Patching the budget and debating 'Providence Plantations'


More than 40 of the 73 state representatives present for the supplemental budget debate last week didn’t utter a single word during that discussion. Whether that’s a good way to approve almost $12 billion in spending depends on your viewpoint (more about that later). In keeping with past practice, those making the arguments fall into four main groups: 1) House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and members of his team, including but not limited to Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi, Finance Chair Marvin Abney, and Reps. Arthur Corveseand Grace Diaz; 2) Republican lawmakers, who try to magnify the strength of their 9-member caucus by speaking out; 3) Democratic critics of leadership such as Reps. Teresa Tanzi of South Kingstown and Moira Walsh of Providence; and 4) Rep. Anastasia Williams  of Providence, the sui generis persona who chairs House Labor, welcomes the spotlight, infuriated a colleague, unwittingly delayed a widely supported gun-safety measure, and has her own flamboyant speaking style. At any rate, House GOP Leader Blake Filippi said 48-hour turnaround for the budget from House Finance to the House floor relegated lawmakers to the equivalent of potted plants. But the lack of comment by many reps is a hallmark of budget debates. Why? It probably has a lot to do with the lopsided Democratic super-majority loyal to Mattiello. And how, as a young Theodore Roosevelt realized after serving in the New York State Assembly (per the excellent bio by Doris Kearns Goodwin), most members of legislative bodies are waiting to see which way the wind blows.


The even-keeled former GOP leader in the House, Brian Newberry of North Smithfield, said he was flabbergasted by the speed with which lawmakers were being asked to approve the budget, although he acknowledged it might not be able to produce a better spending plan amid the pandemic. A handful of progressive Democratic women echoed Newberry’s concern. Speaker Mattiello noted how the budget does not increase state spending, and he said the main difference was the addition of more than $1 billion in COVID-19 response money, mostly for unemployment benefits. In the end, the spending plan passed the House, 60-13, and the Senate, 31-6. The tougher sledding is expected next month, with a deficit of more than $600 million heading into fiscal 2021.


Gabe Amo, who grew up in Pawtucket and previously worked for Gov. Gina Raimondo and Mike Bloomberg, among others, has signed on with Joe Biden’s Democratic presidential campaign. Via Bloomberg: “Despite the lack of staffers on the ground, the Biden operation has been working with state parties and holding virtual events in battleground states. The campaign is hosting Juneteenth events in eight states on Friday and held dozens more organizing events over the past week. The campaign has also hired Gabe Amo, a former aide to Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo and Obama White House staffer.”


Change is in the air, with growing momentum to eliminate “Providence Plantations” from Rhode Island’s official state name and calls to make Juneteenth a holiday. Considering that, it’s worth noting that CVS Health, one of the largest private employers in the state, doesn’t offer Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday. According to CVS Health spokesman Michael J. DeAngelis, “We currently observe Columbus Day and Victory Day in Rhode Island as floating paid holidays. We are in the process of evaluating our paid holiday calendar for 2021. As we did for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month in January and February, respectively, we are commemorating Juneteenth this week with a number of employee celebrations, informational/educational events and content on our internal websites.”


Progressive critics of Speaker Mattiello haven’t forgotten how he questioned the existence of white privilege in a 2015 interview with the ProJo. Now, on WPRO, Mattiello questioned whether slavery existed in RI and he was unfamiliar with Juneteenth. While this offers more ammunition to the speaker’s critics, including Rep. Ray Hull and the RI Democratic Women’s Caucus, it’s less clear how it will play in Mattiello’s Cranston district, which favored President Trump in 2016. Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, who is running for Mattiello’s rep seat, offered this comment via tweet: “I understand people want me to jump all over @RISpeaker for not realizing there was slavery in RI. Let’s be better than politics as usual. May I suggest he listen to Keith Stokes & stories from #GodsLittleAcre as told on the RI Senate has approved a task force to review the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, on a bill from Sen. Harold Metts (D-Providence) with recommendations due next February. The RI House is expected to pass next month Rep. Anastasia Williams’ bill revising LEOBOR. And Attorney General Peter Neronha has taken several steps, including the introduction of a new protocol extending the involvement of his office in cases alleging simple assault against police. “Sometimes it is a simple assault,” Neronha told me in an interview. “And if we make them here, at the assault level, we may be able to head off a pattern of conduct that could result in something much more serious later. It’s serious enough when it’s a simple assault, it’s obviously much more serious when a death results as happened in Minneapolis. So the sooner we get on top of those cases here and address that behavior, the better off we’ll all be – communities and police departments.”


The burning of the HMS Gaspee – commemorated through the annual celebration of Gaspee Days – is subject to different interpretations. Public historian Joey Quits used a recent ProJo op-ed to call it a reactionary action inspired by slave-owning interests. State Historian Laureate Patrick Conley fired back, accusing Quits of getting it wrong. Less well known is how Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea quietly reappointed Conley, who has an appetite for tax sales, to his unpaid honorary post (which was created by Gorbea’s predecessor, Ralph Mollis, in 2012, complete with a news release.) According to Gorbea spokesman Nick Domings, “Secretary Gorbea met with Dr. Conley in February, at which time Dr. Conley expressed his desire to continue in the role of Historian Laureate of Rhode Island. Secretary Gorbea reappointed Dr. Conley as a well-known Rhode Island historian who has published dozens of books and scholarly articles on our state’s history. Our office did not send out a release on Dr. Conley’s reappointment.” Although the laureate position came with a five-year appointment, the relevant law “does not specify what happens at the end of that term ….” Domings said. “Reappointment was not discussed until Dr. Conley raised the issue.”


The clash on how many signatures are required to get on the ballot for state rep/state senator is headed to U.S. District Court via a lawsuit by the RI ACLU. In the House, Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown) said maintaining the current requirements (100 for the Senate and 50 for the House) poses a public health risk and disadvantages challengers taking on better-known incumbents. Rep. Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) defended the current approach, saying that people running for office should have the wherewithal to get the signatures. The plaintiffs in the RI ACLU lawsuit are Sen. Gayle Goldin (D-Providence) and four candidates running as part of the RI Political Cooperative, Jonathon Acosta, Jeanine Calkin, Tiara Mack, and Jennifer Rourke

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Writing letters is a lost art in the internet age. Now, friend of TGIF Jessica David is looking to do something about that with Dear Rhode Island, a collaboration with the What Cheer Writers Club. Here’s a brief explanation from Jessica: “What?: Dear Rhode Island is a community-led project to build connection across Rhode Island using the power of letters. Why?: At a time when many of us are physically distanced and we’re missing our usual in-person gatherings, it’s still possible to reach out, engage, and exchange. Mail may seem old-fashioned, but is there anything better than spotting a handwritten envelope in your mailbox?” Well said!


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