The disruption of natural gas service on Aquidneck Island shows how unexpected events can have a big impact. The fallout from that will continue 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.
1) There could be a time when Newport and Middletown residents affected by the disruption of natural gas service can look back and tell winning tales about surviving the winter of 2019. But the disruption came as an unwelcome surprise, causing considerable inconvenience and dislocation. Gov. Gina Raimondo has vowed to get answers on the cause of this situation, but for now there are far more questions. To name one: was this a freak occurrence or something that could happen again in the future? It’s also fair to wonder whether cyber-terrorism increase the likelihood of similar problems in the future. Last March, a joint report by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security described a huge Russian effort to gain access to America’s critical infrastructure. From a report by Vox: “Nothing in the report speaks to the sabotage or damaging of any equipment. But if intruders were able to get into computers the same way they did for this scouting mission, and to modify code on the targeted computers as easily as they did, then there’s no reason they couldn’t stage another attack.”
2) The natural gas disruption raises the question of whether ratepayers will take it on the chin if and when National Grid tries to recoup some of its expenses from the episode. “I think that’s an important point,” General Treasurer Seth Magaziner said on The Public’s Radio’s Political Roundtable this week. “At the last PUC rate hearing for National Grid, there was some movement toward introducing a more progressive rate structure, so that lower income families can get some relief from these rate increases as they occur. This is a topic that I think deserves more attention, not only with gas and electric, but with all of our utilities, with water, with sewer. You know these are essentially tax increases that are not progressive the way they’re structured now. They hit low income families disproportionately. And so that is something that I plan to look at more this year in our office, is what we can do to make our utility rate structures more progressive.”
3) Utility rates are typically outside the portfolio of the state treasurer, so Magaziner’s interest in the issue could represent a convergence of policy and politics. Asked on Bonus Q&A if there’s anything right now that could keep him from running for governor in 2022, Magaziner offered the traditional boilerplate about how he’s focused on issues related to his current position. Pressed on his next move, Magaziner said, “It is not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about. I want to make sure that I’m productive as treasurer, and that I do the job that the people elected me to do.”
4) Writing in The Boston Globe, Brown University professor Wendy Schiller outlines her view of a slump in New England’s political clout. She points to the passing from the scene of giants like Tip O’Neill and Ted Kennedy, population shifts, and the thinning out of manufacturing. (Of course, there’s also the looming loss of one of Rhode Island’s two congressional seats in 2022.) But Ethan Gyles makes good points about New England’s continuing impact, pointing to how Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have influenced the national dialogue; how Sens. Jack Reed, Patrick Leahy and Sanders are ranking committee members; U.S. Reps. Jim McGovern and Richard Neal are chairing committees; how U.S. Reps. David Cicilline, Ayanna Pressley, and Joseph Kennedy make news on a regular basis; and how NE remains a blue bastion. Meanwhile, Matt Jerzyk, no stranger to City Hall or the Statehouse, chimed in: “Lots to dispute here. Many R governors in NE in recent years along with R members of Congress. Maine 2nd voted for Trump. There’s more that unites us than divides us.”
5) Treasurer Seth Magaziner calls Providence’s sharply under-funded pension system the top financial challenge facing Rhode Island. “This is not just a Providence issue, this is an issue that impacts all of us,” Magaziner said on Bonus Q&A this week. With the city having less than 30 percent of the money need to meet its long-term pension obligations, Mayor Jorge Elorza has proposed monetizing the city’s water supply to shore up the pension system. Magaziner said a wide variety of approaches should be considered. “This is a big problem, so everything should be on the table, including the water idea,” he said. “But that can’t be the only idea that you’re looking at, because there are a whole number of reasons why that might not be successful. There are real legal questions over who owns the water system. There are unanswered financial questions about what the ratepayer impact would be, to say nothing of the political hurdles.” Magaziner said the city should also consider monetizing other assets, such as the municipal golf course, and taking another look at the benefit structure for city unions.
6) Mike Raia is signing off as Gov. Raimondo’s communications director, leaving February 1 for an unspecified private sector opportunity. Former ProJo reporter Jennifer Bodgan will succeed Raia. Before joining the administration, Raia, a Maryland native, served as communications director during part of Angel Taveras’ time as mayor of Providence and he also worked for WGBH. In a statement, he said, “Serving as Governor Raimondo’s communications director has and will undoubtedly be the high point of my career in public service. She is a force for change and makes everyone around her better: better professionally, better personally. She has built the most loyal, hardest working team I have ever been a part of. I will be forever grateful that she has given me this opportunity, and I could not ask for anyone better than Jenn Bogdan to take the baton. I look forward to continuing to support Governor Raimondo’s work and cheering for Rhode Island as a constituent.”
7) One of the oft-cited concerns about the proposed legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island is how police would check whether motorists are under the influence. In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker this week backed legislative recommendations made on that topic by a special commission. According to Baker’s office, the recommendations include: “Adopting implied consent laws to suspend the driver’s licenses of arrested motorists who refuse to cooperate in chemical testing for drugs, as existing law has long required for arrested motorists who refuse breath testing for alcohol; Adopting a statute authorizing courts to take judicial notice that ingesting THC, the active chemical in marijuana, can and does impair motorists; Directing the Municipal Police Training Committee (MPTC) to expand the training of drug recognition experts, and allowing them to testify as expert witnesses in civil and criminal cases; Prohibiting drivers from having loose or unsealed packages of marijuana in the driver’s compartment of a vehicle, under the same provision of the motor vehicle code that has long prohibited driving with open containers of alcohol; Recognizing the effectiveness of the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, shown through scientific research to be the single most reliable field sobriety test; Empowering police officers to seek electronic search warrants for evidence of chemical intoxication, as is the practice in over thirty other states. Any blood draw would have to be authorized by a neutral magistrate after a showing of probable cause, and would be performed by a doctor, nurse or other appropriate medical staff at a health care facility.”
8) Meanwhile, here’s a dispatch from John Bender of The Public’s Radio on Fall River’s new marijuana shop: “Friendly staff offers guidance to customers. Do you like something that’s going to hit you hard or something that’s very mellow, they ask. For the uninitiated, it’s all a little confusing. There are more than 30 products for sale, and more on the way. Samples nest in little jars, for customers to smell. At each cash register, jars of coffee beans are available: nose palate cleansers. ‘We’ve got blue diesel, blue dream, durbin poison, green crack, chem OG #4, flo, lavender jones, and bubba kush,’ Cera Bateman said pointing to the samples. She’s one about a dozen ‘bud-tenders’ here. If you don’t get that joke maybe this isn’t a store you’ll be frequenting. She and her coworkers have probably one of the few jobs in existence where prior marijuana use is an expectation. That’s because they need to know the merchandise.”
9) CNN’s Brian Stelter on whether reporters should delete their Twitter accounts, or perhaps take a Twitter break: “I used to think the transparency of Twitter helped improve trust in media. I think that's true around the edges. But I'm leaning toward the Silicon Valley exec's view that the incessant tweeting undermines trust. ‘You guys are down in the mud with the bots and the bad faith actors,’ the tech exec said.”
10) If war is the continuation of politics by other means, a series of ongoing skirmishes on the House floor show how personal things have gotten between state Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown) and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Tanzi invoked a point of personal privilege on Thursday, to talk about a situation outlined in last week’s column (#10). To recap, Tanzi was irked that the reason why she missed two recent House sessions wasn’t publicly specified; Mattiello said not including her reason was consistent with past practice, and that only absences related to legislative activity were specified. This week, Tanzi pointed to other examples when reasons unrelated to the General Assembly were made part of the record for other lawmakers’ absences. Tanzi’s microphone was shut off as she pressed her case, with Mattiello saying that House policy was not a matter to discuss on the House floor. On Twitter, Tanzi vowed to keep battling: “It will take much more than that to silence me! Tune in often, as I will regularly be pointing out the failures the House to function as an actual democracy. That’s why we started the Reform Caucus. Buckle up folks, we are just getting started.” Meanwhile, House spokesman Larry Berman used a statement to say, “It is disheartening that Rep. Tanzi feels it is appropriate to disrupt legislative sessions to complain about how the record reflects her absences, rather than focusing on the issues that are truly important to the citizens of Rhode Island.”
11) Poli-media notes: Carlos Lopez, previously a mainstay in Cranston Mayor Allan Fung’s City Hall, announced on Facebook that he’s joined Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien’s administration as deputy director of administration …. Best wishes for a speedy recovery to ProJo food savant Gail Ciampa, who wrote this week about how she’ll be out of work for a spell due to a pre-cancerous tumor …. Congratulations to Cumberland native Dante Ramos, who’s moving on after a long run at The Boston Globe to take a job in Washington, D.C., with The Atlantic.
12) State Sen. Walter Felag (D-Warren) is reintroducing a bill that would prevent the practice of using budget “scoops” from quasi-public state agencies to balance the budget. “This practice of ‘scooping’ money out of our quasi-public corporations not only hurts the mission and capability of these groups, but more importantly, it is not a responsible or sustainable way of crafting our state budget,” Felag said in a statement. “One-time budget fixes and gimmicks do nothing to responsibly address the anticipated and current budget shortfalls. These types of transfers are unfavorable accounting practices because it not only propels the state budget into a larger deficit the following year, but will cause the quasi-public corporation to increase their fees or pay higher borrowing costs." Scoops have become a regular part of Gov. Raimondo’s budget proposals, but Brenna McCabe, spokeswoman for the state Department of Administration, said these decisions are not made lightly. “When faced with choices such as cutting benefits to our most vulnerable populations, delaying much-needed investments in education and impeding economic progress for all Rhode Islanders, proposing transfers is still a reluctant choice,” McCabe said in a statement. “Transfers are the first item on the governor’s list to be restored should there be more resources available after the May Caseload and Revenue Estimating Conferences. We have and will continue to work closely with the General Assembly to make critical decisions that protect our collective short- and long-term investments so that we can enact a budget that best serves the needs of Rhode Islanders.”
13) A dissenting view on Gov. Raimondo’s belief that more money for pre-K is a smart investment.
14) State Sen. Dawn Euer (D-Newport), who is sponsoring a bill meant to suspend a series of payments for furloughed federal workers, describes this as an important issue since, she said (earlier this week), almost 80 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. “Folks have already missed their first paycheck,” she said. “If the government doesn’t reopen, they’ll miss the second paycheck soon. And when you consider most collection procedures can begin after a 30-day window, it is urgent that we do something to provide these protections on a state level.” That percentage of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck is based on a 2017 survey by CareerBuilder.
15) Reaction to the end, at least for now, in the partial federal government shutdown from RI’s Democratic congressional delegation. U.S. Rep. David Cicilline: “The President and Mitch McConnell never should have shut down the government in the first place. It’s critical that they never do this again. FBI agents, TSA workers, and air traffic controllers are hardworking men and women. They should never be used as pawns by the President and the Republican Leader. The American people don’t want the President’s big dumb wall.” …. U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin: “We all want stronger border security. I look forward to working with the President and my colleagues across the aisle to find common ground over the next three weeks on this important issue. However, I hope the President has realized once and for all that it is unacceptable to use federal workers and the American public as political pawns to fulfill his campaign promise of building a wall.” …. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed: The shutdown “achieved nothing, wasted billions of taxpayer dollars, weakened public safety, and hurt the American people. Americans across the political spectrum have every right to be angry at President Trump for dragging this out when reopening the government was the right answer all along. The Trump shutdown was incredibly wasteful. The federal government has a responsibility to help keep the American people safe, and the Trump shutdown weakened the government’s ability to do that …. This is just a short-term fix, but it is good news that the President finally realized the damage his strategy was inflicting on the country.” …. U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: “The president has finally agreed to end his pointless and costly shutdown. His political stunt has hurt families in Rhode Island and across the country and damaged our economy. I’m glad it’s over. I hope the president has learned his lesson and won’t again play politics with Americans’ paychecks. Deliberately disabling American government is not a proper act of any president.”
16) New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore recalls helping to deliver the Worcester Telegram as a kid, while pondering whether journalism has a future – a particularly acute question away from big cities like New York and Washington. That question (and a string of out of town cuts this week) underscore the importance of supporting local media sources.
17) The Small Cities Task Force, co-chaired by Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, met this week during the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. This is considered the first task force in the history of the conference to focus on small cities. Diossa’s role, meanwhile, makes him part of the executive committee of the Conference.
18) Mary McElroy’s nomination to be a U.S. District Court judge in Rhode Island has languished since 2015, even with some signs of activity last year. In a joint statement, U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse say they’re optimistic that things will work out: “Mary McElroy is highly qualified, has overwhelming bipartisan support, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to seeing her get an up or down vote in the Senate. We expected she will be re-nominated and confirmed.”
19) Here’s a recent report on sexual harassment in Oregon’s legislature.
20) Rest in Peace, Russell Baker, who had a singular voice on the op-ed page of The New York Times for 36 years (and whose books are well worth the read). From his NYT obit: “Mr. Baker occasionally hammered at uncaring government or big business, but frontal attacks were not his stock in trade. ‘What Baker does,’ Ronald Steel wrote in Geo magazine in 1983, ‘is punch holes in vast bubbles of pretension, humanize the abstract and connect the present with what one predecessor, Walter Lippmann, once described as the ‘longer past and the larger future.’ A subversive among the sober editorial voices of The Times, Mr. Baker could be tongue-in-cheek one day and melancholy the next, then folksy, anguished, lyrical or acid.”