The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RIJune 29th, 2013 at 5:00 am by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post
1. Rhode Island’s nascent craft-brewing industry has been a good-news economic story recently. From Foolproof Brewing and Bucket Brewery in Pawtucket to the Rhode Island Brew Fest next month, there’s a palpable energy and enthusiasm among the state’s beer entrepreneurs, so much so that Rhode Island Monthly featured them on its cover in February. But experts say you should tax things you want less of, so apparently state lawmakers want fewer beer startups – because they just raised the excise tax on beer 10%, effective Monday. While the excise tax on wine and spirits is going up, too, the sales tax on those two is going away in December – not on beer, though. “It’s disappointing news to see that beer would be singled out like that,” Foolproof founder Nick Garrison told me. “How many growing industries do we have in Rhode Island? Beer is certainly one of them, and here we are talking about higher taxes.” The key player on this is Democratic Rep. Jan Malik, who owns a liquor store in Warren and says the sales tax on alcohol puts him at a competitive disadvantage with Massachusetts retailers. Garrison thinks the change means consumers will ultimately pay more for beer in Rhode Island: “Someone that loves beer and drinks a lot of beer responsibly and is willing to pay a premium, they’re going to go over to Massachusetts to buy their beer.” On the bright side, at least Garrison’s business is “moving the needle.” Foolproof started selling in January and had to double its capacity by March; it’s now expanded into Massachusetts and employs five people full-time. “We’re already looking and planning our next expansion,” he said.
2. Stunning as it was to see House Speaker Gordon Fox lose a key budget vote Tuesday night, it’s not necessarily a sign he’s becoming John Boehner – though it does raise doubts about his leadership team’s ability to judge the mood of the House. The proposal at issue – skipping a $12.9-million bonus pension payment – was unpalatable for many Democrats still queasy about Gina Raimondo’s 2011 overhaul, especially considering how much they’ve learned about responsible retirement funding. To the credit of Fox and Helio Melo, they accepted the judgment of the chamber and cut $12.9 million elsewhere rather than try some parliamentary maneuver to force a do-over. But will there be consequences later for the rebel legislators?
3. You know the vacant land on Francis Street next to the State House, between the Rhode Island Credit Union and the Masonic Temple? The one with the anti-Brown University sign in the middle? Pretty soon the state may own it. A provision tucked into the newly passed 2013-14 budget allows the state government to pay $3.15 million – up to $70 per square foot – for the land. Richard Licht, Governor Chafee’s director of administration, tells me he’s already negotiated an agreement in principle with the various owners, who include former Senate Majority Leader John Hawkins. “It may be 25 years or more before we actually put a building on it, but we’ll never get it for a lower price,” Licht said, saying the state has paid between $100 and $130 per square foot for other parcels in the area. According to Licht, for now the Chafee administration wants to use the land for surface parking (though Greater City: Providence’s Jef Nickerson tells me that could violate the Capital Center Commission’s rules as well as Providence’s zoning ordinance). Licht says the budget will allow him to go before the powerful State Properties Committee to finalize the deal.
4. A must-read on PRISM and privacy by Ben Brooks: “As much as I’d like to place the blame squarely at the feet of the Government, I see little logic in that argument. Let’s step back and look at the U.S. at a macro level: The country we see does not seem concerned about privacy in the least. We blindly turn over troves of marketing data about ourselves, without even reading what will be done with that data, in the name of, well, getting our desired username on the latest and greatest service.”
5. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed was one of a number of Democrats who celebrated this week’s Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act – even though they voted for the law back in 1996. What younger Rhode Islanders may not realize is that one of their state’s former senators – the late Claiborne Pell – was among the 14 who originally voted no on the Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed by Bill Clinton. Pell was 77 and just a few months away from retirement when the DOMA vote took place (Reed was elected to succeed him two months later) but he’d been an early supporter of gay rights; his daughter Julia Pell, who died in 2006, was a lesbian and an activist. Rhode Island’s delegation split on the Defense of Marriage Act in both chambers. While Reed voted for it in the U.S. House, his colleague Patrick Kennedy voted no; in the Senate, John Chafee split with Pell to vote for it. That led to some political sparring between Kennedy and Chafee in the run-up to the 2000 Senate race that they didn’t wind up contesting.
6. Dozens and dozens of bills are passing the General Assembly right now as lawmakers engage in their annual end-of-session flurry of marathon voting, and it’s not easy for legislators, let alone reporters or voters, to keep track of everything going by. Yet Common Cause Rhode Island’s John Marion says it doesn’t have to be this way – read his WPRI.com op-ed on how (and why) the General Assembly should stop the madness.
7. A disquieting dispatch from WPRI.com roving reporter Dan McGowan: “When Providence pushed legislation earlier this year to regionalize the state’s water-supply systems, the city learned firsthand how parochialism can be a major deterrent when it comes to sharing municipal services. That bill wasn’t necessarily going to hurt other communities; it was just likely to help Providence the most. So how can cities and towns overcome their Napoleon complexes to run a more efficient government? I posed that question Thursday night to a panel of municipal leaders – including North Smithfield Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton, Smithfield Town Manager Dennis Finlay and Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien – who are already working collaboratively when I moderated an Operation Clean Government panel at the Smithfield Senior Center. The group offered different variations of the same answer, but Hamilton summed it best: ‘It’s about checking your ego at the door,’ she said. Of course, there are other factors as well. During a Q&A session with the audience, general treasurer candidate Ernie Almonte asked why the state couldn’t take over processes like tax collection for every community. ‘Trust is a big issue,’ Grebien quickly replied. Here’s something every panelist agreed on – there are too many school districts in Rhode Island. ‘It’s completely ridiculous,’ Hamilton said.”
8. Although Ed Markey won a decisive though hardly overwhelming victory last week in Massachusetts’ special U.S. Senate election, the final tally shows Southeastern Massachusetts remains relatively friendly territory for Republicans. GOP hopeful Gabriel Gomez won all but four of the area’s communities: only Fall River, New Bedford, Somerset and Falmouth went for Markey, along with the Northern Cape and Islands. Of course there are a lot more votes to harvest in Fall River and New Bedford than Plainville and Mattapoisett, so a sea of red on the map can be misleading. Since 2006 Republicans have lost 12 of the 13 statewide elections in Massachusetts (and Rhode Island for that matter); can they reverse the tide in 2014?
9. Budgets matter wherever you are, and British budgeting involves appropriations we don’t have to worry about here in the U.S.: “Under the sovereign grant, calculated as 15% of the profits of the crown estate, the Queen will receive £37.89m from the state next year, a 5% increase on this year’s grant of £36.1m and more than £5m more than her £32.3m expenditure in 2011/12.” Her Majesty’s gas bill was £1 million ($1.5 million).
10. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine and Warwick Rep. Joe Shekarchi. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – the Rustic Drive-In’s Deb Belisle and Nicole Pattie and 121Nexus’s Foster Sayers. 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.
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