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Rhode Island Tip Sheet: Providence’s “Category 5 hurricane”

March 3, 2011

STATE OF THE CITY: Providence Mayor Angel Taveras likens the fiscal distress in Rhode Island’s largest city to a “Category 5 hurricane.” His response includes closing four to six schools, a 10 percent cut in his office, similar cuts to city department’s for next year, renegotiating city contracts and more. The fiscal review panel assembled by Taveras cites $828 million in unfunded pension liability, and a whopping $1.5 billion in unfunded liability for retiree healthcare benefits. The mayor calls a property tax hike likely to help close budget gaps.

HOW DID IT HAPPEN? Taveras told reporters the city’s fiscal problems are worse than he imagined. But he refused to point fingers. This from colleague Catherine Welch:  “When asked repeatedly whether former Providence Mayor David Cicilline was to blame for the financial mess, Taveras said blame wasn’t going to balance the city’s budget. Providence City Council President Michael Solomon says city council did not know the extent of the financial crises. ‘We can only make assessments on the numbers that are provided to us, that’s the only way we can make a true assessment. And we have to rely on the numbers that are given to us,’ says Solomon. ‘So if the numbers are off, the only way we’re going to know is if we start duplicating the work to make sure it’s done in an honest and efficient way.’ ”

BACK STORY: Taveras was part of Cicilline’s team in responding to possible voting irregularities during the decisive September 2002 Democratic primary that led Cicilline to two terms at City Hall. Yet it wasn’t surprising when the two men kept a public distance during last year’s mayoral campaign.

BIRTHDAY PRESENT: Republican John Loughlin staged three news conferences in three days after Cicilline won last September’s Democratic primary in the First Congressional District. In one, Loughlin tried to link Cicilline to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Loughlin celebrates his birthday today, and you can bet he’s taking notes on Providence’s fiscal condition.

STATE-CITY TIES: Ted Nesi notes how the state isn’t getting involved, as it did with Central Falls, in Providence . . . . Ted has more on the findings of Taveras’ fiscal review panel.

EDUCATION: Colleague Elisabeth Harrison got some big play with her NPR story on the battle between Mayor Taveras and Providence teachers . . . . Elisabeth also has RISD President John Maeda’s response to a no-confidence vote . . . . ProJo editorializes against George Caruolo’s nomination to chair the Regents.

SALES TAX: Governor Lincoln Chafee told me his budget will include his one percent sales tax on currently exempt items. Representative John Edwards says he has a better approach: cut the tax from 7 percent to 3 percent over four years while exempting some key areas.

STAFFERS: Raymonde Charles moves from RI Kids Count to Congressman Cicilline’s DC staff.

RI’S FUTURE, WE HARDLY KNEW YA: Rhode Island’s Future was a blog powerhouse back in the Matt Jerzyk era. Nesi did a great job in sleuthing out how RI’s Future got taken for an unexpected ride. And current owner Brian Hull tells ProJo he’ll hand over the blog for no financial gain (not free, as initially stated here).

ARF: Robert Krulwich wonders: are dogs self-conscious?

REPUBLICANS: Slate says a new NBC-WSJ poll offers a wakeup call for Republicans: “The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that Americans are more worried about job creation and economic growth than the federal deficit. And while they ‘find some budget cuts acceptable, they are adamantly opposed to cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and K-12 education.’ A GOP pollster who helped conduct the survey called the results ‘a huge flashing yellow sign to Republicans’ and pointed out that the people ‘most concerned about spending cuts are core Republicans and Tea Party supporters, not independents and swing voters.’ Steve Benen seconds that: ‘the party’s agenda is appealing to its far-right base, not the American mainstream,’ he says. ‘The public isn’t buying what the GOP is selling.’ Kevin Drum agrees. ‘The tea party is still a pretty small part of America no matter how loudly they yell or how much attention the media pays to them,’ he says. ‘Out in real America, people want to tax the rich, cut stupid weapons programs, and stop subsidizing prosperous oil companies. They don’t want to cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or education.’ That means Democrats ‘most likely hold all the cards in a budget showdown,’ if they can “manage to agree on a halfway coherent message.’ ”

POLITICS OF OIL: Nate Silver notes how rising oil prices pose a risk for President Obama.

DISAPPOINTED: Matt Damon on Obama.

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