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.
At least until this week, the future of Rhode Island’s healthcare landscape was arguably the most important under-reported story in the state. So many things are on the line with this one – patient care, jobs, research, economic vectors, local identity, and so on. Now, Gov. Gina Raimondo has brokered fresh talks between RI’s two-largest hospital groups, Lifespan and Care New England, and Brown University. Past attempts to bring these three together have come up short. Yet Raimondo’s involvement appears driven by concern about how a merger involving Boston-based Partners HealthCare and CNE would adversely affect the future of healthcare in Rhode Island, with jobs and services increasingly migrating north. During a Statehouse news conference earlier this week, Raimondo called Partners one of the nation’s best healthcare systems, and she said it may ultimately make sense for Rhode Island to partner with Partners. Yet the governor also noted oft-stated views that “what Rhode Island ought to have is our own locally managed, high-quality, affordable, integrated Rhode Island-based academic medical center. And for whatever reasons, it’s never been able to happen – personalities, clash of cultures. And so what I’m saying to the parties, let’s put all of that aside.” Raimondo has called for the three central parties to aim for a resolution over the summer, and talks have already started. About the only certainty moving ahead is that the outcome will have significant consequences for Rhode Island’s future.
2) UPDATE: The RI Senate Judiciary Committee is slated to vote Tuesday on a revised abortion bill .... In related news, two experienced lobbyists, Kate Coyne-McCoy and George Zainyeh, have been pressing the case in favor for NARAL Pro-Choice America.
3) The House Finance Committee is slated to roll out and vote on its version of the fiscal 2020 budget next Wednesday or Thursday. Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has signaled for months that new spending initiatives are unlikely to make the cut, so Gov. Raimondo’s proposed expansion of the free tuition program to Rhode Island College and her pre-K initiative may not make it. A number of the governor’s revenue-producers, including a new tax on large employers with workers on Medicaid and other occupation-specific tax breaks, are considered DOA. In an interview this week, Raimondo argued for her priorities, based on their potential impact and how she won re-election with almost 53 percent of the vote last year. But budget deficits are a hardy perennial in Rhode Island, even 10 years into an economic recovery, so the money to close a roughly $150 million deficit has to come from somewhere. A related question is whether Mattiello, who has remained tight-lipped on the subject, rolls out any significant moves meant to improve the state’s business climate.
4) More than 15 years have passed since Rhode Island lawmakers have started a legislative session without a fresh deficit. So with an economic downturn thought to be somewhere on the horizon, RI’s structural deficit doesn’t seem likely to go away any time soon. House Finance Chairman Mavin Abney (D-Newport) concedes the downside – how the structural imbalance limits the state’s ability to make strategic investments and results in less of the predictability favored by decision-makers in business. Speaking on Bonus Q&A on The Public’s Radio this week, Abney said, “I work very hard at trying to establish some mechanism through which we can” reduce the structural deficit. At the same time, the idea of trying to do that with the U.S. facing worsening economic conditions at some point “keeps me up at night,” Abney said. For now, the Finance chairman said, the outlook underscores the need to “not spend more than we have.”
5) Some local Republicans are buzzing about a possible return to Rhode Island by former Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey (who was in town for a GOP fundraiser last weekend.) The thinking is that Laffey could be a formidable gubernatorial candidate in 2022, for a party without much of a farm system. Laffey is glib, good at retail politics, and he’s always had a sharp critique of RI’s status quo. Yet Laffey could potentially get outflanked in a GOP primary, as he did when then-Republican Lincoln Chafee defeated him in 2006. He got smoked in a 2014 U.S. House run in Colorado. And Laffey hasn’t won an election since 2004.
6) For fans of Rhode Island journalism, there was a lot to cheer about this week. The Boston Globe’s Ocean State initiative kicked into gear, with strong reports from Dan McGowan, Amanda Milkovits, and Ed Fitzpatrick. Globe editor Brian McGrory explained some of the underlying thinking by talking with the Nieman Lab: “We saw opportunity in Rhode Island where quite honestly great newspapers like the Providence Journal were seeing significant cuts and that market is particularly engaged in news. We saw the opportunity to create a digital regional enterprise by heading down there and hiring local reporters.” The ProJo continued to dish out a detailed statewide report, with compelling stories from Alex Kuffner, Tom Mooney, and Katie Mulvaney, among others, and a vital ongoing watchdog presence from Katherine Gregg and Patrick Anderson at the Statehouse. There was a lot happening elsewhere, including more details on the beefing up of the investigative team at WPRI-TV (Channel 12), a Naval War College investigation from the Providence AP’s Michelle Smith and Jennifer McDermott, and another blockbuster on RI’s 911 from The Public’s Radio’s Lynn Arditi. (Thanks to Lynn’s participation in a year-long local reporting initiative with the nonprofit investigative organization ProPublica, her story also played on the Globe’s web site.) To be sure, the media business has a lot of challenges (and ProJo owner GateHouse Media is consolidating a bunch of properties in Massachusetts, with uncertain implications for its properties in Providence, Newport, Fall River and New Bedford). The good news is that Rhode Island remains a competitive journalistic marketplace, with a lot of good reporting on many of the most important issues facing the state.
7) Independent media also has a role, as seen by the ProJo’s highlighting of Steve Ahlquist last Sunday, but more about him in a minute. For now, a shout-out to ecoRI News, for its focus on environmental issues, the nonprofit East Greenwich News, and man about town Bill Bartholomew, who has created a rich trove of more than 100 extended podcast interviews with local luminaries (including yours truly.) Bartholomew recently broke the news that Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena, who has perhaps the last great political machine among RI mayors, is open to contemplating a statewide run in 2022.
8) The Sunday ProJo focused last week on the important issue of open meetings, and how Steve Ahlquist is among those fighting for the public’s right to know. We were curious about Steve’s entry into reporting, so here’s some of what he told me: “I got into reporting sideways. I liked writing the occasional oped or letter to the editor, and placed a few in both the ProJo and RI Future. As I became more involved with RI Future, I started to think seriously about those stories and those groups of people in Rhode Island who had a difficult time accessing the media and getting their message out to the world. To my mind, there's a power imbalance in the way traditional reporting is done. This has a lot to do with money: Small groups like PrYSM and DARE simply don't have the same access to the media that a group like the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce or the Rhode Island Foundation have. (This also applies to the way in which groups access political power and political representation.) The reasons for this imbalance are many, but money (class) and racism are two factors.
“The first real news stories I ever did were about the efforts of hotel workers in Providence to get themselves a $15 minimum wage. The story was given some attention by the local press, but I wondered if more sustained and deeper coverage might have a positive effect on the efforts of the hotel workers. If I gave the story (as best as my meager efforts could) the same intensity of coverage other news agencies were spending on 38 Studios, what would be the outcome? So I went to all their public protests and events. I covered them at the City Hall and at the State House. I covered them early in the morning, late at night, in hot weather baking in the sun and in the freezing cold, ankle-deep in slush as they picketed outside the hotels they were fighting with. The efforts of the hotel workers were ultimately thwarted by Representative Gallison and General Assembly leadership, who made it illegal for municipalities to change the minimum wage. This was a gut punch and a real lesson in how power works in Rhode Island. A hand full of hotel workers, mostly low-wage, mostly Spanish speaking women of color, were perceived as a threat by the business interests in Rhode Island, and were effectively shut down by the General Assembly without so much as a bill being heard in committee. It was done as a budget item. Imagine having the power to make the lives of these women marginally better, and instead siding with corrupt business interests, and you have an insight into the souls of the General Assembly leadership.”
9) U.S. Rep. David Cicilline points to the longstanding absence of an in-depth anti-trust investigation in describing his concerns about tech titans like Faeebook. Asked why the U.S. has been slowed than Europeans to focus on monopoly concerns, he told NPR: “It's a great question. I mean, there hasn't been good antitrust enforcement at the federal level. I think one of the things we have to look at is - and this investigation will provide us with that opportunity. We really need to look at all our existing antitrust statutes. It's an opportunity to kind of look top to bottom and determine how they need to be modernized. They were written back during the railroad monopolies, but I think there was just a reluctance in sort of the sense that this was exciting and adding lots of value and a lack of appreciation of what the real damages could be.”
10) Brian Daniels, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, tells me it’s not easy to get a handle on the depth of Warwick’s fiscal concerns without an audit. Yet even without that, he’s concerned about the look for the state’s municipalities, particularly with a possible recession in the future. “This is something that we have to be concerned about,” he said. “There is a possibility that you could have, with a serious recession, more communities facing budget commissions or a state intervention.”
11) One-time (and perhaps future?) gubernatorial candidate Ken Block and former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras mixed it up a little, via Twitter, this week. It started when Block pointed to inaction on the time bomb posed by Providence’s unfunded long-term pension liability and said, “The lack of political will in Rhode Island is killing our state.” Taveras chimed in to defend his record: “OPEB [Other Post-Employment Benefits, mostly healthcare] reduced by 18.25% from July 2010 to 2014 (p.15 OPEB report). 2012 pension reform reduced unfunded liability by $186 million (21%) per actuarial report. 5 of 6 fiscal years since ‘12 - operating surpluses. Avoided devastating bankruptcy in 2012.” Taveras added, “Ken, you should run for office.”
12) A reminder of the early session friction between so-called ‘Reform Democrats’ and Speaker Mattiello flared when Rep. Kathleen Fogarty (D-South Kingstown) fired off an open letter criticizing Mattiello for using correction fluid to remove her name from a URI governance bill. Mattiello fired back, defending Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick) for making the change, and asserting that, “in a bullying and belligerent manner, [Fogarty] grabbed the bill from him and affixed her signature to it” after not having worked on it. About half of the 19 or so original ‘Reform Democrats’ have returned to Mattiello’s camp, removing potential doubts about the speaker’s ability to pass a budget on the floor. Meanwhile, the URI governance bill, sponsored in the House by Mattiello, is poised for potential action in House Finance on Monday. URI President David Dooley has been pushing the bill for some time. But Gov. Raimondo is not a fan of the idea of removing oversight of the state Board of Governors for Higher Education. “This is a very complicated bill proposing a dramatic change in governance that would have significant implications for our state-run higher education system,” she said in a statement. “We need to take a thoughtful approach to vetting this proposal as there are many unanswered questions. This bill should not be rushed through late in session.”
13) Globe columnist Kevin Cullen calls Thomas Tobin the Trump of Roman Catholic bishops. For his part, Tobin tried undoing the controversy he sparked with an attention-getting tweet, saying: “I regret that my comments yesterday about Pride Month have turned out to be so controversial in our community, and offensive to some, especially the gay community. That certainly was not my intention, but I understand why a good number of individuals have taken offense. I also acknowledge and appreciate the widespread support I have received on this matter. The Catholic Church has respect and love for members of the gay community, as do I. Individuals with same-sex attraction are beloved children of God and our brothers and sisters. As a Catholic Bishop, however, my obligation before God is to lead the faithful entrusted to my care and to teach the faith, clearly and compassionately, even on very difficult and sensitive issues. That is what I have always tried to do - on a variety of issues - and I will continue doing so as contemporary issues arise.”
14) Congratulations and best wishes to Jennifer Bogdan, Gov. Raimondo’s hard-working communications director, and British import Alun Jones, who are getting married in the bride’s native New Jersey this weekend. Family pets Walter Cronkite and Jenson Button will be taking ‘Bogdan Jones’ as their last names.
15) Michael Jonas of CommonWealth Magazine makes a point about media coverage of shootings, like the fatal one this week involving a cab driver in Boston’s Back Bay and charges against a Pawtucket man: “The argument for the flood-the-zone coverage, of course, is that the more out of the ordinary an event, the more newsworthy it is. By that measure, it’s certainly true that daytime shootings in the Back Bay are unusual. But it’s hard to ignore the obvious disparity between this coverage and that given to the dozens of other homicides that occur in the city each year, and hard to avoid the sense, at least as projected by media attention, that gun mayhem is to be expected in crime-prone neighborhoods and lives lost to it there are cheaper.”
16) The PR Club of New England recognized Duffy & Shanley, the Providence PR and ad shop, as the best overall communications campaign of 2018 for its work on last year’s Dunkin’ Iced Coffee Day effort.
17) Get yourself to PVDFest this weekend.