Happy Memorial Day Weekend! Mea Culpa: Please see Number 1A (below). We're breaking from TGIF's usual format this week to look at key questions facing Rhode Island at the traditional start to summer. While the season of beaches and barbecues is generally a more relaxed time, a lot of significant outcomes hang in the balance. So thanks for stopping by. Feel free to share your thoughts and tips at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and to follow me on the twitters. Here we go.
1A. Will Americans remember the real meaning of Memorial Day? I fell far short of a modest effort to do so with my initial introduction to this week's column (see above). Like many Americans, I fell into the easy trap of associating Memorial Day mostly with the unofficial start of summer and pleasant things like drinking beer, going to the beach, and grilling food. As I was reminded by a reader, it behooves us to remember that Memorial Day is meant to recognize and honor those who have served and fallen while serving in the American military. My failure to initially make that connection is all the more ironic since I had intended to include an item in this week's column about how America has been impacted by the absence of a draft. Suffice it to say, the extended wars of the George W. Bush-Barack Obama era would have had a profoundly different impact in the US if we did not have a volunteer military. For now, I'll leave the questions raised by that to others. Instead, I'll merely express my thanks for the attention of the reader who helped me shift the start of this week's column to a more appropriate focus.
1. Does Wexford Science & Technology and CV Properties' proposal for the former I-195 land signal the start of a broader economic revitalization for Rhode Island? To be sure, the concept remains at a very early stage, and it's not known what kind of public subsidy will be sought. Yet the proposal, if it moves forward, will become a significant accomplishment for Governor Gina Raimondo, and there's nothing like a bit of momentum (and a growing national economy) to fuel subsequent efforts. For now, though, the tantalizing quality of the Wexford/CV Properties' pitch is a bit like those pre-2004 Red Sox teams whose ability to thrill and disappoint were inextricably linked.
2. Is realigning Fire Department platoons the right fight for Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza? The political newcomer unveiled his first bold move when he announced plans Thursday to restructure Fire Department staffing, with potential savings of about $5 million a year. The news might play well with the Providence residents and business owners who, Elorza said, are "taxed out." Yet the Providence firefighters' union quickly cried foul and pledged to fight the mayor's move. The firefighters battled for years with David Cicilline during his time as mayor, and legal costs of defending the initiative could water down at least some of the potential savings.
3. Does a PawSox ballpark deal get done, let alone in this legislative session? A week ago, the word from the speaker's office was that there was still time to move ahead before the General Assembly's expected mid-June exit. That was before the unexpected death Sunday of Jim Skeffington, who had emerged as the chief spokesman and cheerleader for the ballpark project. The general thinking was that things slow down now. Yet Larry Lucchino has strong communication skills (and he was dining at the Capital Grille Thursday night), so maybe the guy who delighted in twitting the "Evil Empire" will launch into a charm offensive. A ballpark, combined with Wexford Science & Technology and CV Properties' proposal, could remake an important part of Providence. Yet there's little evidence so far of agreement on "the magic number" (see #1) needed to make the former concept work.
4. How does organized labor fit into these potential projects? One question to follow is whether the 195 Redevelopment Commission and/or Governor Raimondo require any project that gets tax breaks or incentive money to have an apprenticeship program. The same could be asked of projects funded by the governor and Treasurer Seth Magaziner's proposed infrastructure bank.
5. What will Speaker Mattiello have to show for this legislative session? The speaker signaled the end of the Taylor Swift Tax ahead of rising state revenues, and that additional cash will allow for a broader elimination of taxing Social Security benefits. (Of course, Mattiello has also come across as a big fan of the proposed PawSox ballpark on the Providence River.) The governor's proposed Medicaid cuts loom as one of the major question marks of the legislative session. Meanwhile, it's no surprise that Representative Chris Blazejewski (D-Providence) is a staunch defender of the speaker, now that he's back in leadership as deputy whip. Blazejewski nonetheless used his appearance this week on RI Public Radio's Bonus Q&A to push back against the view of Mattiello as a very conservative Democrat: "In 2014, there were a number of points where the Progressive Caucus was able to accomplish things because he's open and willing to listen," Blazejewski said. "If it makes sense to him, then he's willing to do things that are usually considered to be left or progressive .... Last year alone, let's just go through 2014 -- the House of Representatives, as part of its budget, expanded childcare subsidies for low-income families who are working to try to get training; has continued to fund the school-funding formula; has frozen tuition to make sure that students who graduate from our colleges and universities aren't saddled with excessive debt; has increased the minimum wage; has expanded renewal energy; has eliminated the master lever; and that was just in 2014, so I think the proof's in the pudding."
6. Does Rhode Island make progress on issues involving race and police-community relations? Although the Ocean State has been spared the kind of violent outbursts seen in Baltimore, concerns about police-community relations and racial inequities persist. So it's worth noting how the Providence Journal focused on the subject with a big spread last Sunday. Equally striking was executive editor Karen Bordeleau's unusually candid admission that the statewide daily's news staff "lacks diversity -- even more so after years of layoffs and attrition ...."
7. When is the next campaign finance scandal involving a state lawmaker? Gordon Fox's sentencing is coming up on June 11, and the General Assembly has passed measures touted by lawmakers as an effective response to the concerns raised by Fox's case. Yet most lawmakers refused to make publicly available the bank statements intended as a backup for campaign finance filings, and there are no routine audits of these filings. On Bonus Q&A, Rep. Blazejewski dutifully described the new measures backed by lawmakers as as effective response to further misuse of campaign contributions. Time will tell if he's right.
8. Does Lincoln Chafee accomplish his purpose in the presidential race? The ex-governor seems to be mostly about tweaking Hillary Clinton for her vote in favor of the war in Iraq, and raising his stature on those and other issues. Yet for now,
Chafee (or one of his helpers) someone not associated with Chafee's campaign tweeted a link to this Washington Post story about how "2016 candidates show up in a surprising number of hip-hop lyrics" (h/t @KathyProJo). The only problem? There were no Chafee references were cited in the article.
9. Do Tiverton voters break in favor of Twin Rivers' proposal? There's a long way to go, relatively speaking, until local and statewide voters decide in 2016 the possible addition of gambling in Tiverton. Yet for now at least, there are no alternatives to help blunt the impact of looming casinos in Massachusetts.
10. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and Treasurer Seth Magaziner are coming fairly quickly out of the chute with new policy initiatives. Gorbea unveiled her lobbying overhaul pitch earlier this month (although its legislative fate remains to be seen). Magaziner teamed up with Governor Raimondo on their infrastructure bank proposal, and he's set to unveil on Tuesday a "Transparent Treasury" approach. "The initiative will include several new policies and tools to improve the openness and accountability of the state treasury, including the retirement system," according to a statement from his office.
11. The number of buy-outs in the latest round of cuts at the ProJo should come into sharper focus around June 1.
12. The tweeters among us were taken by surprise when Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter, in a change from her past practice, allowed tweeting from her courtroom during the pension fairness hearing that began Wednesday. (When the latest proposed pension settlement was unveiled in April, reporters had to leave the courtroom to share word of the latest development via Twitter.) Court spokesman Craig Berke offered this explanation for why Taft-Carter changed her mind: "The judge made an effort after the previous settlement hearing to become more familiar with Twitter. Her chief concern has always been whether tweeting would be disruptive or a distraction in her courtroom. She talked to a couple of people and she is experimenting with allowing it." The first day of the experiment seemed to go off without a hitch, as the ProJo's Tom Mooney, WPRO's Steve Klamkin and yours truly tweeted from court, extending details of what was happening to an audience beyond the courtroom.
14. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse recently presented his 100th speech on climate change and it attracted a lot of media attention. RIPR's Ambar Espinoza recently spoke with Whitehouse about what he's learned since giving his first speech on the subject three years ago.
15. How bad are the Red Sox? So bad that I switched over one night this past week to my DVRed version of the last episode of Mad Men. (FWIW: I thought it was pretty good). FWIW II: most TV finales spark a decrease in trading in US markets.)