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TGIF: 22 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Just another quiet week in Rhode Island, right? Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can...

Just another quiet week in Rhode Island, right? 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. When Gordon Fox was sentenced last June 11, the House unanimously passed a new state budget in record time five days later -- a symbolic bookend to the seamy revelations of Fox's fall. Now, though, another scandal is centered on Smith Hill, spawning even more public cynicism and leaving observers to wondering what will happen next. So many rumors are flying around the Statehouse that it's difficult to separate fact from fiction. "Everyone's upset, mad, nervous," one lawmaker said. The precise reasons for the probe of former House Finance Chairman Ray Gallison of Bristol are a story yet to be told. Yet it was known for years that Gallison received part of his salary from Alternative Educational Programming through a legislative community service grant -- a situation that figured in a $6,000 fine he paid to the state Ethics Commission in 2007. More questions emerged this week about that nonprofit, and the Raimondo administration suspended grants to another  group with ties to Gallison. In responding to the situation Tuesday, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello expressed frustration, voiced confidence in the rest of his membership, and pointed to an effort already underway to scrutinize the community service grants. At least in the short term at least, the Gallison case poses an added psychic drain in a state still struggling to find its way forward. Yet Speaker Mattiello appears to have moved with dispatch to address the situation. As House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) notes, Gallison, to the upset of his Democratic colleagues, kept to himself how law enforcement searched his Bristol home in March. Newberry criticizes Democrats' handling of the community service grant program (see item #2), but finds no fault with Mattiello's response to the situation. "When Nick says he didn't know the details about this, I'm sure that's true," Newberry said. "I'm not sure what else he's supposed to do under these circumstances."

2. Back in 2003, the ProJo's Katherine Gregg wrote about the General Assembly's community service grant program: "While 8,315 other Rhode Islanders remain on a waiting list for state-financed college aid, a special legislative grant to the 'Aldo Freda Scholarship Foundation' is providing $1,200 scholarships to four former legislative pages." Common Cause of Rhode Island and the state GOP objected to the process for awarding the grants, but not a whole lot changed. The volume of community service grants -- $25.5 million at that time -- has been roughly cut in half since then. Yet the sketchy dealings involving Gallison and Alternative Education Programming leads House GOP leader Newberry to wonder about the presence of similar boondoggles; he said he suspects these grants function as a kind of patronage program, with a lot of taxpayers' money going to reward friends of elected Democrats. On Tuesday, Speaker Mattiello pointed to a more recent Katherine Gregg story involving grants -- about Keith Stokes -- as the reason why he called for lawmakers to scrutinize the community service grant program. The speaker said the goal is to eliminate grants to organizations that lack adequate oversight.

3. For all the talk of the power that comes with being House Finance chairman, the budget insight of that individual has varied sharply from chairman to chairman. During last year's House budget session, Chairman Gallison made his most lengthy remarks while reading from a prepared statement -- a reflection of how his grasp of budget minutiae appeared less than robust. That was a far cry from a former HFC chairman like Steven Costantino, who could talk chapter and verse about Rhode Island's budget (and who went on to serve under Governor Lincoln Chafee as the state's Health and Human Services secretary. Then again, Costantino didn't cover himself in glory when it came to 38 Studios). So while incoming HFC chair Marvin Abney certainly faces a learning curve, the House fiscal staff, led by Sharon Reynolds Ferland, can be expected to keep the budget process on track.

4. In talking with reporters Tuesday, Speaker Mattiello spoke about how he realized something was amiss after Representative Gallison canceled a fundraiser: "[M]y chief of staff went down to reschedule the fundraiser and he [Gallison] had no interest in that, so I began to get very suspicious that there was something going on that I had no knowledge of." Taking note of what the speaker described as CoS Leo Skenyon's close involvement in legislative fundraising, Ted Nesi had a smart follow-up; Skenyon told Nesi that Mattiello misspoke, while state GOP Chairman Brandon Bell pounced (“ 'It does not surprise us that Speaker Mattiello ordered his taxpayer-funded staff to perform political errands like scheduling political fundraisers,' Bell said in an email. 'What surprises us is that he told the press about this unethical conduct and did not even recognize that he was admitting to doing something unethical.' ") Is it possible that Mattiello overstated Skenyon's involvement in organizing House fundraisers? Sure. Then again, to find someone with the official-sounding title of chief of staff involved in politics is about as shocking as finding gambling at the casbah.

5. The political outlook for action this year on the vacant Superman Building appears remote. Building owner David Sweetser said he plans to unveil a formal request for a subsidy within the next 30 days. Yet it's already late in the legislative year, and notwithstanding the presence of Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio at a news conference Thursday, some lawmakers flatly say the proposal DOA for this legislative session. (Speaker Mattiello's spokesman, Larry Berman, said Mattiello does not have a position on the latest push, since a specific request has not yet been made.) As advocates say, revitalizing the Superman Building would offer a number of public benefits, including construction jobs, more housing, and greater downtown activity. Yet when it comes to contemplating a public subsidy, the shadow of 38 Studios still looms large.

6. It sounds like the non-binding referendum on marijuana that was expected for the November ballot is not going to be happening.

7. For an example of how Rhode Island's brain drain hinders a more competitive two-party system, consider this: Back in 2006, Republicans had high hopes of defeating Representative Gallison. The GOP candidate was Spencer Maguire, a Bristol resident and former Marine who was on his way to graduating from Roger Williams Law School. Maguire's resume included work experience with both John and Lincoln Chafee, and he had the intelligence and communication skills of a strong candidate. Maguire was motivated to run by an instance in which then-Rep Peter Palumbo (who lost his seat in 2014, after figuring in the beach concession controversy that triggered David Caprio's exit as state Democratic chairman) had voted for two absentee colleagues. Maguire ran an aggressive campaign against Gallison, but wound up losing up by a margin of 2,683 to 2,008 votes. The GOP hoped Maguire would be able to knock off Gallison during a rematch in 2008. Yet despite serial attempts to remain in Rhode Island, Maguire came up empty in his job prospects, and was headed to DC in late 2007 after learning of an opportunity while attending a wedding there. He's now a foreign service officer at the US State Department.

8. The takeaway for most Rhode Islanders from the Gallison case is a generalized sense of bad behavior associated with the General Assembly. Americans are already largely disengaged from the politics -- as seen by how about just a quarter of Rhode Island voters took part in the April 26 presidential primary -- so the whiff of scandal could lead some people to withdraw further. Yet scandal has also set the stage for reform in Rhode Island, as former Common Cause of RI executive director Phil West writes in his authoritative account of the state's recent political history. The corollary of that remains how a disengaged public supports an environment in which political misdeeds flourish.

9. The Ethics Commission bill being sponsored by Speaker Mattiello is set to be introduced Tuesday by House Majority Leader John DeSimone (D-Providence). Supporters have high hopes for the legislation, although some observers remain skeptical about whether the ethics measure will be more than a thinly veiled political measure. (Mattiello's ethics initiative became public in April, well ahead of this week's revelations.) With the details yet to be known, key question include how the speaker's bill will address the speech-in-debate concerns cited by Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, and on a related note, whether the bill has much chance of passing the Senate.

10. Sen. Edward O'Neill of Lincoln became the second state lawmaker to become a Republican in recent weeks (after Rep.-turned-congressional candidate Karen MacBeth), and then to announce his intention to leave the General Assembly. O'Neill, who won election as a Donald Trump delegate, said he's considering a statewide run for 2018.

11. During the Tuesday scrum with Speaker Mattiello, I asked Mattiello why he was so insistent to see Chairman Gallison go, when he didn't seek the resignation as a rep of Joe Almeida in 2015. His response: "Let me be clear. First of all, that was a situation where he was presumed innocent, he indicated he was innocent, he ended up pleading out to a misdemeanor. So that's not grounds for removal, and I never called for Ray Gallison's resignation. I wanted his resignation from the Finance Committee, from the chairmanship, but thereafter, he indicated he was going to resign from the House of Representatives, and at that point I knew it was serious enough that that was the appropriate thing to do, so that the House could move forward. I didn't personally ask him for his resignation." 

12. Republicans and Democratic progressives sometimes have more in common with each other than the rank-and-file Dems on Smith Hill. Can so can these two disparate groups effectively collaborate to pick up General Assembly seats later this year?

13. Eric Patashnik, director of the Center for Health Policy at the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, is joining Brown University as a political science faculty member and Watson Institute professor of public policy, effective July 1.

14. Congressman David Cicilline was a late supporter of the US nuclear agreement with Iran, publicly announcing his support for the treaty only after Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse had done so. "I've struggled with this a lot, reaching out to a number of experts around the country to provide me some analysis," Cicilline said on this week's RI Public Radio Bonus Q&A. "I studied this for a very long time. This was a very close question for me. But I do want to say that the agreement appears to be working, the Iranians are in fact complying with the provisions of the agreement, although as many people suspected they're complying with the provisions, but not doing anything else right. They've engaged in a lot of bad behavior around the region. They're engaged in places all around the world, they're doing ballistic missile testing. On the one hand, the good news is they're complying with this, and I think we have for sure extended the breakout time to a full year, which is very important, to have a non-nuclear Iran. We also now have to push back hard in the other areas where they're engaged, in terrorism and human rights violations and really trying to assert themselves in the region as a pre-eminent power." Cicilline also joined us on RIPR's Political Roundtable to discuss Gallison, grants, and the presidential race. 

15. More General Assembly candidates: Billy Charette is running as a Republican for the seat held by Sen. Ryan Pearson (D-Cumberland) .... retired teacher Susan Donovan is running as a D for the seat being vacated by Gallison ... Democrat Catherine Cool Rumsey has formally launched her attempt regain the seat she lost to Sen. Elaine Morgan (R-Hopkinton) .... RI Future contributor Andrew Stewart seems to have joined the race against state Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Warwick) (h/t Dan McGowan).

16. Congressional Quarterly/Roll Call was kind enough to ask me for my take on Rhode Island's top five policy issues for 2016. You can read the responses for reporters covering each of the 50 states here.

17. "Why the media will lift Trump up and tear Clinton down"

18. The Providence Newspaper Guild took to Fountain Street on Thursday to demonstrate for a new contract and to express dissatisfaction with GateHouse Media. ProJo Publisher Janet Hasson said management is bargaining in good faith.

19. US Attorney Peter Neronha's role in advocating for former offenders shows how much criminal-justice policy has changed since Democrats like Bill Clinton backed a "get-tough" approach back in the 1990s. It makes us think of a classic observation from Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox: Politicians focus on the three Rs -- revenge, retaliation and retribution, because it leads to the fourth R -- re-election.

20. With all the talk about high-income earners leaving Rhode Island because of the local tax climate, give the tale entitled, "One Top Taxpayer Moved and New Jersey Shuddered." Excerpt: "Some academic research shows that high taxes are chasing the rich to lower-tax states, and anecdotes of tax-fleeing billionaires abound. But other studies say there is little evidence showing that the rich move solely for tax purposes. Millionaires and billionaires who move from the high-tax states in the Northeast to Florida, for instance, may be drawn by the sunshine, lifestyle and retirement culture, in addition to lower taxes. While some high earners may be moving for tax reasons, New Jersey, New York, California and other states are replacing rich people faster than they are losing them. New Jersey had 237,000 millionaires in 2015, compared with 207,200 in 2006, according to Phoenix Marketing International, a research firm. New York added 69,500 millionaires from 2006 to 2015, to 437,900, while California added over 100,000 millionaires, to 772,600."

21. To some, Rhode Island's car tax is the Clunker Tax, a regressive way of gathering state revenue. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza followed through on a campaign pledge by using his latest budget proposal to cut car taxes. Yet Transport PVD's James Kennedy says the intended cut can be put to better use.

22. Why smart cars will "head off congestion problems before they happen"

TGIF: 22 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media
TGIF: 22 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media