STORY OF THE WEEK: "Money, it's a gas," sang Pink Floyd. As we edge closer to an election year in Rhode Island, two different money matters remain in high effect: piles of federal dollars are flowing into states, setting the stage for possible
“Money, it’s a gas,” sang Pink Floyd. As we edge closer to an election year in Rhode Island, two different money matters remain in high effect: piles of federal dollars are flowing into states, setting the stage for possible investments to strengthen the long-term economy, and the coffers in Rhode Island state government are already brimming.
At the same time, anxiety about inflation is peaking, and rising consumer costs are expected to persist well into 2022. Although unemployment is down and the stock market is up, “Americans haven’t felt this bad about the economy since the first half of 2020, when the coronavirus plunged the country into isolation and recession,” The New York Times reported.
The not-so-foggy takeaway is that politicians will be dancing next year in an effort to allay voters’ economic concerns and win their hearts, at least while voting. In Rhode Island, the tug of war is already happening. Gov. Dan McKee and progressive Democrat Matt Brown favor spending sooner, while House Speaker Joe Shekarchi is taking a longer approach.
The Ocean State’s status as a Democratic state yet to spend any of its more than $1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds makes it an outlier. Then again, the money is supposed to be spent for thoughtful investment, not for raises or other forms of consumer-oriented uses, and that’s why federal officials gave states a few years to make these choices.
Still, few things get voters’ attention like when they have to pay more for basic necessities like food and gas. Any politician who ignores that does so at their peril.
The unspent ARPA money is a convenient target for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown. The Brown-aligned RI Political Cooperative staged a Statehouse rally Saturday to draw more attention to the issue. Asked on Political Roundtable what makes him the best choice to be governor, Brown said that his running mate, Cynthia Mendes, and he “just have a fundamentally different vision,” demonstrated by their support for such concepts as a $19 an hour minimum wage, Medicare for All, and making the state run entirely on renewable energy.
Brown appears to trying to catch the progressive lightning that has fueled victories for such insurgents as AOC. How that will work amid a six-way Democratic primary is one question. Another is the outlook for delivering on the ambitious platform outlined by Brown. Asked how much it would cost to establish Medicare for All, Brown said he would assemble a task force to implement it.
What about the potential burden on small businesses – the source of most jobs in Rhode Island – posed by a $19 minimum wage? Brown responded by saying he would try to make tax changes to aid small businesses.
On the question of the complex and unusual organizational structure of the Co-op – which required hundreds of words to unpack in a recent Political Scene article – Brown said, “To put it simply, it’s kinda what parties used to do – running statewide coordinated campaigns on a shared platform and a shared agenda.”
With state revenue cutting $274 million ahead of expectations, will the 2022 legislative session be the first one to start without a fresh fiscal deficit? The last time that happened was in the Almond administration. In a joint statement, House Finance Chairman Marvin Abney and Senate Finance Chairman Ryan Pearson said, “We are pleased that the revenue estimates signal continued strength as we emerge from the worst of the pandemic. We will continue our work to assess the multitude of proposals and identified needs for both one-time and ongoing resources to ensure a lasting recovery.”
When he took office in March, Gov. Dan McKee inherited an acting director at the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. It’s worth underscoring how DCYF – which faces no small amount of challenges – has been without permanent leadership for more than two years, since July 2019. McKee’s office says the governor is moving forward with plans for permanent directors at a host of state agencies, including the Department of Human Services and Health Aging, formerly known as the Division of Elderly Affairs. But as I reported this week, state Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown), generally a McKee ally, said the gap in permanent leadership is impeding progress at a number of state agenices.
State Sen. Dawn Euer (D-Newport) was among a delegation of elected officials from across the country at COP26, the global warming summit in Scotland. U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was there too. Back in Rhode Island, as my colleague Sofie Rudin reports, high tide flooding offers a glimpse of what the future will be like without significant changes: “As global warming causes sea level to rise, high tide flooding like this is becoming more common. In 2000, tide stations in Providence and Newport recorded two to three flooding days per year. By 2050, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects those cities could see high tide flooding more than a hundred days each year.”
The many well-wishes for Parker Gavigan, upon the news that he is leaving WJAR-TV, reflect the quality of the work he’s done in Rhode Island – and how he’s done it. The departure of a Channel 10 investigative reporter for a job doing government communications isn’t unprecedented; the late Jim Taricani spent time working for Gov. Lincoln Almond back in the ‘90s (and he later returned to TV). Still, it’s worth noting how Gavigan’s departure – for a job leading communications for the Providence City Council – comes amid questions about Sinclair Broadcast Group and the recent split between the station and fan favorite Kelly Bates.
RI has never been closer to legalizing recreational marijuana – something that seems likely to happen in 2022 even though it’s an election year. A five-year look-back by The Boston Globe at how things have worked out in Massachusetts finds that basic promises have been kept, although glitches remain. Excerpt: “Two areas in particular have drawn the loudest calls for reform: the blurry limits on how much power municipalities have over new marijuana businesses, and the struggles of Black and brown entrepreneurs to win licenses promised them in the law.”
Eric Hyers, who managed Gina Raimondo’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign, later helmed Andy Beshear’s winning run for governor of Kentucky. To bring things into the present, conversations between Beshear and Raimondo, now U.S. commerce secretary, helped to do away with tariffs on bourbon: “‘I had a lot of contact with the governor,’ Raimondo told the Herald-Leader in an interview. ‘Mostly him calling me regularly saying, you know, ‘Please, please, please, you have to resolve these tariffs, because a lot of people are going to lose their jobs.’ Officials from the United States and EU struck a deal last week, doing away with the tariffs altogether and potentially saving thousands of jobs that would have been lost. The tariffs will be suspended starting on Jan. 1, though the deal does not include the U.K. since it exited the European Union in 2020.”
Rhode Island got some love during a satire of a newscast recently on Saturday Night Live. Yet the Ocean State’s connection with SNL goes much farther back in time. In 1981, Charles Rocket was fired from the cast after dropping the F-word during the show. Rocket, who took his own life in 2005, was part of the arts underground in Providence in the late ’60s/early ’70s and later reported for WPRI. He went on to appear in a number of movies, including the original “Hocus Pocus,” a sequel of which is currently filming around Rhode Island.
Ian Donnis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @IanDon. For a longer version of this column or to sign up for email delivery, visit www.thepublicsradio.org.
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