Is too much money ever a problem in RI?


Thanks to President Biden’s massive $1.9 trillion stimulus package, Rhode Island will find itself in the unusual place of having an influx of money.

So keep in mind this observation from RIPEC President/CEO Michael DiBiase, a former director of the state Department of Administration: “[T]he only thing perhaps worse than not having enough money is having too much money.”

Speaking on Political Roundtable at The Public’s Radio last week, DiBiase said it would be a mistake to use the federal windfall to increase the level of state spending in Rhode Island, since, he said, the state is already spending more than it can afford. Rather, the $1 billion-plus headed to the Ocean State should mostly be used for one-time investments.

“I would like to see the state use it for big bold ideas that could transform the state, that could actually change our economic prosperity or our quality of life in some fundamental way,” DiBiase said, “instead of spreading it around in a bunch of different places.”

While Gov. Dan McKee and the General Assembly will decide where the money goes, DiBiase said he would favor “things like broadband, government IT, certainly public infrastructure, particularly at the local end – the cities and towns are getting a lot of money. So we historically have been very poor in investing at the local level on capital and infrastructure. So things like roads and parks. We should think about housing, you know, can we incentivize higher density housing? On the human development side of things, which I think is harder with one-time funds, but maybe we could do some kind of big bang, adult ed, you know, some intensive three-year program, and we could really help a lot of people all at once.”

Got vaccine?

Rhode Island is ramping up its capacity to administer vaccines – and everyone over 16 will be eligible in RI and Massachusetts as of April 19. Questions remain, though, about the quantity of available vaccine.

“I think it’s important that Rhode Islanders know that when we open up eligibility on the 19th, that does not mean that everyone will receive a vaccine on the 20th,” Gov. McKee said last week. “It will likely be a few weeks for individuals to get their appointment.”

Taxing matters

Gov. McKee’s continuation of the car tax phase-out probably plays well with a lot of Rhode Islanders. But RIPEC’s Michael DiBiase said the potential use of federal stimulus money to pay for the cost of cutting the car tax would violate the spirit if not the letter of the law.

“I do think it is not responsible to use the federal funds, which is what we’re doing to further cut the cost of the car tax,” DiBiase said on Roundtable, in response to a question from guest panelist Patrick Anderson. “The car tax was a lousy tax for a lot of people, but we’ve reduced it quite a bit already. And I think, you know, freezing it at this point is more responsible. We’re digging a deeper hole for ourselves, because we don’t, we don’t really have the money to make this next step of the car tax and we should be honest about it.”

Senate divide

A generational conflict remains on display in the Rhode Island Senate, even though President Dominick Ruggerio and Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey have tacked left on a series of issues. Some of this is evident in the clash over a dress code in the chamber. And some was on display during a recent meeting of the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee.

The issue in question was S468, part of the “Rescue Rhode Island Act” championed by some progressives. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kendra Anderson (D-Warwick), calls for the creation of an agricultural jobs bureau, among other things, and would allow for participants to apply for grants of up to $75,000.

Supporters touted the legislation as a way to bolster the local food supply, and it was held in committee, 8-0. Many of those testifying via phone said they would work aggressively to unseat incumbents if they voted against the measure. While the current crop of progressive insurgents embrace these brash tactics, they mark a contrast from typical testimony at the State House.

A disturbing trend

Asian-Americans faced increased threats even before the pandemic. An earlier low point came in the early 1980s, when anger about a recession in Michigan coincided with a disturbing fatal attack on a Chinese-American.

Thirty-five years later, in 2017, Michigan experienced an upswing in hate crimes and anti-immigrant sentiment. To bring things up to date, as NPR’s Rachel Treisman reports, “The group Stop AAPI Hate tracked 3,795 ‘hate incidents’ against the Asian American community between last March and the end of February 2021, according to a report released Tuesday. Those incidents include verbal harassment and physical attacks and are likely a vast undercount, the group said. Women of Asian descent reported 2.3 times more incidents of violence than men.”

Taxes, marijuana and housing

Three short takes from RIPEC’s Michael DiBiase:

1) RIPEC is part of a coalition opposed to raising the state income tax on affluent Rhode Islanders. While supporters call the issue a matter of equity, DiBiase said the state doesn’t need the revenue boost now due to the federal stimulus, and he said RI’s tax for high-income earners is still higher than in Massachusetts.

2) While he expects Rhode Island to legalize marijuana at some point, DiBiase, a former director of administration for Gov. Raimondo, said he was always disappointed that the potential revenue wasn’t more promising: “So my feeling is this should not actually be viewed from a budgetary point of view, it should be more of a of a, you know, of a social issue in terms of whether we want it or not.”

3) Asked about Gov. McKee’s proposal to create a permanent revenue stream to create more housing, DiBiase said the bigger issue is local resistance to expanding the stock of high-density housing: “You know, housing prices are very high now. There’s a lot of incentive to construct high-density housing, but it’s very difficult to actually get it approved. So what you see is the development happens at the low-end and the high-end only. And that’s unfortunate. So I think this is a place where we could use federal funds to incentivize approvals at the municipal level and basically, give funding to the municipalities to basically compensate them for whatever burden they think such housing might bring to their community.”

Mail voting

While voting by mail is viewed suspiciously (or worse) by many supporters of former President Donald Trump, MIT professor Charles Stewart III said Republicans used to favor absentee voting.

“There’s no evidence that mail voting helps or hurts either party intrinsically,” Stewart tells WBUR’s Anthony Brooks. “None.”

In related news, a new Stanford study found that voter interest propelled increased voting in 2020, and that voting by mail did not substantially increase votes for Democrats relative to support for Republicans.

RI poli-media people on the move

Welcome to Amy Russo, a new reporter at the ProJo … Congrats to Travis Escobar on his move from the United Way to a new gig as manager of community relations for Fidelity Investments … Ethan Shorey tweets that state Sen. Tom Paolino (R-Lincoln) plans a run for the town administrator job being vacated by Joe Almond, who is joining the McKee administration … Audrey Lucas, previously press secretary for Gov. Raimondo, is now doing comms for the Providence schools … Last but not least, Victor Morente, comms director for U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, is shifting to a job with the same time for the state Department of Education.

Remembering Ty Davis

Rest in Peace, Ty Davis, 71, the first rock reporter at the ProJo and the founder of the NewPaper, the precursor to The Providence Phoenix.

As Lou Papineau noted, Davis helped to launch the careers of lots of people. Lou also tweeted out excerpts from Bill Flanagan’s piece, in the final Phoenix, on Davis and his impact: “It’s hard to exaggerate how important the NewPaper was to the rebirth of Providence in the 1980s. It was not only that local musicians, theater folks, writers, and artists could get reviewed, interviewed, and promoted in its pages … It was not only that local politics got covered from a different angle than what the Journal offered – the NewPaper provided a voice for what started out being called the underground and eventually became the New Providence … The NewPaper was a weathervane pointing toward a different kind of city. It was the community bulletin board for Rhode Island’s post-war generation … Ty Davis [was] the crafty, smiling, endlessly patient entrepreneur who kept his eye on the prize while everyone was freaking out around him. Ty built the local paper no one else was ever able to build.”

New food court in Providence

The space once occupied by the Capital Grille on the first floor of One Union Station has been vacant for a few years. Now, though, Marsella Development Corporation plans an expansive 16,000-square-foot food court.

Ian Donnis covers politics for The Public’s Radio and can be reached at You can sign up here for his weekly politics newsletter and follow him on Twitter (@IanDon).

politics, money, Donnis


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