The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RIJune 22nd, 2013 at 5:00 am by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post
1. One of the most telling parts of the House Finance budget approved this week has gotten very little attention – a provision to stop putting surplus tax revenue into the pension fund. Ponder this: Rhode Island is currently embroiled in a lawsuit that hinges on whether state lawmakers acted legally when they made an unprecedented decision to cut retirees’ pension benefits by $3 billion; the defense argues there were no reasonable alternatives and lawmakers will fund the pension system going forward. Yet that budget provision will cost the pension fund nearly $13 million in 2013-14 alone, even as the state spends $2.5 million on a legally optional 38 Studios bond payment. NEARI’s Robert Walsh, a savvy labor strategist, connected the dots in a tweet: “Paying Schilling bond, not making $13 million contribution, all useful in court.” If Rhode Island loses the pension suit, taxpayers’ pension deposit in 2014-15 will be more than $300 million higher – yet the General Assembly can’t even find an extra $13 million for it this year. How will they pay the tab if the unions win? If nothing else, wouldn’t the $13 million be a good insurance policy, as Chafee once suggested? It’s not like the pension fund doesn’t need the money, even with the 2011 changes in place. Yet Robbie Hiltonsmith, author of the new EPI study critical of Rhode Island’s changes, tweeted that he isn’t surprised, writing: “States will always underfund DBs unless they’re legally required to make the ARC.” Sure looks that way.
2. As for the rest of the budget, there’s not much to say since it basically stays the course. If you’re OK with current fiscal policy in Rhode Island, you’ll probably be comfortable with this budget; if you’re not, you won’t be. And that’s arguably the budget strategy Rhode Islanders voted for last fall: not a single Democratic lawmaker lost re-election in November, and this tax-and-spending plan doesn’t tinker much with the status quo that they and their predecessors have put in place over recent years.
3. There’s a changing of the guard in the C-suite of The Providence Journal’s Dallas parent company, A.H. Belo, as CEO Robert Decherd steps aside and hands the reins to his right-hand man and heir apparent Jim Moroney, Dallas Morning News publisher since 2001 (and Decherd’s second cousin). Decherd wrote in a farewell letter, ”The Providence Journal and [California's] Press-Enterprise have performed admirably in two of the hardest-hit markets in the country – a testament to the talented people who are dedicated to carrying forward the proud traditions of those distinguished papers.” Decherd is also chairman of the board at Belo Corp., the TV company that jettisoned its newspapers by creating A.H. Belo, and he presumably made quite a windfall when Gannett bought Belo for $1.5 billion last week. “Belo Corp.’s most steadfast shareholders were made whole more than five years after the media company got out of the newspaper business,” Bloomberg reported, “and they have Gannett Co. to thank.”
4. Is Congressman Jim Langevin still anti-abortion? Rhode Island Right to Life has criticized him before for his votes in the U.S. House, and they probably won’t be happy that he joined David Cicilline, 188 other Democrats and six Republicans this week in voting against a major anti-abortion bill. (It passed 228-196, but isn’t likely to get a vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate.) In a statement released by his office, Langevin told me his opposition to the measure isn’t hypocritical. “My vote reflected my view that any abortion restrictions that go beyond the long-established contours of Roe v. Wade should be left to the individual states,” the Warwick Democrat said.
5. Speaking of Congress, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse apparently has a fan in former Vice President Al Gore. “Sheldon Whitehouse has become the leading United States Senate advocate for solving the climate crisis, and you ought to be very proud,” Gore told attendees at Whitehouse’s environmental event earlier this month. It was a rare appearance on Capitol Hill for Gore, HuffPo reports: “I don’t come to Washington that much anymore. I’m a recovering politician, on about Step 9,” he joked, “but when Sheldon called me and asked me to do this event, I readily agreed.”
6. Something to watch from ace WPRI.com scribe Dan McGowan: “The 2014 Democratic primary is scheduled for Sept. 9, but if Providence Mayor Angel Taveras is going to mount a successful run for governor, another date will likely be on his mind in the coming months: Aug. 31, 2014 – the day the Providence Teachers Union contract expires. The consensus following Governor Chafee’s decision to keep Education Commissioner Deborah Gist was that Taveras would become a union favorite, but he is likely to feel pressure from education reformers and City Council members to negotiate a deal that looks more like the New Haven contract than the one he signed in 2011. That could mean scrapping the no-layoff stipulation; a more forceful approach to teacher evaluations; and lengthening the school day – all controversial policies the union isn’t likely to embrace unless they’re tied to raises. Taveras’s relationship with the teachers has improved dramatically since he issued pink slips to every educator in the city shortly after taking office, but he remains a proponent of charter schools, standardized testing – though he’s against the NECAP graduation requirement – and teacher evaluations, which has earned him national recognition among reform advocates.”
7. Don’t look now, but Woonsocket appears to be in serious trouble. Some background from previous Nesi’s Notes coverage: why the city is in a death spiral despite its high taxes, why its pension fund will run out in 10 years after a disastrous decision in 2002, and why its schools are underfunded.
8. Take the time to read GSN CEO David Goldhill’s provocative Bloomberg View column about medicine in the U.S., which implicitly cast a pox on both political parties’ houses (as well as their policy prescriptions). “The American health-care monster rests on a powerful political coalition of seniors groups, ideological liberals and what is by far the country’s largest industry,” he writes. “That influence is felt at every stage of policy-making and administration, impeding the government’s existing ample authority to drive quality, value and even safety. Their shared opposition to any attempt to control demand through government, or even private, action leaves us stuck with industrial policy posing as a public safety net – and not a very strong one.”
9. Ain’t no party like a charter party! That’s the old saying, right? Rhode Island’s 1663 colonial charter is celebrating its 350th anniversary this weekend – a document which, “for the first time in the modern world, set up a government that gave absolute religious freedom to citizens,” as Scott MacKay put it. There are events all day Saturday at the State House and then Roger Williams National Memorial down the hill, with a gala reception in the evening to help fund the new Charter Museum and its preservation. More details here.
10. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – R.I. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite - Scott Gibbs of the Economic Development Foundation of Rhode Island and Dan Aziz, co-founder of Premama manufacturer Luna Pharmaceuticals. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV, or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox. See you back here next Saturday morning.
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