The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RIJuly 6th, 2013 at 5:00 am by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post
1. It’s safe to say June and July of 2013 won’t go down in history as the General Assembly’s finest hour. An unpredictable six months ended with some painfully sloppy policymaking, as legislative leaders gave the state whiplash over tolling the Sakonnet River Bridge; the initial toll delay lasted just long enough to get the budget passed before being quickly reversed. True, many Rhode Islanders celebrated this session’s passage of same-sex marriage – but as RIPR’s Scott MacKay notes, that process was an exception to the rule. More telling were the embarrassments: the House’s bizarre “nullification” of an ethics vote, the Senate’s last-minute segregation of same-sex couples, and Speaker Fox’s testy exchanges with backbenchers during the final vote-o-rama. (“Eat your cake!” he snapped at Rep. Karen MacBeth when she took umbrage at House pages handing out baked goods Tuesday night – otherwise, he scolded, “throw it away!”) More disconcerting is the sheer amount of new law legislators just made – unless the governor uses his veto pen – with little public input, considering how many bills were substantially revised before emerging and winning rapid passage. “This eleventh-hour flurry of legislation has become far too ingrained in how the Assembly does business,” MacKay argues. Common Cause Rhode Island’s John Marion has ideas on how to fix Smith Hill, but it’s doubtful much will change unless rank-and-file lawmakers demand it – and they probably won’t demand it unless their constituents do. Not a single incumbent Democrat lost his or her seat last November; does the average Rhode Islander really care?
2. A good example of how thoughtful policymaking suffers in the mad end-of-session rush was the graffiti bill that would stiffen penalties for vandalism. The bill came up on the House floor Wednesday night with the backing of liberal Rep. Chris Blazejewski, but quickly ran into impassioned opposition from an unorthodox coalition which included Republican Leader Brian Newberry and Providence Democrat Grace Diaz. The debate was just getting going, with seven lawmakers waiting to speak, when Speaker Fox intervened to quash it. “Everyone wants to go home,” he said from the rostrum. “I want to end this session. … You know what you’re going to do.” Despite Newberry’s protests, the cowed House bowed to the speaker’s wishes and ended the debate; the controversial legislation passed 30-26, with nearly one in four lawmakers – 19 – skipping the vote.
3. It’s going to take a long time to figure out whether the flurry of legislation the Assembly passed in its closing hours will make any difference in how state government encourages economic growth, because much of it doesn’t take effect anytime soon. (All this assumes Chafee doesn’t veto the various bills.) The R.I. Economic Development Corporation will get a new name – the R.I. Commerce Corporation – along with some new oversight rules and a few other tweaks, but none of that takes effect until January. Rhode Island will take a page from Massachusetts’ playbook and draft its own long-term economic strategy, but the first edition isn’t due until October 2014. And the biggest change – a new cabinet-level Executive Office of Commerce – won’t open its doors until February 2015, after the next governor takes office. That delay may make sense, considering Governor Chafee opposes the idea and may be out of office by then, but it still seems odd to wait until eight years after Rhode Island started losing jobs to get the new office going. Of course, the biggest way state lawmakers shape Rhode Island’s economy is through fiscal and regulatory policy, and there were few dramatic changes made there – indeed, some changes will actually increase taxes and regulations. But other new initiatives could pay dividends, such as Chris Blazejewski’s Innovate RI Small Business Program and the McNamara/Lynch Back to Work Rhode Island Program.
4. Republicans have a golden opportunity to win Assembly seats in the East Bay next year after the region’s strategically inept Democrats botched the Sakonnet toll issue. Don’t take my word for it: Portsmouth Rep. Linda Finn, who took out Republican Dan Reilly by just 100 votes last year, told her colleagues tolling was “the number-one topic” she heard about on the campaign trail. Opponents will remind voters that the half-dozen East Bay reps had maximum leverage during the debate over the budget, which passed by just three votes as the speaker scrambled to make the 38 Studios payment – but they squandered their advantage by failing to secure a toll delay that could actually stick. Now a 10-cent Sakonnet charge kicks in Aug. 19, and it could get raised in the months before the lawmakers face voters.
5. Abortion joined same-sex marriage on the State House stage late in the session thanks to the “Choose Life” license plates and the Ciccone Obamacare amendment (which failed in the House). The two topics are frequently paired under the rubric of “social issues,” but Kristen Soltis Anderson argued in USA Today this week that they’re not at all the same: younger voters are more supportive of gay marriage than older ones, but they’re also more hostile to abortion.
6. A special treat for your holiday week – two dispatches from WPRI.com’s star scribe Dan McGowan. Here’s Dan: “You know what the Providence City Council needs? A Joe Trillo. Consider this: When the council took all of 30 minutes to approve a $663-million budget that did away with the city’s homestead exemption – and created two separate rates for owner-occupied and non-owner-occupied homes – it forgot to consider the effect the new rates would have on disabled or elderly residents who receive personal exemptions. Because those exemptions were based on the full rate of $31.89 per $1,000 of assessed value – as opposed to the lower rate after applying the 50% homestead exemption – hundreds of residents were greeted with massive tax increases when their bills arrived last week. Now officials are scrambling to remedy what they’re calling an ‘unintended tax increase’ on the city most vulnerable population. ‘The removal of the homestead exemption created the unforeseen consequence of reducing the value of the personal exemptions for homeowners who can least afford a tax increase – the elderly, the disabled, and veterans,’ Councilman John Igliozzi said in a statement. In fairness to the council, the rate switch was proposed by the Taveras administration and the budget was signed into law before the mistake was caught. It’s also worth noting that a majority of the Ways and Means Committee members who vetted the budget actually voted against it on the council floor – an unprecedented move that showed just how lukewarm its support actually was. While having Trillo or a fiscal watchdog from either party might not have prevented the council’s error, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have someone asking more questions in the future.”
7. And here’s McGowan again: “Speaking of the Providence City Council, the decision to approve about $1 million in sick-time payments to non-union city bosses is likely to cause a stir among a handful of recent retirees who haven’t seen a dime of their sick pay since leaving the city payroll. That includes former police major-turned-Twin River employee Keith Tucker and former fire department leaders George Farrell, James Gallant and Thomas Warren, who are waiting on more than $274,000 in sick severance. The ordinance in front of the council is designed to put an end to future payouts for non-union employees, but does nothing to address the approximately 16 retirees who believe they’re owed about $552,500. (The ordinance still needs to be approved by the council once more before heading to the mayor’s desk.) Several councilors expressed concern that the issue could end up in court where the retirees will make the argument that they had a reasonable expectation that they would receive their money. ‘This could end up costing the city even more after lawyer fees,’ Councilman Luis Aponte told WPRI.com.”
8. An inspired move this week by The Prout School, the Catholic high school in South Kingstown, which is bringing on Vivian Humphrey as its new theatre director. Vivian, an old friend and mentor, became one of the best-known nonprofit leaders in Attleboro when she was the artistic director of Triboro Youth Theatre, which she co-founded in 1996 and which is still going strong under the leadership of Providence resident Steffi Langston. Vivian should be a real asset to Prout and its beautiful 25-acre campus in Wakefield.
9. WGBH Boston invited me back for this week’s episode of “Under the Radar,” Callie Crossley’s program about overlooked news stories across New England, along with WNHN’s Arnie Arnesen. I shared three Rhode Island stories: the interesting politics behind the “Choose Life” license plates, the Sakonnet toll fiasco and the meandering brown bear. The show airs Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on 89.7 FM and online – tune in!
10. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – R.I. Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis and former Portsmouth Rep. Daniel Reilly discuss the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Arcade developer Evan Granoff on real-estate projects in Providence. 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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