The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RIMay 18th, 2013 at 5:00 am by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post
1. Providence’s push for a new Ocean State Regional Water Authority deserves a closer look. The bill, which was supposed to get a hearing Thursday but got yanked from the agenda, would pave the way for the city-owned Providence Water Supply Board to lease its system to the new authority. Notably, any lease or sale agreement entered into by the Ocean State Regional Water Authority wouldn’t be subject to approval by the R.I. Public Utilities Commission; if the capital city got a big upfront payment under the terms of the lease, the new water authority would presumably need to borrow a significant amount to pay the tab – money that would come out of ratepayers’ water bills. The new authority would also still need to come up with a lot of cash over the coming decades to pay for more than $300 million in water-infrastructure projects. Selling a water supply isn’t a new idea – London’s system is privately owned and operated, though not without its critics – but if Providence needs cash and the water system needs capital, it’s unclear if a quasi-public is the best approach. An alternative option would be selling or leasing Providence Water to a private company. For example, Aquarion Water Co., a division of Australia’s Macquarie Group, is in talks to buy yet another Connecticut town’s water system, with the promise of cash and new property-tax revenue once the deal goes through. Perhaps a firm like Aquarion could bring capital from outside Rhode Island to invest in the water system. The privatization option is at least worth considering if Providence Water is keen to change the current regime.
2. This week marks the 65th anniversary of the end of passenger trolley-car service in Providence. The United Electrical Railways’ last streetcar ended its final trip at the Swan Point trolley shelter in the early hours of May 15, 1948. “It was, thus, officially ending a transportation era, which began in Rhode Island in 1864, with horsecars,” a local journalist remarked at the time. “The first line was electrified in 1892 and trolley cars hung on despite introduction of busses [sic] in 1932 and trackless trolleys in 1931.” Has the time come for streetcars to make a grand return to Providence (if not Blackstone Boulevard)? Mayor Angel Taveras included the idea in his big economic-development plan, though funding remains elusive; possible solutions have been offered by Jef Nickerson and Stephen Miller.
3. While taping “Lively Experiment” on Thursday, Director of Administration Richard Licht good-naturedly chastised me for overlooking the “silver lining” of Rhode Island’s falling unemployment rate and instead focusing on the state’s shrinking work force. To the extent that reduced unemployment is a sign of reduced human misery, Licht is right to see good news. The question is how much that’s the case. Since January 2010, when the jobless rate peaked, the number of unemployed Rhode Islanders has fallen by 18,510 – yet the number of employed Rhode Islanders has risen by only 5,624. If those 12,886 unemployed-but-uncounted workers had stayed in the labor force, Rhode Island’s April unemployment rate would have been 11.2%. While that’s still better than the 11.9% unemployment rate of January 2010, it would be far less positive than last month’s actual reported jobless rate of 8.8%. And this isn’t a universal phenomenon: the 6.4% April jobless rate in Massachusetts doesn’t change when you carry out the same exercise, because the Bay State has increased total employment and the size of the labor force since the worst of the recession. That said, DLT statistician Donna Murray told me Friday she thinks a key reason for the recent drop is delayed retirements finally taking place: raw data shows the number of Rhode Islanders ages 55 and older who weren’t in the labor force because they don’t want a job jumped by 15,800 from December to April.
4. We’ve read a lot about various controversies surrounding the Obama administration this week, but some of the most thoughtful critiques of the president didn’t have to do with the daily headlines – they have to do with his entire foreign policy. First there’s Mark Ambinder’s review of “The Dispensable Nation,” which he describes as “the best anti-Obama book I’ve read” thanks to Vali Nasr’s critique of “a president with extreme myopia.” It fits right in with two other new pieces on Obama’s Syria policy: Dexter Filkins’ long New Yorker analysis, and Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest Bloomberg View column.
5. A loyal and good-looking Saturday Morning Post reader informs me Rhode Island’s capital gets a mention from indie band Vampire Weekend on their new album. The lyrics to “Hannah Hunt,” the sixth track on the release, begin: “A gardener told me some plants move / But I could not believe it / Til me and Hannah hunt / Saw crawling vines and weeping willows / As we made our from Providence to Phoenix.” Long trip.
6. The New York Times’ David Carr has a must-read column this week about the disastrous business strategy of Advance Publications in New Orleans, where their Times-Picayune is under assault from The Advocate of Baton Rouge. A recent raid of Times-Pic journalists by The Advocate, Carr writes, “served as a reminder that The Times-Picayune’s former monopoly over talent was a thing of the past. That doesn’t mean that The Advocate will have anywhere near the impact on New Orleans that The Times-Picayune once did, or that it will magically defy the laws of contemporary publishing economics. But it does suggest that Advance’s belief that it had New Orleans to itself and could do as it wished was deeply mistaken.”
7. This week’s dispatch from WPRI.com ace Dan McGowan: “Providence City Council President Michael Solomon this week announced plans to create a 15-member commission tasked with studying the vacant ‘Superman building’ and other potential economic-development projects throughout the city. Both the council and the Taveras administration have expressed concern about offering incentives to help turn the 111 Westminster St. property into apartments – the city has already approved 13 tax stabilization deals since 2011 – but Councilman Terry Hassett said the city must find a way to preserve the iconic structure: ‘We simply cannot allow 111 Westminster to languish,’ he said. No matter what recommendations the new commission makes for the building, the state will still need to subsidize at least some of the project, according to Bill Fischer, a spokesman for High Rock Development, which owns the property. Fischer said his client has continued to meet with Governor Chafee, Mayor Taveras and House and Senate leadership and that he hopes leaders are beginning to understand the magnitude of the project. ‘It’s hard to imagine a refurbished Kennedy Plaza with an empty Superman building sitting next it,’ Fischer told WPRI.com.” Read all of Dan’s reporting here.
8. Congratulations to The Providence Journal’s Phil Marcelo, who was selected this week as one of the International Center for Journalists’ 14 International Reporting Fellows for 2013. Phil will travel to Liberia in mid-July to report for the Projo on how Rhode Islanders are helping the country rebuild after its civil war. By coincidence, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was in Washington this week, where she met with both U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and Congressman David Cicilline.
9. Rhode Island PBS was kind enough to include me on the panel for this week’s episode of “A Lively Experiment,” along with Richard Licht, Gary Sasse and Maureen Moakley. Topics include the State House fight over economic development, the various scandals in Washington, and whether Richard deserved that raise. Watch tonight at 7 p.m. on WSBE Learn (Ch. 36.2), Sunday at noon on WSBE-TV (Ch. 36.1) or online at the RI PBS blog.
10. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – former Treasurer Frank Caprio in his first TV interview since the 2010 campaign. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – ShapeUp CEO Rajiv Kumar. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). See you back here next Saturday morning.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the Ocean State Regional Water Authority wouldn’t be subject to oversight by the R.I. Public Utilities Commission; the authority’s lease and sale agreements would not be subject to the commission’s oversight, but its other activities would be.
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