release. (Fung's office didn't respond to a request for comment.) The mayor has had his share of accomplishments while in office. Yet the face-palming quality of the news conference-gone wrong may raise more questions in the minds of Cranston voters.

5. The clashing reactions to the hiring of Richard Culatta as Rhode Island's first chief innovation officer (at $210,000 a year) reflect the mixed takes facing Governor Raimondo. Those frustrated by the hurdles the state puts in front of business may welcome Culatta's vow to make things work better and more seamlessly. Conservatives tend to take a darker view. Click here to listen to my Q+A with Culatta about his new job.

6. Relations seem a bit less than chummy between state Sen. James Sheehan (D-North Kingstown) and state Rep. Doreen Costa (R-North Kingstown). In a somewhat unusual move, Sheehan issued a news release this week with the subject line, "Rep. Costa's Air Museum bill Ignores Lessons of 38 Studios." Sheehan said Costa introduced a bill earlier this month "which would direct the state to pay, no strings attached, $4 million to the Quonset Air Museum (QAM), a nonprofit corporation located in North Kingstown." He said the measure lacks adequate safeguards to ensure the money is spent as intended, and the senator also questions whether $4 million for a museum, even if well-intentioned, is the best use of that sum. Sheehan further notes that the Quonset Air Museum's civil engineer, Eric Wishart, is Costa's campaign manager. Costa responded by saying that when she reaches out to Sheehan to collaborate on local efforts, "99.9 percent of the time he refuses because it's not his idea." Speaking on RI Public Radio's Bonus Q&A this week, Costa said money for the QAM has already been budgeted and is earmarked for museum preservation. "That has been sitting there," she said. "Nobody has asked for it ... We have done everything by the books." Costa said the project enjoys strong local support, and there is nothing too cozy about Wishart's involvement, she said, because he has done considerable donated work to improve the museum. (Update: Sheehan said Costa began the tussle by criticizing on Facebook and in a local newspaper his stance on the air museum.) 

7. Told you so time for critics of the Providence stadium? The Double-A Yard Goats' new stadium in Hartford is running behind schedule while facing millions of dollars in cost overruns.

8. Facing a primary challenge has put a bit of charge into state Rep. Eileen Naughton (D-Warwick). The usually reserved lawmaker is being more vocal at the Statehouse.  A case in point was how she emerged as a tough questioner of BHDDH director Maria Montanaro during a House Finance Committee meeting on Tuesday. Naughton offered a skeptical response as Montanaro outlined efforts to cut spending by moving up to 300 developmentally disabled people from group homes to shared living arrangements (SLAs). "I don't think tonight is a complete explanation of the program," Naughton told Montanaro. ".... What I'm saying is, we don't have enough information in front of us," about reaching the budgetary goal of the effort, protecting the safety of the individuals, and offering adequate oversight. As TGIF first reported in November (see #2), Naughton -- one of the longest serving members of the House -- faces a primary challenge from three-term Warwick Ward 3 City Councilor Camille Vella-Wilkinson. Vella-Wilkinson is actively working on her campaign, and Statehouse insiders are watching the incipient contest with interest.

9. In his weekly essay, RIPR's Scott MacKay wonders why America hasn't moved closer to the vision outlined by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

10. With Rhode Island looking to capitalize on its local food scene, check out this report by the National Conference of State Legislatures on food trends.

11. RIPR's Elisabeth Harrison breaks down the highlights from Governor Raimondo's working group on education funding. As Elisabeth notes, "[T]he working group does not recommend a complete re-write of the state formula for distributing funding for school districts, but it does recommends revisions to address some of these issue. As far as what specifically those revisions should look like, well that’s not in the report. It will be up to the Governor to decide what goes into her budget proposal -- which is expected at the start of next month -- and what legislation is proposed based on these recommendations.  Remember, this working group was convened as recently as last October. It includes more than two dozen people, who met only about 8 times. Hours of work went into the report, but clearly there will be much more work to come."

12. The PawSox keep unveiling new initiatives as they try to repair the damage from the team's ill-fated Providence stadium quest last year. Jackie Bradley Jr. made an appearance at McCoy Friday afternoon. Meanwhile, the PawSox plan a series of themed daily events at home games in the new season: "My Hero Mondays -- The club will recognize community heroes and causes nominated by fans. The method of nomination will be announced in the future; TV Tuesdays – Pre-game and in-game entertainment and contests will spotlight television shows, themes, and stars, both local and national in scope .... Women & Baseball Wednesdays -- The PawSox will recognize women in baseball with unique events and special guests, including those who have succeeded on the field and in the front office; Throwback Thursdays -- The PawSox will pay homage to the region’s rich baseball history and will wear a 1940s-era Pawtucket Slaters jersey each Thursday home game after Opening Night; Free Fridays -- A night dedicated to the finer things in life…things that are free! Fridays will feature a variety of options; SuperSox Saturdays -- The PawSox will feature something special, or super, every Saturday night, including Bobbleheads on June 25 (determined by a fan vote); Sundays are Family FUNdays -- Capping the weekend, Sundays are Family FUNdays, featuring an opportunity to “Run the Bases” following every Sunday afternoon game, along with other new family activities and opportunities."

13. Rep. Costa beat Democrat Ken Carter in 2010 to vault into the House of Representatives -- where she's now just one of 11 Republicans among 75 members. Speaking on RI Public Radio's Bonus Q+A this week, Costa offered her take on what GOP candidates need to do to elect more lawmakers: "For me, it's very easy. I'm very dedicated to my community. And I tell anyone that's going to run for office that if you want to go out with your plans this weekend, and you're not knocking on doors now, you're not going to win. Like Buddy Cianci said in his book, I'm at every envelope opening. I go to everything -- not because I have to; I go to everything because I want to. Last weekend, we had a pajama drive. We got almost 100 pairs of new pajamas that we're going to distribute to the Reach Out community center in North Kingstown for children that need clothes .... I love helping the community. And if we can more people knocking on doors that want to help, get out into that community, tell people, 'Look, I really care,' then we will pick up some more seats."     

14. "Quick Thoughts from a Rhode Island Republican, on the Presidential Primary Vote," Via Andrew Morse. On the other side of the aisle, a "RI Campaign Carpool to NH for Sanders" is on for Saturday, January 16 (Shaw's Parking Lot, 1600 Old Tower Road, Wakefield, 7:30 am-1:30 pm), and "Bus Trips to NH for Hillary" are slated for January 23, January 30 and February 6 (8 am departure, from 200 Metro Center Boulevard, Suite 1, Warwick).

15. Amid the latest arrest of El Chapo, Daniel Denvir argues not just that the drug war is ineffective, "but it creates more and novel forms of harm." Meanwhile, Office of National Drug Control Policy Daniel Botticelli told 60 Minutes in December that he wants to refocus US anti-drug policy on treating addiction. Somewhat improbably, that was the approach backed by Richard Nixon before he created the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973.

16. Two suggested links from old friend Lou Papineau: David Bowie's Legacy: He "Helped Give Voice to Several Generations of Misfits and Weirdos." and Thanks, Starman: Why David Bowie Was the Greatest Rock Star Ever. Meanwhile, this look at how eight different media outlets covered Bowie's death shows how curation is the new obit.

17. RIPR's Kristin Gourlay spoke with state Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Warwick) and state Sen. Josh Miller (D-Cranston) about their healthcare-related priorities for the 2016 session. As Kristin notes, HEW chairman McNamara said he's working on a bill to expand access to treatment for addicts, and may also push to give doctors the authority to hold addicts against their will -- a practice that has proven controversial in Massachusetts. Miller, meanwhile, is raising a new selling point in the push to legalize marijuana: “I see it as a way to address an overdose crisis. You take a drug that has no fatalities historically and you apply the revenue from taxing and regulating marijuana and you put it towards treatment and recovery for a drug that has a serious health implication for our state.” (Separately, state Rep. Scott Slater (D-Providence) tells me he still plans to organize a fact-funding trip to the legalized marijuana bastion of Colorado later in this legislative session.)

18. Congratulations to East Side Monthly on its 40th anniversary. The publication's stamina shows how there continues to be a strong appetite for local news (having an appealing advertising demographic doesn't hurt, either). The 40th anniversary issue is well worth a read. Noteworthy elements include the detail of how Linda Lotridge Levin served as the publication's first reporter; she had to leave the ProJo since the paper didn't have a maternity leave policy back in the late '60s. (An earlier version of this item misreported the time when Levin left the Journal.)

19. State Senator Gayle Goldin (D-Providence) uses a Huffington Post essay to make the case that "a progressive workplace policy" -- particularly paid parental leave -- is good public policy: "Parents who took leave report lower levels of public assistance in the year following their child's birth."

20. The Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program is set to unveil on Tuesday the results of its six-month examination of Rhode Island's economy. According to an advisory for the event, "Brookings Centennial Scholar Bruce Katz and Metropolitan Policy Program Senior Fellow and Policy Director Mark Muro will present findings and recommendations from the report. Governor Gina Raimondo and Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor will provide their reactions. Time will be reserved for audience Q&A." The RI Foundation event is invitation-only; RIPR will be there to cover it.

21. Is it Truck Day? No. But the burst of January fundraisers for legislative leaders -- starting with a January 21 event for Speaker Mattiello and a January 28 one for Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed (both at the Providence Marriott Downtown) -- signal a tiny step in the direction of spring.

TGIF: 21 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media
TGIF: 21 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media