TALKING POLITICS by IAN DONNIS

Reopening plans, privacy concerns and budget uncertainty

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Hi there! I’m Ian Donnis, the political reporter at Rhode Island’s NPR member station, The Public’s Radio (89.3 FM, online at thepublicsradio.org). I write a weekly column to look back at the top RI political stories of the week and to share some other poli-media tidbits. I hope you enjoy it.

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Barring an upsurge of infections or other troublesome indicators, Rhode Island is poised to take a big leap forward on June 1. That’s the target date for Phase 2 of the state’s reopening, with restaurants, gyms, and hair stylists returning to action, albeit with restrictions on capacity, requirements for mask-wearing and other changes. “It is going to be different,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said during her Friday briefing. “It is going to be awkward.” Nonetheless, plans for the loosening of restrictions will strike many as a hopeful sign, with more moves planned for early July if things go well. The governor noted how some mayors, including those in hard-hit Central Falls and Pawtucket, fear that moving too quickly will make things worse. Ultimately, the figures on infections and hospitalizations will tell the tale of how the state is faring in moving forward. ***

The tension between public health and civil liberties came into sharper focus with the rollout of Crush COVID RI, the state’s app for trying to stay ahead of potential outbreaks of infection as the reopening of Rhode Island continues. “Please, just try it,” Raimondo implored, noting how users can eliminate the app if they don’t like it. Near week’s end, more than 30,000 people has signed up, even as the app sparked some complaints of using too much battery power on individual phones. Asked for comment on that, Raimondo spokeswoman Audrey Lucas

said, “As the governor made clear when announcing CRUSH COVID RI earlier this week, this is only the first version of the app. We’ve asked Rhode Islanders to be our beta testers and give us their feedback so we can make improvements. The input we receive – including reports of battery drain for some users – will inform our work on version 2.” (You can offer feedback on the app here.) Steve Brown

, executive director of the RI ACLU, lauded some aspects of the state’s approach, while also asking a series of questions, including: how will users be informed about updates? Will the app undergo third-party scrutiny to verify it’s working as described? How will the state guarantee that it won’t share the data it collects? “We recognize the urgency of stemming the pandemic, and are not opposed to technological tools that may offer public health benefits,” Brown said in a statement. “We therefore applaud the governor for keeping privacy concerns front and center in the development of this app. However, deployed incorrectly, the app has the potential to interfere with public health efforts, undermine trust, and violate individuals’ rights.”

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The close to Rhode Island’s current fiscal year, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, will be nasty, brutish and short. In a memo this week, the state Budget Office estimated the size of the deficit that needs to be wiped out by July 1 at $234.6 million. Closing the current deficit AND the one for the next fiscal year – a total of roughly $900 million – is bound to make a lot of constituencies unhappy; there’s just no way to balance the budget without affecting people. It’s too late now, but some will wonder if earlier movement on furloughs or other steps could have put the state on a better footing. Federal relief remains a huge wild card, so Gov. Raimondo has offered some support for delaying a vote on the next budget until after July 1. But RI House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello recently expressed his strong opposition to approving a new budget after the start of the next fiscal year. House Finance and the House of Representatives (the latter which has yet to meet in person for months), have their work cut out, with little more than a month left in FY 2020.

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For now, Rhode Island’s election season remains off in the future. But there are signs of activity in the marquee Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung’s GOP challenge to Speaker Mattiello in a Cranston House district. Fenton-Fung recently sent her first mailer. Meanwhile, the legislative fundraising season would normally be in full swing by now. We asked Rhode Island’s top two lawmakers about how they’re pursuing campaign funds. Patti Doyle, campaign spokeswoman for Mattiello, said in a statement, “Right now, the speaker is focused near exclusively on guiding the state through a very challenging budget process as well as continuing to be responsive to constituents during this devastating pandemic. We’ll turn our attention to fundraising later this summer when State House business concludes.” Bill Fischer, campaign spokesman for Dominick Ruggerio said, “The Senate president is not focused on fundraising at this time as he has far greater priorities in front of him including passing a budget and working with the speaker and the governor on restarting the economy for both the short and long-term.” Of course, the legislative leaders are starting out with an advantage when it comes to campaign money. Mattiello has $188,716 in his account of the last filing, while Fenton-Fung has $25,315. Ruggerio has $277,973, while Democratic primary opponent Lenny Cioe has $2,387.

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Sen. Sam Bell (D-Providence) rolled out a handful of endorsements this week, ranging from progressives like City Councilor Rachel Miller to more conservative Democrats, Rep. John Lombardi (D-Providence) and former rep Joanne Giannini. Lombardi was the second leading vote-getter in the 2010 race for mayor. Bell’s ability to win his support shows how he’s building a coalition aimed at preserving his Senate seat in the face of a challenge from Providence City Council Majority Leader Jo-Ann Ryan, who has the backing of Senate leadership. Meanwhile, what is up with the “Friends of Joann1” Twitter account? It includes a disclaimer saying that Ryan does not endorse the tweets. Various supporters of Bell and “Friends of Joann1” sniped at each other on Twitter throughout the week. At one point, “FriendsofJoann1” expressed support for Sen. Elaine Morgan (R-Hopkinton), an unusual stance for a putatively pro-Democratic feed. Some theorize the “Friends” Twitter is a troll meant to detract from Ryan, although both she and Bell have declined to publicly engage on the issue

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Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory offers this comment to media critic Dan Kennedy regarding the Globe reaching the long-sought milestone of 200,000 digital subscriptions: “These readers are so vital to our future, and we want to let them know that. Of course, the most important thing is to feed them consistently strong and relentlessly interesting journalism. We will be in a huge news cycle for many, many months, between the virus and the massive economic disruption that it's caused, inequality laid devastatingly bare, an epic presidential race, a reordering of so many things core to so many of our lives, condensed sports seasons, and on and on.”

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The ProJo and other Gannett-owned newspapers in the area aren’t the only ones dealing with furloughs and other cuts. Cumulus, which owns WPRO, has also implemented furloughs. According to the industry site Radio Ink, “Over 80% – the vast majority – of Cumulus’ salaried employees will be taking 3 individual weeks of furlough. That’s unpaid leave where they cannot do any work. Those three weeks will be taken in one-week installments over a 15-week period beginning April 20th.”

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According to the Boston Federal Reserve, even with large amounts of federal relief, “2 to 3 percent of New England homeowners and 9 to 13 percent of New England renters may be unable to make their housing payments. Many states have temporarily halted evictions, foreclosures, or both to protect people from losing their homes, at least in the short term. However, once the economy begins to recover, these households will remain responsible for their unpaid rents and mortgages.” The Fed’s report outlines “the immediate, three- to four-month impact that the coronavirus outbreak and resulting legislation are likely having on New England households. The ultimate economic consequences of the pandemic, along with the adequacy of economic-policy responses, will be determined largely by how long it takes to stop the spread of the virus.”

For more from The Public’s Radio, visit thepublicsradio.org.

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