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

The end of the General Assembly session is coming into sight, summer beckons, and the politics beat remains frenetic. Thanks for stopping by for my...

The end of the General Assembly session is coming into sight, summer beckons, and the politics beat remains frenetic. Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. Your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Governor Gina Raimondo had her best week of 2016 with the news that General Electric is bringing 100 digital technology jobs to Providence, with more expected in the future. The announcement delivered on the guiding theme of Raimondo's 2014 campaign -- that she will strive to improve Rhode Island's long-suffering economy and to add jobs. And these aren't just any jobs; they're good-paying jobs that demand sophisticated tech skills. (GE's Chris Drumgoole calls the RI workers part of "a digital industrial revolution," in a market where overall spending will reach $500 billion within four years.) The Providence office for GE Digital will raise the Ocean State's profile, perhaps sparking a digital-technology cluster and raising the likelihood that other companies will come here. Raimondo made a point of saying it was a team effort that landed GE, growing out of the state's earlier unlikely attempt to land the company's headquarters, involving city, state and federal officials. (In particular, Senator Jack Reed called senior GE execs and board members as part of the latest push, and spoke with company officials in DC). The company is expected to gain $5.65 million in incentives as part of the first 100 jobs. While the use of tax incentives rubs some people the wrong way, Rhode Island would not have had a realistic shot at attracting GE without the incentives. Rhode Island still needs a lot more jobs, and more solutions to other difficult problems (and former Governor Lincoln Almond's landing of Fidelity Investments back in the '90s didn't single-handedly change Rhode Island's economy). Still, with some lawmakers wondering about the effectiveness about the new Commerce Corporation incentives they approved last year, GE offers some tangible evidence. For his part, Stephen Neuman, Raimondo's chief of staff, pointed to GE's decision to come to RI as a reflection of a broader four-part narrative involving the governor: 1) controlling costs (like with the state's 2011 pension overhaul); 2) cutting taxes, (including the $30 unemployment insurance tax cut in the FY17 budget); 3) improving skills by freezing college tuition costs, among other steps; 4) and introducing new tools to encourage economic development. Looking ahead, Raimondo and other elected officials plan to welcome a GE delegation during a 10 a.m. Monday event at the Statehouse.

2. With big fundraisers on consecutive nights in New York City and Providence this week, Governor Raimondo appears to be bulking up her already-sizeable ($1 million+) war chest in advance of 2018. That hasn't stopped Politico from mentioning Raimondo as a potential VP choice for Hillary Clinton (although Raimondo unequivocally ruled out such a possibility in a recent interview with RIPR and said she was planning to seek re-election). Two years is a long time in politics, and it's impossible to predict how things might change. Still, let's remember that Raimondo won the governor's office on a relatively thin four-point margin in 2014, with the late Robert "Cool Moose" Healey drawing 22 percent of the vote. So her aggressive fundraising may mostly be a way of showing that for 2018, the best defense is a strong offense.

3. The House Finance budget passed early Wednesday is largely free from controversy -- except when it comes to charter schools. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello pointed to a $1 million net boost in charter funding, with more support for urban charters. Yet charter supporters, particularly backers of mayoral academies, were unhappy about what they see as a continued onslaught from Smith Hill. RI's crisis in public education has been acknowledged for more than 15 years. Yet the lack of communication with the governor, and the way in which the details were seemingly being sorted out right before the budget got voted, may not inspire confidence. On the pressing needs still to be addressed, CoffeeBlackRI made the point in the context of the GE jobs: "Truth: GE jobs not 4 most of RI. Certnly not most urban core kids & won't evr b w/o bettr schools or ed options. Can't 4get it as we cheer."

4. A fever of speculation this week had those devious lawmakers trying to pipe a secret subsidy to the Superman Building. Tricky! Only it wasn't true. To be fair, there's a time-honored tradition of surprises/special deals turning up in the budget or elsewhere in the waning hours of the General Assembly session. Yet it was clear practically from the time when supporters of reviving the Superman Building gathered for a May 5 news conference that a subsidy wasn't happening this year. Sneaking a subsidy forward would have unleashed a storm of public protest and further set back the cause of re-activating the iconic building. So why the misinterpretation? Blame it on a mix of ambiguous legislative drafting and the pervasive cynicism that still flows from 38 Studios.

5. Twin River spent $180,000 in May and its campaign to convince Rhode Islanders to support a new convenience casino in Tiverton isn't even in full swing.

6. As Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed unveiled their overhaul of General Assembly grants Monday, the big question became whether it included the smaller grants that go out to youth sports leagues, local soup kitchens and the like. It didn't -- and that led Republicans and other critics to suggest that nothing was really changing. Yet it's rare for political leaders to cede power, and the more than $11 million represented by the larger community service grants isn't exactly chicken feed. In a public letter to Mattiello and Paiva Weed, former Common Cause of RI head Phil West called the changes "dramatic improvements to these programs you inherited. The issues you began to address today stretch back generations." Common Cause's current chief, John Marion, offered this evaluation: "What came out of the budget was certainly transparent and seemingly in line with separation of powers. It remains to be seen how the administration will provide accountability through auditing. The missing piece is how the conflicts of interests will be managed. Will it be through the Ethics Commission? The response to the Gallison scandal has been decisiveness on Speaker Mattiello’s part. Whether you agree with how he has dealt with the grants or not, he took action in short order. Hopefully by the end of next week we can say the same about ethics reform. Common Cause has long been critical of the legislative grant program that was untouched by the legislative leaders. That process continues to be too opaque and too political, in our view. In an ideal world we would have seen significant changes made to that system too."

7. In a time of ongoing hyper-partisanship, Congress approved  what some consider one of the most consequential environmental bills to pass in a decade -- a measure imposing more oversight over tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals. "These chemicals are found in everything from kids toys to furniture and cleaning and personal items and the American people deserve to know what chemicals they are being exposed to and should have confidence that they are truly safe because the government is doing its due diligence to help protect them," Senator Reed, a co-sponsor, said in a statement. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, also a co-sponsor, said, “Until now, our nation’s outdated chemical safety regulations failed to protect communities and the environment from harmful substances, and saddled businesses with a hodgepodge of regulations.  While this compromise bill is not perfect, it is an important step that allows the EPA to prevent toxic chemicals from being used in everyday products. It will also make things easier on businesses in Rhode Island and all over the country."

8. Did you know that Rhode Island's new Chief Marketing Officer, Lara Salamano, is a native of Warwick? That she knows all about Gaspee Days? And that regional tourism officials were involved in the interview process for her job? The #CoolerandWarmer hangover cast a shadow Friday as Commerce RI officials went out of their way to honor local sensibilities while unveiling Salamano, 45, during a mid-day news conference. Her 20 years of marketing experience doesn't include a tourism background, but Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor and tourism officials say they're confident she's the right person for the job.

9. This isn't Belo's ProJo anymore. Some readers are celebrating what they perceive as the newspaper's reinvention under GateHouse Media. "Do we see shades of Marty Baron and his Boston Globe team of "Spotlight" fame?" one reader wrote, in a letter to the editor published Friday. Yet some other observers cringe at what they see as creeping sensationalism in the news coverage -- like the large-type banner headline "Reforms?" that on Tuesday topped the story on the half-change in General Assembly grants. Meanwhile, other changes continue apace, as Executive Editor David Butler explained in a note last Sunday. The most prominent includes the elimination of the op-ed page for part of the week, along with the disappearance of columnists including former ProJo editorial page editor Robert Whitcomb.

10. Lincoln Chafee thinks it would send a fabulous message if Hillary Clinton picked Bernie Sanders as her VP.

11. General Treasurer Seth Magaziner said the House Finance budget passed early Wednesday includes the vast majority of the tools he sought to bolster management and oversight of public debt. Here's Magaziner's explanation, via this week's RI Public Radio Political Roundtable, on why this is important: "Rhode Island has more than $10 billion of public debt outstanding, and more than a hundred different entities that are authorized to issue public debt, between all of your special districts, your water districts, your fire districts, et cetera. And up until now there has been very little oversight and very little accountability. For example, the last time that a debt affordability study -- a study of how much debt we should have -- was performed was in the 1990s. We are still using those same targets and those same ratios that were put into place almost 20 years ago. Among other things, this new suite of tools will allow us to do the first real debt affordability study since the '90s, it will allow us to make that when, not only the state, but cities and towns and districts, are issuing debt they're doing it efficiently and using best practices and getting the best possible rates and the lowest possible fees. There's a lot of good tools in there. It's wonky stuff, but it's important because there's a lot of money at stake." As noted by Ted Nesi, who joined Roundtable as a guest panelist this week, the enhanced focus on public debt could also benefit the public interest, by collecting scattered information of importance to taxpayers. Magaziner also took part in RIPR's Bonus Q&A to talk about the expected rate of return for RI's pension fund and other topics.

12. Governor Raimondo now says she'd likely veto the Burrillville power plant bill if it reaches her desk. That's a change from her non-committal stance earlier this month. Environmental groups continue to express sharp opposition to the proposal for the gas-fired plant; critics say it would lock in the adverse impact of fossil fuels for decades to come. On the other side, labor and business groups tout the plant as a job-producer, and they say blocking it would send an anti-business message.

13. Christina Myers, who had a reporting stint at WPRO a few years back, is returning to Rhode Island from Arizona to become the weeknight anchor at WLNE-TV (Channel 6). She starts June 27.

14. Coming & Going: Jeff Padwa, chief of staff for Treasurer Magaziner, might have been a contender in the 2018 race for attorney general. He's not ruling anything out for election cycles farther in the future. But for now, as RIPR first reported this week, Padwa is headed to private practice, joining Darrow Everett as a partner .... The governor has nominated Macky McCleary, director of the state Department of Business Regulation, to be the new administrator of the state Division of Public Utilities and Carriers. He would succeed Thomas F. Ahern, who announced his retirement plans this week.

15. If you were told a year ago that the PawSox would stay at McCoy Stadium in the short term and work with the state to study a reinvention of the Triple A ballpark, would you have believed it? Probably not (although Holy Cross sports economist Victor Matheson was deeply skeptical that the PawSox would leave Rhode Island). Then again, the hard part moving forward seems bound to be the same thing that made last year's Providence stadium debate so contentious -- public dislike for incentives for a sports venue.

16. State Sen. Gayle Goldin (D-Providence) has been invited to speak at the White House Tuesday as part of the United State of Women event. Check the related video.

17. The number of progressive primary challengers has caught the attention of General Assembly incumbents. But this volume of liberal opposition may not be a surprise in a year when Bernie Sanders has fueled the excitement of young Americans like no other candidate. Meanwhile, Jonathan Hernandez is running a primary challenge for the Senate seat held by Harold Metts (D-Providence). Paperwork originally filed by Hernandez suggested he was running against Rep. Aaron Regunberg, but he filed revised paperwork.

18. Elisabeth Harrison reports on how, in the aftermath of the recent scandal at the St. George's School, a bill could close a loophole in Rhode Island's mandatory child abuse reporting law.

19. Thank you, Vox, for explaining why you shouldn't drive slowly in the left lane.

20. Congrats to Nick-a-Nee's, the fantastic Jewelry District dive bar, on its 20th anniversary. Nick's was a prime hangout for the Providence Phoenix crowd during bygone days, since it was a baseball throw down Chestnut Street from the alt-weekly's office. Like the best bars, Nick-a-Nee's gets a broad mix of people and types. There's a weekend full of events to mark the anniversary.

21. Rocco Baldelli's younger brother, Dante, is being touted as one of the state's best baseball prospects. The Baldellis, btw, are nephews of Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, the mayor of Woonsocket -- the same place that produced the great Napoleon Lajoie.

22. The late historian James David Barber was best known for examining behavior-based predictors of presidential performance, ranging from the "positive" (adaptive, compliant) to the "negative" (compulsive, withdrawn). Check this link to see how he classified a range of past occupants of the White House. So what would Barber have made of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?

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