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January 3, 2013

Please stop by to visit the new Web site of Rhode Island Public Radio.

You can find the On Politics blog here.

Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

Senate bill would delay parts of state education merger until September

January 2, 2013

A bill introduced Wednesday by state Senator Hanna Gallo would delay until September 1 the “final plan for the permanent administrative structure” for the controversial combined state Board of Education.

In a signal of a green light for the bill, cosponsors include Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio.

As previously reported, Gallo’s bill would delay until March 7  the creation of a comined education board.  But  her legislation pushes back the finalization of the administrative structure, as well as the deadline for the first report on the implementation of the merger, until September 1.  

The merger of boards for K-12 and public higher education was approved with little notice as part of the budget debate in the House last June. Lorne Adrain, the outgoing chair of the Board of Governors for Higher Education, in an interview with RIPR, characterized the process as typical of pre-democratic societies.

On the Friday before Christmas, the Chafee administration issued a news release indicating George Caruolo had asked to take his name out of consideration as the chair of the combined education board. Caruolo was named as the chairman of the merged education board in November.

Proponents of the merger, including House Finance chairman Helio Melo, describe it as a necessary part of trying to improve public education Rhode Island.

Mediating the pension overhaul — and what it means for 2014

January 2, 2013

The court-ordered pension mediation set to begin this month will take place against an intensifying political backdrop: the early stage of the 2014 gubernatorial race. State Treasurer Gina Raimondo says politics can remain separate and apart from the mediation process.

During a wide-ranging interview set for broadcast Thursday morning on RIPR, Raimondo pointed to the pension overhaul passed into law in 2011 as an example of policy-making in the public interest. 

Raimondo, an expected gubernatorial candidate in 2014, favored litigating the pension case before Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter last month ordered mediation. The treasurer pledges a good-fath effort, and says the 2011 pension overhaul shows that political considerations need not enter into the court-ordered mediation: 

“I’m so proud of the work the General Assembly did, and I believe the reason that whole process — which was transparent and many months long — was successful is because, by and large, people did leave politics aside. You know, they acted out of interest to protect all Rhode Islanders and to protect peoples’ pensions.

“I’m confident that the great work that led to this reform that has made Rhode Island a national leader in the regard — Rhode Island is now known as the state that put politics aside to do the right thing for the people. And I think we’re going to stay on that path.” 

It’s really not accurate, though, to say politics wasn’t a key part of the 2011 pension overhaul; One can no sooner take politics out of the Statehouse than oxygen. Thanks in large part to Raimondo’s skillful use of the bully pulpit, the political cost of voting against the overhaul became greater than the cost of voting for it.

When out of town reporters and others talk about the supposedly apolitical nature of the reform, what they should have said  is how the overhaul’s promoters tried to not make it personal.

Bringing the issue into the present, the court-ordered pension mediation could have big political consequences for 2014. What those consequences are depend on what emerges.

Governor Lincoln Chafee received key public-sector union support when he won election in 2010. In the time before mediation was ordered by Judge Taft-Carter, Chafee was a characteristically early supporter of negotiating with labor. 

Neither Chafee nor Raimondo would comment on what specific criteria they’ll use in assessing whether to support a possible settlement.

If a settlement emerges that preserves the majority of savings from the pension overhaul while buying labor peace, Chafee might be inclined to hail that a victory. Raimondo could potentially call it a watering-down of a law approved for the benefit of taxpayers.

The big question, of course, is what — if anything — comes out of mediation.

RI political history tells us to hedge bets

January 2, 2013

With a new year comes the inevitable round of Rhode Island political prognosticating. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says anybody who says they know what is going to happen probably doesn’t.

The past often provides a roadmap to the future. This is the case with Rhode Island political predictions. Every election cycle one candidate or another becomes “`the lock,’’ the overwhelming favorite to become the next governor or senator or congressional representative

What we are here to tell you as the new year dawns and election cycle speculation accelerates is to beware the pollsters, pundits, political science professors and politicians. And don’t put stock in predictions from Democrats, Republicans or moderates.

Rhode Island’s long and florid political history tells us that our state’s voters are adept at confounding the early predictions. And the favored politicians all too frequently play along by running desultory campaigns that doom them.

So let’s run the reel back a few years. What is remarkable about Rhode Island politics is how often the “can’t lose’’ candidates, the front-runners of  18 to 24 months  away from an election, have gone down to ignominious defeats.

This front-runner syndrome has played out in U.S. Senate and congressional elections, but has been most pronounced in elections for governor.

At the beginning of the 1972 cycle, it appeared that  Republican John Chafee, the former governor,  was headed for a U.S. Senate victory over Democratic incumbent Claiborne Pell; one respected poll had Chafee up 20 points. When the votes were counted that November, Pell, buoyed by growing opposition to the Vietnam War, handily defeated Chafee.

In 1976, everybody who is anybody in politics figured the U.S. Senate matchup would be between then-Gov. Phil Noel, a Democrat, and Chafee. Then Noel lost the primary to Richard Lorber, a wealthy, little-known car dealer who spent a fortune. Lorber lost to Chafee.

Flip the remote to 1980. At the beginning of this campaign, Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, then a Republican, had a shot to become the next governor. He was clobbered by Democratic Gov. Joe Garrahy, the genial master of the outstretched hand and the hi-how-are-ya.

In 1984, all the experts pegged Warwick Democratic Mayor Joe Walsh as the next governor. Walsh, who had the Democratic Party endorsement, never got out of a caustic primary against Gen. Treasurer Anthony Solomon, who lost to Republican Ed DiPrete, the Cranston mayor.

By 1990, the chattering classes and the pundits anointed Providence Democratic Mayor Joe Paolino as the odds-on governorship choice. Paolino had the party endorsement, but he never made it out of the primary, losing to businessman Bruce Sundlun, who crushed DiPrete.

All those elections were for two year governor terms. But in the aftermath of the banking crisis, the General Assembly, prodded by the business community, moved to 4-year terms. Cianci was back again, this time in his second reign as mayor, riding the crest of the Providence Renaissance.

But the Democrats who ran the General Assembly didn’t want Cianci bringing his pay-to-play political brand to the State House (it turned out some Democrats were running their own), so the Assembly shifted the new four-year governor terms to the capital city’s mayoral cycle. That meant that Cianci had to give up running for mayor if he wanted to contest the governorship. He never did.

By 1994, Sundlun’s approval ratings were imploding. Republican Congressman Ron Machley appeared to be on a path to be the state’s first 4-year term governor. Machtley had the GOP endorsement and support from such top Republicans as John Chafee. But Macthley lost the primary to Lincoln Almond, who narrowly won the State House over Democrat Myrth York.

When Almond’s two terms were up and the 2002 cycle rolled around, Democratic Atty. Gen. Sheldon Whitehouse was the consensus choice for governor. Whitehouse lost the primary to York, who was defeated by Republican Don Carcieri.

As the New Year’s Eve champagne toasts heralding 2010 were poured, Gen. Treas. Frank Caprio was the front-runner for governor. Caprio crashed after telling President Barack Obama to “shove’’ his endorsement and independent Linc Chafee ended up with the big office on the 2nd floor of the State House.

And the one element all the self-appointed experts agreed on at the beginning of the 2012 election was that the Providence financial mess had ended any chance for Congressman David Cicilline’s reelection. He, of course, waltzed to victory.

After you sing Auld Lang Syne tonight and the talk turns to who is likely to be the next governor, all the insiders will have opinions. Gina Raimondo, you say. How about Angel Taveras? Maybe Alan Fung?

Before you make a predtiction, remember the words of the Bible: “The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong…but time and chance happeneth to them all.’’

Don’t bet money on your pick. And have a happy, healthy and peaceful 2013.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at




Fox, Paiva Weed easily regain leadership posts; pledge heightened economic focus

January 1, 2013

Gordon Fox 01-01-13House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed cruised to re-election in their leadership positions Tuesday while pledging increased legislative attention to trying to boost Rhode Island’s underperforming economy.

Fox, who has served as speaker since 2010, won another term on a 66-6 vote, with the six-member House Republican faction voting for GOP minority leader Brian Newberry. Abstaining from the vote were Representatives Spencer Dickinson (who had backed Fox’s rep opponent, Mark Binder); Patrick O’Neill (who split from Fox’s leadership team) and John Lombardi (who didn’t attend a House leadership caucus).

Paiva Weed was re-elected with the support of every senator except Republican Dawson Hodgson. She has signaled plans for a bigger focus on jobs and the economy in the new session.

Fox did likewise in comments following his re-election as speaker. Without naming his opponent, he referenced his re-election challenge by Mark Binder and how a constituent questioned whether he deserved a kick in the pants because of the state’s disastrous investment in 38 Studios. Fox said it remains incumbent on elected officials to do better and move beyond past mistakes:

“It didn’t work, apologize, but don’t stop from keep pushing, from keep trying. It means you try a little harder, you do a little different.”

 The speaker outlined these efforts to try to bolster the economy:

— a January 17 economic conference at Rhode Island College meant to spark “specific policy changes that we address this session.”

— An attempt to better coordinate job skills training programs.

— “I am committed to looking closely and then taking legislative action to restructure the EDC [state Economic Development Corporation].

— Fox says he backs the RI Public Expenditure Council’s call for “a coordinated effort involving education, job skills training, transportation and infrastructure, regulatory reform and tax policies. I also embrace RIPEC’s concept of the Council of Economic Advisers to develop a consistent plan for long-term economic success.”

As seen in the photo at the top of this post, Fox was joined at the rostrum for his swearing-in by his domestic partner, Marcus LaFond — a scene that once would have been hard to imagine in the House.

Fox says he expects a same-sex marriage bill to be introduced in the House as soon as this week. In an interview, he called on the Senate to pass it, although he says he’s received no assurances from Paiva Weed about the bill’s chances of success in the other chamber.

Are there too many lawyers in the General Assembly?

December 31, 2012

As the General Assembly starts a new session on Tuesday, one legislative constant will remain unchanged — a lot of the 113 lawmakers on Smith Hill are lawyers.

The ProJo’s Political Scene says there are 24 lawyers in the legislature — 15 in the 75-member House and nine in the 38-member Senate:

The list includes House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, both expected to be reelected by their respective chambers. It includes others in powerful positions, among them: House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, House Majority Whip Stephen Ucci, D-Johnston, House Deputy Whip Christopher Blazejewski, D-Providence, and House Deputy Speaker Donald Lally, D-Narragansett.

It’s understandable that lawyers gravitate to politics; there’s common ground, after all, between legal work and the sometimes-abstruse process of legislating. 

Yet some view the broader prevalence of lawyers in government as a sign of the hostile terrain facing blue-collar workers with political aspirations.

Moderate Party head Ken Block recently argued that lawyers are so commonplace in the Assembly since their professional schedules permit them to fit in legislative public service. That was part of Block’s rationale in calling for shorter legislative sessions — a move , he says, that would promote a greater variety of occupations among lawmakers:

When in session, the General Assembly meets three days a week (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday), usually beginning the session day at 4:00pm. Legislators serve on committees that typically meet directly after the daily legislative floor sessions, with committee hearings running from 4:30 or 5:00pm until sometimes quite late in the evening. This schedule is not at all friendly to most standard 8 hour a day workers with a family at home. …

It does not need to be this way.

 The vast majority of states with part time legislatures meet for far less time than the Rhode Island legislature. According to data I pulled from the National Conference of State Legislatures, 30 state legislatures meet for a shorter session than Rhode Island, many of them for far less time than the Rhode Island legislature. 

11 states complete their sessions within 3 calendar months, and another 5 only meet biennially.

Suffice it to say, the General Assembly didn’t rush to consider Block’s concept. There are also additional reasons for why more people don’t run for public office, including a distaste for public scrutiny and the perennial struggles of the state GOP. 

Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of longer versus shorter legislative sessions.

So with lawyers set to remain part and parcel of the legislative mainstream, making better use of the sessions lingers as an ideal.

TGIF: 12 answers to RI’s top political questions of 2012

December 28, 2012

We’re offering a slight break from TGIF’s usual format this week with a look back at how 12 of the big questions of Rhode Island politics played out in 2012. As always, feel free to share your thoughts and comments on the blog or by email: idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org.

Question 1. Will Governor Lincoln Chafee offer a more coherent message that helps lift his slumping approval rating?

Answer: Chafee went into 2012 with a 27 approval rating in a Brown University survey. By October, WPRI put the governor’s backing at a virtually identical 29 percent. Chafee continues to march to his own drummer, without much apparent concern for how he’s perceived — and with uncertain impact for his re-election hopes in 2014.

Question 2. Will the General Assembly approve a meaningful overhaul of severely underfunded locally managed pension funds in an election year?

Answer: No. As expected in an election year, the legislature opted to leave the issue for cities and towns to resolve. Some of those  clamoring for legislative help made progress through negotiations. Yet other communities, like West Warwick, continue to struggle, and more still face severely under-funded local pensions. 

Question 3. Will Rhode Island be able to stanch the bleeding from a leading revenue source when casinos open for business in Massachusetts?

Answer:  It’s not entirely clear whether expanded gambling at Twin River in Lincoln, set to ramp up in the new year, will preserve Rhode Island’s big revenue stream from gambling in the face of new casinos planned in Massachusetts. But it’s probably too much to hope that it does. Legislators acknowledged as much during a budget debate last June. A best-case scenario, they suggested, might be preventing even greater erosion in a key source of state revenue.

Question 4. Will the hangover from Providence’s fiscal problems prove the undoing of David Cicilline, or will the incumbent survive, thanks to his energy, fundraising, reshaped congressional district, and how he’ll be running during a presidential election?

Answer: The Cook Political Report was prophetic when it likened Cicilline to Lazarus in the weeks before the November election. The freshman Democrat, helped by President Obama’s coattails and the locally toxic reputation of national Republicans, cruised to a surprisingly large victory over Republican Brendan Doherty.

Question 5. Will labor rebuild its influence on the General Assembly, or will Gina Raimondo and Engage RI have a lasting impact?

Yes, on both counts. Defeating conservative Woonsocket Democrat Jon Brien was among labor’s legislative victories. Raimondo has remained a media favorite, and she came out in support of disclosing EngageRI’s donors after the group got some big exposure in the Wall Street Journal. Many eyes remain upon Raimondo as we move closer to 2014.

Question 6. Will other fossilized deposits of old-school Providence mismanagement and cronyism surface?

The Providence Economic Development Partnership offered grist to help some stay busy for much of the year.

Question 7. Will Rhode Island be able to move past its perennial struggles to bolster economic development and competitiveness?

Answer: No, although we did see a sharper rift between Governor Chafee defending his approach and other individuals (Gary Sasse) and groups (RIPEC, the RI Foundation, etc.) calling for more idea, energy, and focus.

Question 8. Will the Providence Journal’s recently adopted online approach enable the state’s largest news organization to  stanch the bleeding in its print subscriptions and ad revenue?

Answer: Not so much, at least not yet, and more talent and expenses got cut on Fountain Street.

Question 9.  Will the pension law linger as a singular accomplishment, or will it signal a new ability on the part of state government to tackle other complicated policy problems?

Answer: The meltdown of 38 Studios — Rhode Island’s top story of the year — lingered as a hard-to-forget example of bad government. In the area of public policy and politics, there was nothing in 2012 to match the boldness of the pension overhaul a year earlier.

Question 10. Will Angel Taveras be able to maintain his high approval rating while continuing to fight big fiscal challenges in the state’s most important city, possibly with another tax increase?

Answer: The mayor had a strong year, keeping his approval rating up while drawing a series of new contributions from non-profits and closing cost-cutting deals with city unions.

Question 11. How will the increased spending from outside groups made possible by Citizens United impact RI elections and campaigns?

Answer: There was some noise around the margins, but big spenders on a national level didn’t always emerge as winners.

Question 12. Will the RI Republican Party, after losing an experienced leader with high-level experience in Ken McKay, be able to increase its modest presence in the General Assembly?

Answer: No. Despite what continues to seem like a fertile atmosphere for an alternative to legislative Democrats, the RI GOP continues to struggle. Every legislative Democrat who sought election in November won their race, and the Republican presence on Smith Hill is shrinking from 18 to 11 lawmakers.