A storm is blowing in and the unveiling of a new Rhode Island budget will spark a lot of stories to follow in the months to come. So 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.
The stage is now set for much of Rhode Island’s General Assembly session, now that Gov. Gina Raimondo has unveiled her $9.9 billion budget proposal for 2019-2020. Raimondo used her State of the State address on Tuesday to call the spending plan a way to strengthen the state for the future. The governor’s speech in the House chamber at the Statehouse attracted a lot of cheers when she outlined plans for more pre-K slots, a $30 million hike in aid for RI public schools, and an expansion of the RI Promise free tuition program to the last two years of a four-year education at Rhode Island College. But there’s lots of fodder for critics, and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello reacted coolly to Raimondo’s proposed adjustment to car tax relief for the fiscal year starting July 1. While the governor’s spending plan includes $3.3 billion in federal funds, Rhode Island’s budget has sharply increased over time – by more than $3 billion over the last decade. “Certainly we have seen the budget grow at a time much higher than wages and cost of living,” House GOP Whip Mike Chippendale (R-Foster) said during The Public Radio’s Political Roundtable this week. “…. How do we cut it? Well, first we stop spending, and frankly, all we heard [during the State of the State] the other night was ‘let’s spend a lot of money we don’t have.’ We can’t continue to throw money at problems.” And while Raimondo’s budget plan avoids broad-based tax increases, it hikes a range of fees (some of them as-yet-undecided, like potentially higher costs for visiting state parks, beaches and campgrounds), broadens the sales tax, and continues the practice of scooping millions from different parts of state government. For now, as the General Assembly gets ready to dig into the details, we can only wonder, which of the governor’s priorities will be preserved in the legislative budget passed later this year, and what other changes will be made to her spending plan?
2) My exclusive from earlier this week: RI Education Commissioner Ken Wagner is on the way out, and a recommendation on a successor is expected in the coming weeks.
3) Gov. Raimondo is among the elected officials vowing a heightened focus on improving public education. “The recent test scores are just not acceptable,” the governor said Tuesday during her State of the State address. “We’ve lagged behind our neighbors for too long. Let’s resolve to do whatever it takes to make Rhode Island’s school competitive with our neighbors and give every single one of our children a shot at a bright future – no matter their background or zip code.” But we’ve heard this kind of thing before. Here’s an excerpt from a Providence Journal story 20 years ago about attempts to improve public education: “Beginning last year, East Providence and other school districts throughout the state were required to submit strategic plans identifying their philosophies of education, the direction in which they were headed and how they intended to go about improving student performance.The planning requirement was spelled out in legislation the General Assembly passed in 1997 and expanded last year. The legislation, labeled Article 31, gave the state Department of Education more power to hold school districts accountable for their performance.” So will anything meaningful change now that Raimondo, Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio are more charged up about the issue? Part of the challenge is how making real educational progress is a long-term project (with lots of moving parts) that doesn’t fit the political timetable of campaigns and elections. As Raimondo and Wagner have noted, staying the course (as in Massachusetts) is vital. Yet changes in the global economy also have an effect. Former RI Education Commissioner Peter McWalters (who held the job for almost 20 years, before being succeeded by Deborah Gist) was once asked about the challenge of improving Rhode Island’s public schools. He responded by pointing to how Life magazine had highlighted Hope High School in Providnece in the mid-1960s as an ideal college-preparatory school. So what was the difference between now and then? McWalters said young people not suited for advanced academics could drop out and earn a good living through the more plentiful manufacturing jobs of that era. Over time, those jobs thinned out and high schools like Hope became home to growing numbers of transient students.
4) Supporters of abortion rights appear increasingly optimistic about getting a House floor vote on Smith Hill this year on legislation to codify Roe v. Wade in state law. In a news release this week, Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Gayle Goldin, both Providence Democrats, point to how their bill has gotten more cosponsors than ever before, including 20 of 26 female state reps and 11 of 16 female senators (as well as 20 supporters of Speaker Mattiello). In Providence, the woman-majority City Council backed a resolution in support of the Reproductive Health Care Act. Meanwhile, longtime Rep. Anastasia Williams (D-Providence), a member of Mattiello’s camp, introduced her own bill to codify Roe v. Wade (with support from Deputy Majority Whip Chris Blazejewski, who is also a cosponsor of the Ajello-Goldin bill). Critics of reproductive rights say the Ajello-Goldin measure would be a broader-than-described expansion, while a group aligned with Planned Parenthood, the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, charges that the Williams bill would fall short of preserving the existing legal framework in RI. Meanwhile, it remains unclear if either of these bills will make it to the House floor this year.
5) Will 2019 be the year when Rhode Island legalizes marijuana for adults? The outlook remains unclear. Gov. Raimondo’s administration believes it makes sense to move ahead, and regulate the drug closely, due to the trend toward legalization in nearby states (not to mention places like Seekonk and Fall River). “Given that landscape, given how accessible this is going to be, we believe that we need to take our own destiny in our hands and control our future,” Norman Birenbaum, the governor’s top adviser on the issue, told reporters this week. But President Ruggerio and Speaker Mattiello remain cautious on the issue. “I have difficulty with the sense that it’s inevitable,” Mattiello told reporters after the State of the State. “I think you have to have a better public policy reason for doing it.” Meanwhile, the House GOP Caucus – which tends to have a libertarian bent – is not taking a stance on legalization as a group. Speaking for himself, Rep. Mike Chippendale (R-Foster) said his main concerns include the challenge for law enforcement in testing motorists for marijuana impairment, “and then we also have workplace hazards where folks could be coming to work impaired, and unlike alcohol, there’s no definitive way to determine whether or not that person’s under the influence.”
6) Ernie Carlucci, who lost his job as chief of staff in the AG’s office, in the transition to the Peter Neronha administration, is now working as deputy policy director for the Rhode Island Senate, with a salary of $94,669.
7) Budget reax from all over: Longtime former RIPEC director Gary Sasse, who held some high-profile roles in the Carcieri administration, via his Twitter: “Reading the proposed FY 20 State Budget does anyone get the impression that new programs are recommended while existing problems are not being fixed? Somewhat life building a backyard patio while the roof continues to leak.” …. Scott MacKay contends Raimondo is trying to make Rhode Island more like Massachusetts: “Roger Williams may be spinning in his grave at the thought of his colony of conscience being subservient to the whims of bureaucrats in Boston. Providence residents may need even more therapy to cope with the inferiority complex of living in Boston’s long shadow. At a time when every Democratic senator not in rehab is running for president, Massachusetts has Elizabeth Warren eating pork bellies in Iowa. Rhode Island has never had a president or even a major party nominee, a record that won’t be broken in 2020.” … RI GOP Chairman Brandon Bell: “Isn’t it sad? We are near full employment, and Raimondo can’t put together a budget without millions in new taxes, fees and gimmicks, and a reduction in promised tax relief. Let’s make this easy. Stop the scoops. Cut the spending on PR staff, corporate welfare, and General Assembly patronage. Give us the tax relief we are supposed to receive, and then get us some more tax relief. No new fees. Finally, no new taxes, except maybe on the lobbyists since they are partly responsible for the fiscal problems Rhode Island has today.”
8) U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was among the supporters of a bipartisan criminal justice bill signed last month by President Trump. The measure gives judges more discretion in sentencing drug offenders and boosts efforts to prevent recidivism. The new law is limited to federal inmates, but the idea of Republicans and Democrats getting together on a measure to make the justice system less punitive is noteworthy. (As Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox has noted, politicians tend to focus on the three Rs – revenge, retaliation and retribution – since it leads to the fourth R of re-election.) Whitehouse tells me GOP governors facing exploding prison costs were an important source of support for the legislation. The senator, who formerly served as attorney general and U.S. attorney in Rhode Island, said one of the biggest criminal justice issues facing the state is how offenders released from the ACI get bunched in a few hard-hit neighborhoods. “There are a couple of neighborhoods that just get lots of folks from the ACI and there are other neighborhoods that get virtually nobody …. What do you do about the communities that are just getting flooded with these people? What additional supports do they need to make sure that they’re not bearing an unfair burden, and we really didn’t make much progress in that area. It remains to be done.”
9) As is often the case on Smith Hill, the die was cast when a legislative committee recently approved a bill, in this case the rules governing the House of Representatives for 2019-2020). That vote set the stage for about three hours of pointed debate when the full House considered the rules Wednesday, ultimately approving them on votes of 48-25 and 54-19. As those margins indicate, Speaker Mattiello had the outcome locked down (and as TGIF noted last week, the new 24-hour waiting period for voting on most bills after significant changes in committee is a step forward). Still, Republicans, ‘Reform Democrats,’ and other critics were able to make their points during the lengthy floor debate. A case in point came when Rep. Joseph McNamara of Warwick, the state Democratic chairman, suggested lawmakers could be subject to malign influence from lobbyists if discharge petitions are not kept on the rostrum. “It’s them using persuasion out of view from the public. It’s a high-pressure situation. Call it being strong-armed,” McNamara said. Yet lobbyists (and other advocates) are free to make their pleadings with lawmakers before or after session. As Rep. Moira Walsh (D-Providence) said, “It hurts to think that our colleagues believe that if we were not under the watchful eye of the dais that we would immediately be corruptible and bought by lobbyists. That’s a little unfortunate. Additionally, I understand that listening to constituents can be a time-consuming thing, but that’s literally what we signed up for.”
10) If you blinked at the start of Tuesday’s House session, you may have missed a quick skirmish between state Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown), an outspoken member of the ‘Reform Democrats,’ and Speaker Mattiello. Tanzi started by saying that she had submitted a communication explaining why was absent in the House for two days the previous week “and they were not read on the floor, and I would like the record to reflect that.” Mattiello responded by saying absences are indicated in the House Journal and “we don’t put in whatever you want to say. And it reflected every other communication that we’ve ever put in there when you’re not in session.” Tanzi disagreed, saying she was being treated differently than Finance Chairman Marvin Abney, after he missed a House session, when it was read aloud that he was at a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Tanzi said she missed sessions on January 9-10 since she was traveling to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her in-laws. “That is not in any way, shape or form what was put in for Chairman Abney,” Mattiello said. House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi then moved to approve the journal as printed, House Minority Leader Blake Filippi seconded, and the House voted in favor, 48 to 19, with the Reform Democrats lined up in opposition. Tanzi objected to the vote and later said she was shocked that the matter was settled in that way. She pointed to the episode as an example of what she called the overwhelming power of the speaker. Mattiello and House spokesman Larry Berman offered a different explanation: they said if representatives miss session due to activity related to the legislature, the reason is specified, but not if the absence is due to a personal or family-based reason.
11) With an appearance last weekend on WJAR-TV’s 10 News Conference, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung took part in one of his first in-depth interviews since losing the November gubernatorial election. Fung said the best candidate doesn’t always win, and he leaned heavily on how he was significantly outspent by Gov. Raimondo. Fung kept the door open regarding his political future (he’s term-limited from seeking re-election as mayor in 2020), but the presence of a Facebook ad promoting his WJAR appearance (paid for by The Committee for Allan Fung) suggests the mayor is already looking toward 2024.
12) Providence native Joe Nocera writes that U.S. Rep. David Cicilline “is going to be the most important person in tech in 2019, I’d rank Cicilline well ahead of Mark Zuckerberg.” Asked by Nocera about Facebook and Google, Cicilline said, “There are two primary issues: How do we restore competition, and how do we protect rights online? These platforms are really the gatekeepers. And they are not only the gatekeepers for information, which has implications for our democracy, but the kind of discriminatory conduct they engage in has the potential to harm consumers in a very serious way. So we have to make efforts to prohibit anticompetitive behavior online and I think we have a lot of work to do to protect privacy. One of the best ways we can approach the privacy issue is use portability and interoperability approaches. To me that is a competition-based solution. If you don’t like the way we protect your privacy, or the way we control your data, you have the ability to move it to another platform.” Asked if his plan would give people the ability to take their information from FB and move it to a competitor, Cicilline said, “Yes, but the only way that’s going to work is if the competitor is completely interoperable with the other platforms that you use. The European Union is doing this, so it is not impossible. That should be our first approach because it is a competition-based solution. Let’s see if the free market will solve the problem. But in the end you want to have a system where you have control over your data, and you decide how it gets used and who it gets shared with.”
13) U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse believes the federal government shutdown will end in one of two ways. "One off-ramp is the increasing pressure on Republican senators who, I think, don’t have any confidence in President Trump’s judgment about where to go on this and are increasingly taking pressure at home,” Whitehouse tells me. “They’re frightened of the guy because of his ability to turn the base against people who challenge him …. We’ll know when that pressure has built when Mitch McConnell comes out of hiding and takes up some of the bills that have been passed the Senate already, that have been passed by the House that would reopen government, and would pass probably 80-plus votes …. The other [end game] is the president deciding he’s going to go ahead and declare his national emergency, let the government reopen, and move the arena of conflict, from president vs. Congress, to president vs. judges and courts, and litigate the matter ….”
14) There I was, minding my own business last weekend, shopping with the missus in the produce section of a Stop & Shop in Seekonk, when I encountered a robot. “Our robot overlords are now helping to clog the aisles at the supermarket,” was my immediate reaction. AP’s Matt O’Brien looked into the situation. Here’s part of his report: “Badger Technologies CEO Tim Rowland says its camera-equipped robots stop after detecting a potential spill. But to make sure, humans working in a control center in the Philippines review the imagery before triggering a cleanup message over the loudspeaker. Rowland says 25 of the robots are now operating at certain Giant, Martin’s and Stop & Shop stores, with 30 more arriving each week. Carlisle, Pennsylvania-based Giant says it has two robots now working at stores in the state, and plans to expand to all 172 Giant stores by the middle of this year …. A union that represents Giant and Stop & Shop workers says it’s keeping an eye on Marty. It remains to be seen what the groceries will ultimately use the technology for. UFCW President Marc Perrone said in an emailed statement that the ‘aggressive expansion of automation in grocery and retail stores is a direct threat to the millions of American workers who power these industries and the customers they serve.’ ”
15) Mayor Fung dodged a lot of interview requests during his primary run last year, including from The Public’s Radio. More recently, two-time legislative candidate Rebecca Schiff, a candidate to succeed Brandon Bell as RI GOP chairman in March, didn’t respond to media inquiries. Is this kind of silent treatment the right way to go for local Republicans? “My approach, as you’re well aware, is to open my mouth as much as I can,” GOP Rep. Mike Chippendale said on Bonus Q&A this week. “I think getting the message out is the way to do things. I would like to see a more active and vocal group. We have to get our message out as a party and as people who do contribute in state government. We have to let know folks what we are about. We are not D.C. Republicans.”
16) In a decision with ramifications for places like Providence and Central Falls, a federal judge has blocked the Trump administration from asking questions about citizenship on the 2020 Census. The Trump administration is appealing the decision.
17) Brown alum Anna Galland, who once directed the local chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, is getting set to move on from her leadership role at the advocacy group MoveOn.
18) While the late George Germon of Al Forno fame is credited with inventing grilled pizza, New Haven arguably has bragging rights over Providence when it comes to pizza. A bit father south, the New York City borough of Staten Island has some amazing pizza (here’s my personal favorite) – probably because earlier generations of Italian-Americans moved from Brooklyn to SI while enjoying upward mobility. So, on a related note, for the pizza-obsessed out there, check out this history of pizza in NYC.
19) Wall Street financiers continue trying to buy up more assets in the newspaper industry, often with newsroom cuts not far behind.
20) Know your New England history: it’s the centennial of the great molasses flood. Among other things, the tragedy helped set the stage for future class-action lawsuits.