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) If not now, when? That’s a pertinent question for efforts to improve Rhode Island’s locally administered pensions. As General Treasurer Seth Magaziner detailed, in a report released by his office this week, 35 locally administered pensions face a combined $2.5 billion in unfunded long-term obligations, and 21 are considered in critical status. One of the most troubled is the Providence pension, with more than $1 billion in obligations. Speaking recently on The Public’s Radio, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza made it clear that the task of dealing with the situation will fall to his successors. So will it take a more imminent crisis, as Elorza said, to gin up the necessary political will? “I think in some communities it’s going to take receivership to actually get it done,” former state Rep. Dan Reilly, a Portsmouth Republican, said on Political Roundtable this week. For now, Reilly said, rising pension costs threaten to stress municipal budgets, “and particularly in some of these communities that have these massively unfunded liabilities, they’re just continuing to kick the can down the road.” Derek Silva, president of the Providence firefighters’ union, suggests the city has more than adequate time to deal with its pension issue. Yet despite the negative out-of-town publicity that would greet a receivership for Rhode Island’s capital city, Reilly believes it’s just a matter of time until that happens.
2) Don’t miss my colleague Sofia Rudin’s compelling three-part radio series: 1. The challenge of dealing with Providence’s pension problem; 2. Providence water – is it the city’s to sell? 3. How Scituate residents are closely watching the debate over Providence’s water.
3) Gov. Gina Raimondo couldn’t ask for better press than an opinion piece this week from Bloomberg’s Matthew A. Winkler, the editor-in-chief emeritus of Bloomberg News. Headlined, “Rhode Island’s Governor Uses Her VC Chops To Boost The Economy,” the column credits Raimondo with engineering a rise in Rhode Island’s economy. “The Harvard-educated economist and Rhodes scholar is effectively writing a turnaround case study in how a state government with little going its way can become something of a benchmark,” Winkler writes. “Her three-pronged strategy: create fiscal stability, invest in education and infrastructure, and recruit companies—relentlessly.” Crushing on Raimondo is one thing, and voters offered a clear affirmation of the governor’s approach by giving her a decisive re-election victory last November. Yet Winkler omitted less-than-favorable details from his story. (As URI economist Leonard Lardaro has noted, Rhode Island’s declining unemployment rate doesn’t tell the whole story, and other indicators – like RI’s performance on GDP relative to elsewhere in New England – paint a less rosy picture of the Ocean State’s economy.)
4) U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island Aaron Weisman, who took office in January, sat down with me this week for his first in-depth interview. Weisman represents a soft-spoken contrast from some of his predecessors as the state’s top federal prosecutor. His experience in the attorney general’s office goes all the way back to Jim O’Neil, who served from 1987 to 1993. Weisman declined comment on reports of a federal investigation in Warwick. While U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling sparked controversy with the indictment of a judge, who is accused of helping an undocumented immigrant to elude ICE, Weisman said his office is not looking at making cases involving undocumented people at RI courthouses. And while a New York Times Magazine story last November warned that the federal government is ill-prepared to respond to the threat posed by hate groups, Weisman said his office remains vigilant.
5) Is House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi looking to wager some of his best-in-the-field $905,721 campaign account? He’s sponsoring a “high-roller” bill that would allow local gambling venues to extend credit of $100,000 to a player.
6) With more forward motion on labor-friendly bills at the General Assembly this week, debate continues about the continuing contracts legislation. Brian Daneils, executive director of the RI League of Cities and Towns, offered this reaction: “Two years ago, the General Assembly cut the unpopular car tax for residents, but now we are seeing that burden placed right back on them, in the form of increased property taxes to pay for lifetime contracts. Rhode Islanders’ hard-earned dollars are being sacrificed for special interests, as the State House bait and switch continues. Governor Raimondo has championed bringing new businesses to Rhode Island and putting people to work. However, if the General Assembly continues to burden businesses and residents with astronomical property taxes, all that our state has gained will be lost.” Raimondo spokesman Josh Block, meanwhile, pointed to what he said are differences in the contract bill from the one vetoed by the governor in 2017: “While the previous version of the bill would have extended all terms of the contract indefinitely, this bill is narrower and is limited to wages and benefits. In her 2017 veto letter, the governor listed a number of concerns she heard from municipalities regarding contract provisions that would have been extended under that proposal, such as extension of programs regardless of need or effectiveness, unnecessary positions required to be filled, and forced compliance with severely outdated practices. Provisions such as these would not be extended under this year’s proposal. Additionally, ending all contract terms except for wages and benefits encourages both sides to get back to the table and negotiate in good faith. As the Governor noted in [an] interview on Monday: ‘You have to remember, when the contract stays in place -- and the new bill is narrower and talks about wages -- wages stay flat. Most times when the union's at the table, they want a raise. If you have the old contract in place, there's no raise -- it's a flat wage from last time. So it's not necessarily that the union has no incentive to come to the table -- they sure do.’ ”
7) A plaintive scene played out in the House Finance Committee Thursday night. Ray Berberick, who has waged a one-man crusade to create an office of inspector general in Rhode Island since 2013, was back at the Statehouse to make his case. “What’s missing? What can I do to help provide information to bring this bill to the floor for a vote,” Berberick asked, after making a brief presentation arguing for an IG’s merits. “I don’t understand why it hasn’t moved forward.” Rep. Scott Slater (D-Providence), sitting in for Finance Chairman Marvin Abney (D-Newport), responded, “So we appreciate your testiomy and your heartfelt testimony on this issue. I know all the committee members take that into -- I can’t exactly tell you what’s missing …” Earlier, Berberick made another appeal and offered to spend additional time with lawmakers if they wanted more information: “The IG doesn’t go on witch hunts, they don’t investigate people, they don’t look into campaign finance. They specifically focus on state spending and matters involving fraud, waste and abuse.” Berberick said IGs also offer a good return on investment, with the one in Utah offering a savings of more than $10,000, with an office with an annual budget of $500,000.
8) Did Gov. Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio move too quickly by implementing sports betting without first getting voter approval? Supporters have pointed to legal opinions saying a public vote was not necessary. Yet according to a statement from lawyer and former RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell, “The issue of unconstitutional sports betting in Rhode Island is one of significant public importance and the express constitutional right of every Rhode Islander to vote on any new type of gambling is properly decided by the Court inthis case. The conduct of State operated sports betting in Tiverton and Lincoln violates the express constitutional requirement of voter approval and must be declared unconstitutional and enjoined until and unless the voters of Rhode Island approve sports gambling at duly authorized statewide and local elections.”
9) Legislation to move up Rhode Island’s primary is expected to move ahead in the legislature, in part due to the need to have adequate to prepare and certify overseas military ballots.
10) The House Finance Committee will take testimony Tuesday on two bills that aim to restrict payday lending. One would scuttle the industry in RI. The other would cut to 28 percent the APR, from 260 percent, that can be charged on payday loans in the Ocean State. Previous efforts to cut back the industry in Rhode Island have proved elusive. The lobbying team for one of the nation’s biggest payday lenders, Advance America, includes former House speaker William Murphy. Elsewhere, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is backing legislation that would cap the APR for payday loans at 36 percent. While payday lenders say they provide a source of financial help for people with few other alternatives, Whitehouse describes the issue differently: “Payday lenders seek out customers facing a financial emergency and stick them with outrageous interest rates and high fees that quickly pile up. Capping interest rates and fees will help families avoid getting unintendedly ensnared in an escape-proof cycle of ultra-high-interest borrowing.”
11) A new report from the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity argues that unions are driving up the cost of government in the state, to the tune of more than $800 for every resident in the state. Two union officials interviewed by the ProJo’s Katherine Gregg noted how the center does not disclose its funders and questioned the findings.
12) Dan Reilly represented House District 72 in Porstmouth and Middletown from from 2011 to 2013 and then again from 2015 to 2017 before deciding not to seek re-election. Here’s his answer after being asked if he plans to get back into politics at some point: “This isn’t professional football, so I do have a little bit of time ahead of me. I’m 29 now, will by 30 in July, so I think a few years left in me. My wife, I would have to run it by her, we have an 18-month-old son, and so our hands are full. I certainly enjoy it and staying involved anyway I can, but we have a lot going on.”
13) Great takedown by Wired of the dubious military strategy used for the defense of Winterfell on last week’s episode of Game of Thrones.
14) Providence-based Daniel Denvir talks about a local symposium on Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade.
15) Mexico has lots of drug violence and other problems, but you can still get around Mexico City via subway for a few pesos. Now, in what’s being cited as a cure for worsening traffic in Boston, rapid bus transit is helping to relieve congestion in Mexico City.
16) 1959 – the year that changed jazz.
17) Low-number plates are a status item in Rhode Island, so it caught my attention when House Minority Leader Blake Filippi spoke in favor during Thursday’s House Finance meeting of a bill that would allow motorists to auction off, through the DMV, their low-number plates, with the proceeds going to a specified charity. Don’t laugh. In Massachusetts, a low-number plate went for $147,000 in 2008.