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The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RI

April 19th, 2014 at 5:00 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com. For quick hits all week long, follow @tednesi.

1. Happy Easter!

2. Tim White, Dan McGowan and I spent a lot of time reporting on the Gordon Fox investigation over the past five days, and we know a good deal more today than we did a week ago. As we reported Tuesday and Wednesday, just before the March 21 raids investigators visited longtime Fox aide Ruth Desmarais in search of campaign-finance documents, and they also sought information from the R.I. Board of Elections. (“They were not searching my house,” Desmarais told Tim in an interview, “but that is all I will tell you.”) Fox has been the treasurer of his own campaign-finance account for the last 10 years, giving him responsibility for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash (though he’d designated Desmarais as his point person with elections officials). Just this week, as we reported Thursday, investigators sought additional information about Fox from the Providence city treasurer’s office; Fox has earned money from the city on and off since 1996. Put it all together and this is looking more and more like a classic “follow the money” case. What we don’t know, of course, is where the money leads. It’s important to reiterate that Fox has not been charged or even identified as the target of all this activity; that said, he and his lawyer have said nothing to counter the widespread impression that he’s in a jam.

3. Bob Walsh of the NEARI teachers’ union had plenty to say on this week’s Newsmakers – never a surprise when it comes to the loquacious labor leader. But one of his most interesting comments was about new House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, whose victory was generally viewed as a defeat for progressives. “I reject that premise,” Walsh told us. “Some of my newer, more naive friends in politics – including some elected folks who are also progressive – were supporting [Mike] Marcello, and some of my progressive friends who were elected leaders, including in the legislature, supported Nick Mattiello. I did not see this as a progressive [defeat].” He added: “The chamber hasn’t changed. There are still 75 folks there with a whole diversity of opinions, many of whom agree with me.” It will be interesting to see the reaction to Walsh’s comments on Rhode Island’s Future, where Bob PlainTom Sgouros and more recently John Speck have all given voice to progressive displeasure at the elevation of Mattiello to the speakership.

4. Speaking of the speaker, he has a tough road ahead in putting together a 2014-15 budget over the next two months. On the one hand, Mattiello is under pressure to deliver on his promises of cuts in the corporate and estate taxes, and he knows the political importance of notching some quick wins in his first months. On the other hand, the math is looking increasingly tough thanks to soaring Medicaid enrollment, weak tax receipts, newly negotiated raises and the Sakonnet toll issue. The upcoming revenue estimating conference, which will set the final terms for this year’s budget debate, looms large because of the role it will play in shaping Mattiello’s options. (Keep an eye on combined reporting.) There’s also the question of where Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed – a fierce protector of social services – will come down, and what the new dynamic is between the two chambers in the Mattiello era. Lots to watch.

5. Don’t miss Pew’s fascinating Next America report on the nation’s fast-changing demographics.

6. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com reporter Dan McGowan: “The high-profile super PAC created in part to help Treasurer Raimondo become Rhode Island’s next governor has gotten off to a sleepy start in 2014. The American LeadHERship PAC, founded by former congressional candidate Kate CoyneMcCoy, reported raising just $1,000 during the first quarter of year and now has $43,013 on hand, according to Federal Election Commission reports filed this week. The PAC came under fire earlier this year after Ted reported that prominent pension reform backers John and Laura Arnold contributed $100,000 last August, leading gubernatorial candidate Angel Taveras to renew his call for the Democratic candidates for governor to sign a ‘People’s Pledge’ to limit independent expenditures in the race. CoyneMcCoy told WPRI.com she is still considering getting involved in the race, but indicated she is ‘paying very close attention’ to what unfolds with the pledge. ‘I will do whatever most positively impacts the race for Gina Raimondo,’ she said. As for the status of the pledge itself, Common Cause executive director John Marion said says there’s little new to report. ‘The People’s Pledge is still around,’ he said. ‘The campaigns are running it by their lawyers at this point. Still waiting for a couple to get back to me.’”

7. Fortune senior editor Dan Primack this week criticized pension-watcher Ted Siedle as part of an extended critique of Pando Daily’s David Sirota (whose writing on John Arnold was referenced in this space last month). While the piece was mostly about New Jersey, Primack also argued Sirota should have disclosed that Siedle’s work in Rhode Island was funded by the Council 94 union. As for Siedle’s contribution to Sirota’s story, Primack wrote: “Siedle’s quote is unintelligible. I mean it sounds bad, but is total gibberish. I dare you to make sense of it.” Siedle shot back on Twitter that Primack is an apologist for the financial industry, which Primack dismissed by referencing his reporting on kickback scandals.

8. Via The Phoenix’s Phil Eil (among others), check out this terrific 1947 short film about Rhode Island by the travelogue filmmaker Carl Dudley. It’s like stepping into a time machine.

9. The Democratic primary for secretary of state is heating up a bit. Nellie Gorbea kicked things off this week by releasing her tax returns and calling on her opponent, Guillaume De Ramel, to do the same. De Ramel is the wealthy scion of a prominent family, and presumably his returns would show a rather impressive income; he declined to release them, and Gorbea duly knocked him for it. (How much does that resonate with voters?) Later in the week, De Ramel struck back by trumpeting a new endorsement from Rep. Grace Diaz, D-Providence. Diaz is vice chair of the Rhode Island Democratic Party – and, like Gorbea, a Latino woman, which De Ramel’s campaign will no doubt emphasize down the stretch.

10. Andera CEO Charlie Kroll is on his way out after selling the company for a cool $48 million, though he says the firm will remain in Providence under new ownership. While Kroll is optimistic about Rhode Island’s startup scene, he says one thing preventing small local companies from growing is a lack of capital – specifically, middle-stage capital when they’re out of infancy but aren’t ready to attract big-money out-of-state investments the way Andera and Swipely have. “There is a middle segment there, once you’ve gotten past the $50,000 seed investors, before you’re ready for venture capital – there’s a role for the half-million-dollar angel investor,” Kroll said on this week’s Executive Suite. That role has been filled in recent years by the taxpayer-backed Slater Technology Fund, but its annual appropriation has been shrinking. “We really need to find, collectively, a solution to what do the very young companies do in order to get to the point where they’re ready to raise venture capital, because there’s a funding gap there at the six-figure range,” Kroll said.

11. The looming sale of Providence-based RBS Citizens Financial Group continues to get less attention locally than you’d expect. The most recent developments: Citizens failed a Fed stress test last month, complicating Royal Bank of Scotland’s efforts to sell it off over the next few years. “The Fed has been very cautious in terms of permitting larger acquisitions among the bigger banks,” Jennifer Thompson, an analyst at Portales Partners LLC, told Bloomberg News recently. “The fact that you now have some internal control issues would probably make a potential acquirer think twice about doing a deal.” For more on Citizens’ cloudy future and why it matters to Rhode Island, check out this post from last year.

12. A loyal Saturday Morning Post reader – my Dad – strongly contested my reference last week to a “can of Morton Salt,” saying Morton Salt has always come in a box. He makes a strong case, though the cylindrical shape of the Morton container has always seemed more can-like to me.

13. Here’s a roundup of the latest Campaign 2014 endorsements we’ve received: the Local 57 Operating Engineers, the Italian American Democratic Leadership Council, the North Smithfield Democratic Town Committee and the New Shoreham Democratic Town Committee all endorsed Gina Raimondo … the Barrington Democratic Town Committee endorsed Gina Raimondo, Nellie Gorbea and Seth Magaziner … Rep. Grace Diaz endorsed Guillaume De Ramel … and the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers endorsed Frank Caprio.

14. If you missed them the first time around, now’s your chance to check out some of the other items we published this week: ahead of Easter, the five candidates for governor shared their religious faiths … the unions and retirees won another court victory in the pension lawsuit … weightlifting firefighter John Sauro says he’ll sue the city to get back his disability pension … the unemployment rate dipped to 8.7% … Angel Taveras laid out his legislative agenda for Providence and announced more City Hall staff changes … and nobody knows how much Rhode Island’s soaring Medicaid enrollment will cost.

15. I joined Rhode Island PBS for this week’s edition of “A Lively Experiment,” along with Wendy Schiller, Maureen Moakley and Pablo Rodriguez. 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.

16. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersRobert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite - Andera CEO Charlie Kroll. 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.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

Chart: Blue Cross has 98% RI market share under Obamacare

April 7th, 2014 at 10:24 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Here’s something Obamacare has hardly changed: the way one insurer dominates Rhode Island.

Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island’s share of the individual health insurance market dipped from 100% in 2013 to 98% in 2014, as the launch of HealthSource RI more than doubled total enrollment of those who purchase plans directly for themselves rather than get them through an employer or the government, according to preliminary figures released last week by Blue Cross and HealthSource RI.

Take a look:

RI individual health insurance 2014

Blue Cross was the only insurer selling plans to individuals last year, but finally got a little bit of competition in 2014 when Neighborhood – which was created in 1993 to take advantage of local Medicaid changes – began offering commercial plans to individuals who make up to 250% of the federal poverty level.


The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RI

April 5th, 2014 at 5:00 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com. For quick hits all week long, follow @tednesi.

1. Who is Nick Mattiello? Just before he was elected speaker, I suggested the Cranston Democrat was a moderate who might be a Republican if he was in another state. Others – particularly unhappy progressives – have suggested Mattiello isn’t really a Democrat at all. But the speaker himself rejected that suggestion on Friday. “I’m a Democrat. I’m a proud Democrat,” Mattiello said on this week’s Newsmakers. “I don’t believe that Democrats all have to be on the furthest-left outpost. There’s some people that believe that, but that is not the majority of the Democrats in Rhode Island. I believe I represent a typical Democrat.” Noting his support for “an appropriate safety net,” Mattiello said: “Middle-class values are in the middle, and I tend to politically be situated in the middle.” Asked why he appointed Republican Rep. Doreen Costa as vice-chair of House Judiciary, Mattiello said: “There’s too much raucous debate between the parties. I think that we have to respect each other more. … It doesn’t mean I’m less of a Democrat.” One reason Mattiello’s views are interesting – the speaker will play a key role in determining whether Angel Taveras, Gina Raimondo or Clay Pell gets the Rhode Island Democratic Party’s gubernatorial endorsement. His No. 2, John DeSimone, has already endorsed Taveras.

2. Mattiello repeated his policy mantra – “jobs and the economy” – roughly 500 times on Newsmakers. But no politician campaigns against jobs and the economy, so what does the new speaker think would help? Two items to watch: Rhode Island’s corporate and estate taxes. On the corporate tax, Mattiello told us he wants to get the rate down to 7% from its current level of 9%. On the estate tax, Mattiello noted that Rhode Island currently has one of the lowest exemptions in the nation – $921,655 in 2014 – and that it has a “cliff,” where an estate valued at $1 more than the exemption triggers a tax on the entire estate (not just the amount above the exemption). “We’re looking to eliminate the cliff and possibly increase that threshold a little bit so that we can keep high wage-earners and people that have accumulated wealth in Rhode Island, rather than have them leave as soon as they retire,” Mattiello said. All that will be music to the ears of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, which has long made the case that those changes would improve Rhode Island’s business-climate ranking and cost less than, say, lowering the sales tax. But they’ll still reduce revenue in a difficult budget climate, and they’ll face serious pushback from the left.


RI elections board reviewing $10K cap after high court ruling

April 3rd, 2014 at 3:34 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Rhode Island’s cap on combined campaign donations may be on the way out.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that federal-level aggregate limits on how much money a donor can contribute across all politicians, parties and PACs (as opposed to the limits on how much can be contributed to each one) are unconstitutional. Rhode Island is one of eight states that also has its own aggregate limit on state-level contributions, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts noted in his decision.

Rhode Island law currently caps the amount that can be donated to candidates, party committees and PACs to $10,000 a year. While Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling did not itself throw out Rhode Island’s state-level limit, the R.I. Board of Elections says it may not defend them in court if they get challenged.


Obamacare swells RI individual insurance rolls to nearly 40,000

April 2nd, 2014 at 5:52 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Rhode Island’s individual health insurance market has gotten considerably larger due to Obamacare.

Nearly 40,000 Rhode Islanders signed up for individual policies during the 2014 open enrollment period that ended Monday night, up from roughly 17,000 who did so in 2013, according to preliminary figures from the state’s new HealthSource RI marketplace and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island.

That total breaks down as 27,968 individuals who used HealthSource RI to sign up for plans from Blue Cross or Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island, along with 11,271 who bypassed HealthSource and bought Obamacare-compliant policies directly from Blue Cross, the two organizations told WPRI.com.

Those 11,271 direct-purchasers are important to Blue Cross because they will be combined with those who bought through HealthSource RI to make up the insurer’s 2014 risk pool for individual insurance. The size and shape of the risk pool is crucial to determining how much premiums will cost.

Gary Claxton, an expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told The New York Times that “these lives count every bit as much as the ones that came in through the exchange” for insurers because of the risk pool issue.


Slater Technology Fund’s stake in Andera worth $3M

April 1st, 2014 at 11:49 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Here’s an interesting update to my story from last night on the Andera-Bottomline deal:

Thorne Sparkman, managing director of Rhode Island’s taxpayer-backed nonprofit Slater Technology Fund, told WPRI.com Slater made multiple investments worth a total of $750,000 in Andera, and its stake in the company was worth more than $3 million when the Bottomline acquisition closed.

Sparkman called the Andera deal “a nice win for Charlie, his team, investors, and Rhode Island generally,” and said Slater will use the windfall to “invest more aggressively in other young Rhode Island companies.”

For more on the Slater Fund, read my 2009 PBN deep-dive.

Analysis: Mattiello unlikely to rock the boat much as speaker

March 24th, 2014 at 11:30 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Who is Nick Mattiello?

We know one thing he’s not: a liberal. Mattiello and Elizabeth Warren may be members of the same political party, but the “D” after their names is about all they have in common. As Republican Rep. Doreen Costa told WPRI.com’s Dan McGowan on Sunday: “He’s not a progressive Democrat.”

Yet that doesn’t necessarily make Mattiello a conservative. A lot depends on how you define the term, and how you adapt it to the odd politics of Rhode Island. His critics on the left do define him that way: Tom Sgouros, writing Monday on the Rhode Island’s Future blog, described the 50-year-old Cranston Democrat as the latest in a line of conservative Democrats who’ve controlled the General Assembly – and, via the speaker’s office, the Rhode Island Democratic Party – “for decades.”

Certainly, though, Mattiello isn’t a movement conservative or a Tea Party activist. If anything, he seems motivated less by ideology than a desire not to rock the boat too much. Anchor Rising’s Justin Katz smartly described Mattiello’s coalition as a “relatively conservative, but mostly establishment, bloc.”

Indeed, Mattiello seems to be basically a business-friendly centrist – a creature of the Chamber of Commerce consensus. In some states he’d be a moderate Republican; in Rhode Island, he’s a moderate Democrat.


State House ponders future of Anzeveno, Fox’s chief of staff

March 24th, 2014 at 11:03 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

With House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello confident that he has the votes to become speaker on Tuesday, political insiders are buzzing about a different question: what happens to Frank Anzeveno?

Anzeveno, a 55-year-old former state representative from North Providence, has been one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes State House powerbrokers for more than 12 years, serving as chief of staff to House Speakers John Harwood, William Murphy and now Gordon Fox since July 2001.

But Anzeveno has also been a controversial figure, particularly in recent years when some Democratic lawmakers privately argued he was wielding too much power and working to undermine them politically. Mattiello himself has clearly signaled he may bring in someone new.

“Frank Anzeveno, and a team of people that work for him who have been a disease in the State House, will not be there very, very soon, and that alone will change this state more than anything else could,” state Rep. Spencer Dickinson, D-South Kingstown, told WPRI.com on Monday morning. Dickinson said his confidence that Mattiello will replace Anzeveno is a key reason he’s backing the majority leader for speaker.


The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RI

March 22nd, 2014 at 5:00 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post

Happy Saturday! Here’s an abbreviated edition of my weekend column after one of the most dramatic Fridays in recent Rhode Island history – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com. For quick hits all week long, follow @tednesi.

1. You could almost feel the shock wave ripple through Rhode Island’s political class around 11 a.m. Friday when news broke that state and local law enforcement officials were searching Gordon Fox’s State House office and East Side home. For all the bad coverage Fox has garnered over the years – PEDP, 38 Studios, GTECH – Friday’s action was a stunningly high-profile move against Rhode Island’s most powerful politician by investigators from the state police, the FBI and the IRS. It’s hard – very hard – to see how Fox can survive as speaker after such a blow to his stature, unless it’s quickly made clear he’s not the target of the investigation. Assuming Fox is on the way out, the coming days and weeks are going to be very consequential ones for Rhode Island.

2. I asked Tim White, an expert on law enforcement, to explain exactly what happened Friday and what to expect next: “Before federal and state investigators could even move in on the State House, they had to convince a judge that they had the authority to do so. Detectives and agents presented evidence to a federal judge to get the permission to execute a search warrant on the State House, and what we believe to be a second search warrant on Gordon Fox’s home. You use a warrant because you think someone’s going to say no. You can always ask permission to get information that you’re looking for, but if you have a judge’s OK – that is, a warrant – you have the authorization to go in and take it. In my job, the most interesting thing about warrants (which in this case we’ll only get if they’re eventually unsealed) isn’t what they find, but what they told the judge they wanted to look for. The affidavit to obtain the search warrant is basically a mini-case that tells a judge what they’ve discovered so far in an investigation, and that is truly telling. It might tell us who is cooperating with investigators; it might tell us what they’ve found so far; and certainly it will tell us the motive for wanting the warrant. And of course that warrant wasn’t to break down just any door – it was a door in one of the most historic buildings in the state, leading into the office of arguably the most powerful politician in the state. The big question is, when do we get to see what’s on the search warrant? And the answer is, we probably won’t see the search warrant unless someone is charged. That’s when these things usually become public. But that day – if it ever comes – is probably at least weeks away if not longer.”

3. From WPRI.com reporter Dan McGowan, a look at what happens next: “Investigators were only at the beginning of their six-hour raid on Gordon Fox’s State House office when his colleagues began putting the wheels in motion to discuss a potential replacement for the speaker in the event that he tenders his resignation. One of the factions is led by House Majority Leader Nick Mattiello, who convinced at least 25 lawmakers to attend a closed-door meeting at the Providence Marriott Friday evening. The Cranston Democrat said he’s ‘confident’ he has the votes to be the next speaker if Fox decides to resign, but told reporters he had not talked with Fox. The question now is who else wants to be top dog in the House? We know a separate group of lawmakers that included Reps. Mike Marcello, D-Scituate, Patrick O’Neill, D-Pawtucket, John Lombardi, D-Providence, and Greg Costantino, D-Lincoln, met at Venda Ravioli in Providence, but it’s unclear who called the meeting. It’s also widely believed that Majority Whip Stephen Ucci, D-Johnston, and Deputy Majority Whip Chris Blazejewski, D-Providence, could be leading another team of lawmakers hoping to assume leadership. Regardless, it’s not clear that anyone went to bed Friday with the 38 votes needed to become the next speaker if and when the job becomes open. All eyes are now on Tuesday, the next time members of the House convene.”

4. Missed last night’s wall-to-wall TV coverage of the Fox raids and the fallout from them? Click here to watch 23 minutes of WPRI 12 team coverage covering all the angles:

5. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – treasurer candidate Ernie Almonte, plus UMass Dartmouth’s Clyde Barrow and Providence College’s Patrick Kelly on casinos. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Nabsys CEO Dr. Barrett Bready. 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.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

Rep. Marcello considering run for speaker if Fox resigns

March 21st, 2014 at 2:36 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Rhode Island’s 69-member House Democratic caucus was plunged into turmoil Friday by the news of law-enforcement searches at Speaker Gordon Fox’s home and office.

House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, told WPRI.com he planned to hold a “very informal” caucus of Democratic lawmakers at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Marriott hotel on Orms Street in Providence. Mattiello is frequently mentioned as a likely successor to Fox.

“The speaker has a two-year term, so as long as he chooses to stay and remain in office in his term, there will be no election for speaker,” Mattiello said. The majority leader, who was gathering with supporters at the Old Canteen restaurant on Federal Hill, said he hadn’t talked to Fox yet but planned to do so.

However, state Rep. Michael Marcello cast doubt on the number of lawmakers swinging their support behind Mattiello. “He may have a very small caucus, because nobody I know is planning to attend,” the Scituate Democrat told WPRI.com.


NEARI teachers’ union swings support behind Clay Pell

March 20th, 2014 at 4:36 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Rhode Island’s most powerful teachers’ union has officially thrown its support behind political newcomer Clay Pell in this year’s Democratic primary for governor.

The NEA Rhode Island Political Action Committee for Education (NEARI-PACE), the political arm of the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI), made its endorsement official on Thursday.

“Clay gets it,” NEARI President Larry Purtill said in a statement, suggesting the 32-year-old would “stop the testing craze” and provide educators with “the resources and personnel” they need.

“I’m deeply honored to have earned their support,” Pell said in a statement.


Union leader: Opposing pension settlement deal is irrational

March 19th, 2014 at 11:01 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Opposition to the proposed Rhode Island pension settlement from rank-and-file union members and retirees is “neither rational nor legally sound,” according to one of their leaders who is backing the deal.

Roger Boudreau, president of the Rhode Island American Federation of Teachers’ retirees chapter and a member of the state Retirement Board, made the comments in a Monday email to members of the Rhode Island Public Employees Retiree Coalition (RIPERC), the lead plaintiffs in the case.

“If you have already cast your ballot into the waste basket, you have made a rational and informed decision to agree to the Settlement,” Boudreau wrote in the message, which was obtained by WPRI.com.


Chart: 6.5% in RI sign up under Obamacare, most for Medicaid

March 18th, 2014 at 6:00 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Since Oct. 1, more than 68,000 Rhode Islanders – roughly 6.5% of the state’s population – have signed up for health insurance through HealthSource RI, the state’s new Obamacare marketplace. But two-thirds of them have enrolled in a program that was actually created by Lyndon Johnson, not Barack Obama.

Medicaid, the government health program for low-income Americans, has gotten the majority of sign-ups on HealthSource RI: 48,602 of the 68,292 Rhode Islanders who used the new marketplace to enroll through March 8 were added to the state’s Medicaid rolls. (Even that may understate the Medicaid share, since 3,345 of the 19,690 who signed up for private insurance plans hadn’t paid their first premiums yet.)

In fact, while December was HealthSource RI’s biggest month for private insurance enrollment so far, the most recent reporting period from Feb. 12 to March 8 was actually the biggest one yet for Medicaid. The deadline to sign up for private plans for 2014 is March 31, but there is no deadline to sign up for Medicaid.

Medicaid enrollment has already far surprised Rhode Island officials’ expectations, which was for 28,000 residents to sign up by Sept. 30. Here’s a chart that shows the pace of individual enrollment on HealthSource RI since the marketplace began accepting applications on Oct. 1:


Homeownership still dropping from pre-recession high in RI

March 18th, 2014 at 5:00 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Fewer Rhode Islanders own their own homes in the wake of the Great Recession.

Rhode Island’s homeownership rate has fallen from a record high of 64.9% in 2007 to 62.1% in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Housing Vacancies and Homeownership Survey. The trend mirrors a decline in homeownership nationally following the housing bust, as this chart shows:


The Census Bureau’s alternative American Community Survey puts Rhode Island’s homeownership rate even lower. It shows a decline from 63% in 2007-09 to 60% in 2010-12, the 5th-lowest among the states.

Pension settlement ballots sent; due back by April 3

March 17th, 2014 at 2:54 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

This just in from the union plaintiffs coalition:

Mail ballots have been sent to members and retirees who are eligible to participate in the first round of voting.

Voting members shall be advised that ballots must be received no later than Thursday April 3, 2014. A self-addressed, postage-paid envelope has been provided with the ballot. Ballot tabulation will be independently administered by ProMail.

Per the terms outlined in the settlement agreement, the mail balloting process for this round of voting must be completed within 60 days of February 14, 2014.

ProMail Etc. is a Providence-based nonprofit social venture affiliated with The Providence Center, a behavioral health organization, that offers job opportunities to individuals “with barriers to employment,” according to ProMail’s website.


The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RI

March 15th, 2014 at 5:00 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com. For quick hits all week long, follow @tednesi.

1. It’s time for Rhode Island to take a deep breath about the old I-195 land – particularly the state’s politicians, who’ve been promising big things from the 19 acres of potential redevelopment for years now. I-195 Commission Chairman Colin Kane said on this week’s Executive Suite he doesn’t expect construction on any buildings to begin there before the fall of 2015, with the spring of 2016 more likely. And as Jef Nickerson has pointed out, Providence already has plenty of undeveloped land in prime locations in the form of surface parking lots (not to mention Victory Place); the fact that developers aren’t snapping those up suggests weak demand. But why should demand be weak, at least for residential construction, when almost all downtown apartments are occupied? Because Providence’s cost structure is out of whack. “Where our challenges are from an economic perspective – in all secondary cities and tertiary cities, not just Providence – is that our rents are not high enough to support appropriate investor returns,” Kane said. Jan Brodie, the 195 commission’s executive director, said property taxes are 30% to 40% higher in Providence than in Boston. Fixing that equation – whether by lowering taxes, raising incomes, loosening labor laws or easing building restrictions – would not only help spur the 195 redevelopment, it would also make other proposed projects such as the Superman building conversion more viable.

2. Speaking of the I-195 land, Gina Raimondo suggested this week it could be given away or sold at low cost to provide a campus of her proposed Rhode Island Innovation Institute. That may or may not be a good idea, but it’s definitely not cost-free. Last April the EDC borrowed $38.4 million on the 195 commission’s behalf to buy the old highway land from the state, which helped defray the original costs of the Iway project. The 195 commission must repay those bonds – plus $7.5 million in interest – over the next 19 years, and if the land isn’t sold at market value Rhode Island taxpayers would presumably have to pay off the bonds instead.


Map: These are the 19 acres of I-195 land RI is trying to sell

March 12th, 2014 at 2:44 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Everyone talks a lot about “the 195 land,” referring to the roughly 27 acres of property in downtown Providence that were freed up when Rhode Island moved the former highway; 19 of the acres are ready for private development, while the other eight are being preserved for park land and open space.

Here’s where those parcels of land actually are, and how they’ve been split up:

I-195 land parcels March 2014 large


Projo revenue slid 4% in 2013; advertising losses hit $96M

March 12th, 2014 at 10:08 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Projo annual revenue 2005 to 2013By Ted Nesi

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence Journal’s revenue declined at a faster pace in 2013 as continued growth in its contracts for printing and distribution failed to offset falling circulation and another double-digit drop in advertising sales.

The Journal’s revenue totaled $90.1 million in 2013, a Securities & Exchange Commission filing by its parent company A.H. Belo shows. That was a 4% decrease in revenue compared with 2012, more than the prior year’s 1% drop but less than the declines of the five years from 2007 to 2011.

Total Journal revenue has plummeted 46% since 2005, when the newspaper pulled in $165.6 million. A.H. Belo is now in the process of trying to sell the local daily, a process that Chief Financial Officer Alison Engel recently said could be completed by April or May. It’s unclear who the buyer would be.

The Journal remains profitable, according to Engel. Howard Sutton, The Journal’s longtime publisher, and Karen Bordeleau, the paper’s executive editor, did not respond to a request for comment.


Sen. Max Baucus’s touching tribute to the late John Chafee

March 11th, 2014 at 5:00 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site


Max Baucus, the longtime U.S. senator from Montana, resigned last month to become President Obama’s new ambassador to China. But before he said his last goodbye to the chamber, Baucus delivered a farewell address that lavished praise on, among others, Rhode Island’s own John Chafee:

It was my honor to have friendships that formed the basis for solving some of the nation’s most difficult problems.

I’ll never forget working together with the late-Senator John Chafee on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

I worked with him for years before finding out he was an amazing war hero, decorated for his service in the Korean War.

Few people knew this about his war record because he didn’t brag about it or use it for political points.

He served because he believed in it, not because he thought he’d get credit for it.

Without a doubt, we need more John Chafees in the world.

Between 1989 and 1990, we sat together in a small room just off the Senate floor, facing wave after wave of unhappy senators – sometimes until one or two in the morning.

He was the ranking Republican member of the EPW committee, and I had become the chairman of the Environmental Protection subcommittee.

Together, we met with our colleagues, ironing out compromises on acid rain, ozone depletion, air quality permits, and scores of other issues.

Senator Chafee later became Chairman of the EPW Committee.

We had our disagreements, but by and large, under Senator Chafee’s chairmanship I recall an oasis of civility.

That friendship helped us pass the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

It’s a small point – but I always respected that he never raised his voice.

John never lost his temper. He listened carefully to the other person’s point of view. He was the paragon of a senator. •

(1999 file photo: Khue Bui/AP)

The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RI

March 8th, 2014 at 5:00 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com. For quick hits all week long, follow @tednesi.

1. Don’t forget to set your clocks forward tonight!

2. Tomorrow is March 9, which means Rhode Island’s primary election is exactly six months away – and it’s going to be a whirlwind six months for Angel Taveras, Gina Raimondo and Clay Pell. The WPRI/Journal poll suggested all three have a path to victory, if an uphill one for Pell. Three things to watch as the campaign grinds on are money, TV, and field. Like it or not, Raimondo’s big financial advantage over Taveras ($2.5 million to $1.03 million) and Pell’s personal fortune matter a lot. It will determine how many TV ads they can run, and when; how big a paid ground game they can put together; and how much internal polling they can conduct down the stretch. With even Steve Jobs’ widow pitching in, it seems clear Raimondo will have no trouble stockpiling more cash during 2014, putting more pressure on Taveras. A big strategic question now facing all three campaigns: when do they go on the air? The smart money says TV ads will start running in May, before viewers begin to go on summer vacation and tune out. Raimondo and perhaps Pell will have the luxury of running positive ads without worrying about whether they’ll have the money to counter attacks; Taveras will have to keep a close eye on whether he has enough for the crucial final weeks in August and September. (His aides will also be crossing their fingers that Pell fails to catch fire and decides to drop out.) The money and resources being devoted to the ground game will also be crucial – look no further than last year’s successful push to legalize same-sex marriage for evidence of how effective a targeted field operation can be. As for the Republican side, Allan Fung is still treating Ken Block as a nuisance more than a real threat; Block has his work cut out for him to nab the nomination. But never say never.

3. Former BankRI CEO Merrill Sherman isn’t commenting on whether she’s interested in purchasing The Providence Journal. “I have no comment on anything like that,” Sherman told me this week.


Chart: The strange RI job numbers – a tale of two surveys

March 7th, 2014 at 5:00 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Which of the following statements is true: “Rhode Island is making slow but steady progress regaining all the jobs the state lost during the Great Recession,” or “Rhode Island has made almost no progress recovering from the drop in employment during the Great Recession”?

The answer: both, at least according to the latest data from the Department of Labor and Training.

Each month the DLT (along with the U.S. Labor Department) conducts two surveys to come up with the numbers for the monthly employment report. One survey asks households to say whether their residents are working or looking for work; the other asks employers how many people they have on their payrolls.

The responses provide two different numbers. The household survey produces the official unemployment rate – it’s a count of how many Rhode Island residents are working or looking for work. The employer survey, on the other hand, produces the monthly job count (formally known as “nonfarm payrolls“).

You wouldn’t expect the numbers to be identical – after all, a Rhode Island resident from Cumberland can hold a Massachusetts-based job in Attleboro, just as a Massachusetts resident from Seekonk can hold a Rhode Island-based job in Tiverton. Since 2010, though, the two measures have diverged sharply:

RI household vs employer surveys 2006 to 2013

This chart tracks the monthly counts from both surveys – Rhode Island nonfarm payrolls in blue, Rhode Island resident employment in red – with both of them shown as a percentage of their December 2006 levels (the peak of the previous economic expansion). The two job counts moved roughly in tandem from 2007 through the middle of 2010, but then they began to move apart – and have stayed apart for more than three years.

As of January, Rhode Island nonfarm payrolls had made up 19,100 of the 39,800 jobs lost during the recession, or 48% of the total. (Not necessarily the same jobs, of course.) But Rhode Island resident employment had gone up by just 3,200 after a decline of 52,400, for a recovery of barely 6%.

This is a perplexing turn of events. Are Rhode Island employers hiring lots of non-residents from, say, Massachusetts and Connecticut? Is there something wrong with the data? Also, which side of the equation should Rhode Island policymakers focus on – the slow but clear recovery seen in the employer payroll data, or the almost nonexistent post-recession recovery in resident employment? What do you think?

• Related: The share of RI residents working is now the lowest in 30 years (March 6)

The share of RI residents working is now the lowest in 30 years

March 6th, 2014 at 5:00 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Rhode Island achieved a worrying new milestone at the end of 2013: the share of the state’s residents who were working dropped to the lowest level in 30 years.

Just 58.8% of Rhode Islanders ages 16 and up were employed as of November and December, according to revised employment data released last week by the R.I. Department of Labor and Training. (The count excludes institutionalized individuals and active-duty military personnel.)

Before that point, Rhode Island’s employment-population ratio hadn’t fallen as low as 58.8% since April 1983, when the economic recovery during President Reagan’s first term was getting started.


Steve Jobs’ widow to co-host Raimondo fundraiser in Calif.

March 4th, 2014 at 5:00 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Treasurer Gina Raimondo’s gubernatorial campaign is getting support from Silicon Valley royalty.

Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, will co-host a fundraiser for Raimondo on March 25 in Palo Alto, Calif., along with SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg, who is married to Facebook executive and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg, and David Crane, a former advisor to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who has backed changes to public pensions in the Golden State.

“Gina represents a dynamic new generation of Democratic leaders – she helped usher in progress for Rhode Island by adhering to key principles that have steadily guided her career: creativity, tenaciousness, and listening well,” the invitation, obtained by WPRI.com, states. Suggested contributions are $250 to $1,000.

The Raimondo event is part of an Election Speaker Series organized by Emerson Collective, a nonprofit founded by Powell Jobs, according to the invitation. Powell Jobs gave a maximum $1,000 donation to the treasurer’s campaign last September, while Crane has given Raimondo $2,000 since 2012 and Goldberg has given her $1,000, according to R.I. Board of Elections records.

Raimondo’s campaign confirmed the event but declined to say how long the treasurer will be in California or whether she will hold other events while she’s on the West Coast.

• Related: Clay Pell loans his campaign $1M; Gina Raimondo has $2.5M (Feb. 2)

The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RI

March 1st, 2014 at 5:00 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com. For quick hits all week long, follow @tednesi.

1. Rhode Island has found a potent way to bring down its official unemployment rate: drive thousands of people out of the labor force. That’s one major takeaway from Thursday’s dismal revised jobs data, which showed the state’s jobless rate never actually fell below 9% in 2013 and was still the highest in the nation as of December. It reinforces the need to put the rate in context before celebrating its decline: believe it or not, nearly 7,000 more Rhode Islanders had a job when the unemployment rate hit its peak – 11.9% in March 2010 – than do today. So what’s really driving the rate down? A collapse in Rhode Islanders’ labor-force participation. About 27,000 workers left the labor force from 2007 through 2013, meaning they’re not employed and they’re not actively looking for work; that’s pushed the share of adult Rhode Islanders who have a job to the lowest level since the aftermath of the Volcker recession in 1983. It’s also coincided with a 16% decrease in Rhode Island’s 35- to 54-year-old population; if it weren’t for a huge jump in the number of senior citizens staying in the work force, the working population would be even smaller. Now, not all of this is unique to Rhode Island – there’s a heated debate happening among economists nationally about how much of the employment decline is demographic as opposed to recession-caused. But make no mistake: seven years after the jobs crisis started, Rhode Island’s labor market remains very weak. No wonder the state ranks 47th in The New York Times’ comparison of the 50 states’ recoveries.

2. Fun fact: Clay Pell donated $250 to Gina Raimondo’s campaign for treasurer in June 2010, making his future opponent one of only two state-level candidates he supported with a contribution before he began exploring a gubernatorial campaign late last year. The other was Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, who got $125 from Pell in 2005; Roberts is supporting Raimondo for governor.


The RI job market is in even worse shape than we thought

February 27th, 2014 at 2:43 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

State officials released their annual revised employment data Thursday, and the news is grim.

Until now, it had been possible to hold out hope the annual February/March benchmark revisions to the employment data – which replaces the original survey results with more comprehensive data – would show a brighter picture in the job market than initially reported. But the new data dashes those hopes.

As this chart shows, Rhode Island’s unemployment rate was higher than initially reported during all but one month of 2013 (January), finishing the year at 9.3% rather than 9.1%:RI unemployment rate original vs benchmark revised March 2014That wouldn’t always be bad news – sometimes the unemployment rate goes up because more people are joining the work force, out of growing optimism about job prospects. But that wasn’t the case here: the revisions show even more Rhode Islanders left the labor force – 9,900 total – during 2013 than originally reported, with about two-thirds of that reduction caused by a decline in the number of employed residents.

All of those numbers are seasonally adjusted. There was a bit of good news in the non-seasonally-adjusted numbers for how many jobs were on the payrolls of Rhode Island employers as of December: 470,800, up from the initial estimate of 467,700. However, even that number was below the 471,900 total a year earlier.

DLT also noted that the December unemployment rate of 9.3% was the lowest since November 2008.

• Related: Watch: The 5 charts you need to see to get RI’s jobs crisis (Jan. 23)

An earlier version of this post incorrectly said unemployment was higher in all but two months of 2013.

Dems angling to succeed Raimondo all back pension deal

February 26th, 2014 at 12:53 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

The men vying to succeed Gina Raimondo as Rhode Island’s general treasurer are all supporting the proposed settlement she recently announced that would end unions’ legal challenge to the 2011 pension law.

The three Democrats running for treasurer are former Treasurer Frank Caprio, former Internal Auditor Ernie Almonte, and political newcomer Seth Magaziner. No Republican has entered the race so far.

Almonte spoke out Wednesday in a Providence Journal op-ed, describing the settlement as possibly “the best short-term option” while also criticizing how long lawmakers allowed the pension problem to fester.

“This is a worthwhile settlement because it achieves significant savings without costly litigation and uncertainty,” Almonte, who raised red flags about the pension problem as internal auditor, wrote. “But it also highlights the true cost of continuing to delay making difficult decisions that will shape our state’s future.”


Chart: RI home prices steadying after 27% post-bubble drop

February 26th, 2014 at 11:35 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Has Rhode Island’s housing bubble finally finished bursting?

While it’s impossible to say for sure, new data from the Federal Housing Finance Agency shows that after a six-year decrease that pushed Rhode Island’s home prices down 27%, the decline has stopped.

The FHFA all-transactions house price index for Rhode Island, which measures changes in the cost of single-family homes, soared by 151% from the fourth quarter of 1996 through the first quarter of 2006, when the bubble popped. The index then began to drop, falling 27% through the second quarter of 2012.

The new data released Tuesday, however, shows Rhode Island home prices have barely moved in the six quarters since then, bouncing around in a narrow range compared with their big swings over the prior decade and a half. Single-family house prices have thus steadied at nearly double their 1996 level:

RI FHFA All-Trans House Price Index 4Q2014

• Related: Why is it more expensive to live in Providence than in Boston? (May 16, 2011)

Despite settlement, pension lawsuit trial still set for Sept. 15

February 24th, 2014 at 3:42 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Preparations for a September trial in the union lawsuit challenging Rhode Island’s landmark 2011 pension overhaul are still happening despite the high-profile announcement of a proposed settlement to end the suit.

Court spokesman Craig Berke confirmed Monday that the Sept. 15 start date for the pension lawsuit trial remains in place. R.I. Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter set the date on Feb. 12, just hours after the first press conference to announce the pension settlement was abruptly postponed.

Berke told WPRI.com that if the proposed settlement hasn’t been approved by Sept. 15 – which would require affirmative votes by workers, retirees and state lawmakers – the trial will begin as scheduled.

Judge Taft-Carter ordered lawyers on both sides of the pension suit to begin coming up with an agreed-upon schedule for the pre-trial discovery phase when evidence will be collected. The judge also ordered that discovery should be completed by 30 days before Sept. 15.

The trial, like the settlement, would cover not only unions’ challenge to the 2011 pension overhaul but also their earlier suit opposing pension cuts enacted by the General Assembly in 2009 and 2010. The two sides presumably could still complete a settlement and end the litigation after the trial begins, however.

A.H. Belo shares up 30% as company moves to sell Projo

February 24th, 2014 at 12:09 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Providence Journal owner A.H. Belo’s stock is on a tear just as the company prepares to sell the local daily.

Shares of Dallas-based A.H. Belo have jumped more than 30% in New York Stock Exchange trading since closing at $8.05 on Feb. 11, a day before the company announced a $16 million annual profit for 2013 and gave an update on its efforts to sell The Journal. The stock was at $10.49 at 11:56 a.m. Monday.

The rising share price has triggered at least 10 stock transactions by A.H. Belo insiders, SEC filings show.

It’s a far cry from the grim days of early 2009, when A.H. Belo stock tanked amid the post-crisis market crash and deep uncertainty in the newspaper industry. The company’s shares fell as low as 68 cents on March 10, 2009, meaning an investor who bought the stock that day and held it would have a 1,442% gain today.

A.H. Belo Chief Financial Officer Alison Engel told investors Feb. 12 that the company would send out sale books to potential Journal buyers this month, and that she expected the process “to wrap up, I would assume, sometime in April or May.” Engel didn’t respond to an email requesting further comment; Journal executive editor Karen Bordeleau declined to comment.

A.H. Belo already sold its third major newspaper – The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif. – last year, so selling The Journal would allow the company to narrow its business focus to its flagship Dallas Morning News and associated businesses in its home base of Texas.

The Saturday Morning Post: Quick hits on politics & more in RI

February 22nd, 2014 at 5:00 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site, The Saturday Morning Post

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com. For quick hits all week long, follow @tednesi.

1. Don’t believe anybody who says they’re sure of whether the pension settlement is going to go through. As I chronicled Thursday, there at least 10 flavors of opinion on the merits of the deal, a sign of how fluid and heated the debate around it is. That said, keep in mind that the settlement doesn’t necessarily have to be popular to pass. That’s particularly true during the upcoming first round of votes by union and retiree plaintiffs, which must be finished by mid-April. As Kathy Gregg first noted, a ballot that isn’t returned will be counted as a “yes” – so rank-and-file opponents of the deal have to convince at least 50% of their brethren to affirmatively mail in a ballot marked “no” to kill it. That’s a tall order when the voters are split into six groups that won’t be gathering together in any local union hall: state workers, teachers, police officers, firefighters, municipal employees and retirees. Put another way: the deal’s proponents are organized and well-financed; the opponents aren’t. Still, it’s possible a groundswell of opposition could torpedo it. But if the settlement passes that vote and a second one on the union/retiree side, labor lobbyists only need to convince half of the state legislature to back the deal to get it enacted. That seems doable, particularly if proponents of the settlement can win the spin war by highlighting how lopsided its financial impact is.

2. One way the deal’s supporters could get it passed: pay off the municipalities. Specifically, the General Assembly could agree to pay the extra pension contributions the settlement requires from cities and towns. (Clay Pell put forward a version of this idea, though he didn’t suggest covering the full cost.) As the Rhode Island League of Cities & Towns’ Dan Beardsley reminded me this week, back in 1989 the legislature helped close a budget deficit by changing the calculation for teacher pension contributions from 60% state and 40% municipal to 60% municipal and 40% state. “They said we’re going to flip it for one year; it’s been like that since 1989,” he said. If the settlement passes as is, Beardsley said, it would be “probably the second-worst unfunded mandate pushed onto the cities and towns in my four decades here at the League” after the 1989 switch. And it’s not like places such as Providence (facing a $1.2 million hit in 2015-16 under the settlement), Woonsocket ($559,000), East Providence ($506,000) or Central Falls ($216,000) are exactly rolling in dough to pay the higher tab.