Talking Politics

Lawmakers promising a closer look at I-195 bridge saga

By Ian Donnis
Posted 1/29/24

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Washington Bridge saga took a noteworthy turn when state officials last week declined to rule out the possible demolition of the westbound portion of the bridge. If such a …

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Talking Politics

Lawmakers promising a closer look at I-195 bridge saga

Posted

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Washington Bridge saga took a noteworthy turn when state officials last week declined to rule out the possible demolition of the westbound portion of the bridge. If such a drastic step proves necessary, it would suggest the bridge was in far worse shape than first indicated in December. It would also raise a host of other questions and ramp up the frustration of drivers in and around Providence. (As it turned out, Gov. Dan McKee’s office announced Friday evening that the U.S. Department of Justice and Office of Inspector General were seeking related records.)

While media coverage of the congestion and longer travel times caused by the situation has focused on East Providence, a larger geographical area is feeling the effects. The Henderson Bridge from EP to Providence is backed up in the morning, and the area around Rhode Island Hospital resembles a parking lot during the afternoon rush hour. Last Wednesday, McKee told reporters that ripple effects from the bridge are adding only about 10 or 15 minutes to commute times – an estimate at odds with the experience of many if not most motorists.

Suffice it to say that the political stakes of the Washington Bridge are very big for McKee and RIDOT Director Peter Aliviti, one of the longest-serving department heads in state government. For now, the precise fix for the bridge – and how long that will take – remains unclear.

East Bay lawmakers report that new engineering information is expected by late February or early March, as motorists deal with major inconvenience, since, as Rep. Jason Knight (D-Barrington) told me, travel times vary unpredictably for the same route day by day. Even with that timeline, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi is sticking by plans to hold an Oversight hearing, most likely in mid-February: “My position has been very clear and I am not changing. I am committed to holding a House Oversight Committee hearing before the February recess,” Shekarchi said in a statement. “I am open to a joint hearing with the Senate or holding a hearing just with the House.”

  

STATE OF THE NATION: Donald Trump is close to securing the GOP nomination for president after winning the New Hampshire primary, seemingly setting the stage for a rematch with Joe Biden later this year. While RI GOP National Committeewoman Sue Cienki remains neutral on the Republican side of the race for now, she offered this response when asked on Political Roundtable if Trump could do anything to lose her support in November: “You know, I think that he attracts a certain element in the country that likes to see a fighter, somebody that fights back.” At the same time, Cienki concedes that Trump has his work cut out in winning over independents and suburban women.

 

GOT ETHICS? Cienki’s successor as state GOP chair, Joe Powers, is 0-2 in ethics complaints filed against two of Rhode Island’s most prominent Democrats, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and now Gov. Dan McKee. In a report released last week, the Ethics Commission found that McKee was potentially culpable of a violation for a fundraising lunch last January at the Capital Grille with lobbyist-operative Jeff Britt and two officials from Scout Ltd., the Philadelphia company that had hoped to develop the Cranston Street Armory. However, McKee left the lunch before the bill was paid (the governor’s finance chairman said he forgot to reimburse Britt until the ProJo’s Katherine Gregg reported on the meal months later) and the commission cleared the governor of a violation since his behavior was not “knowing and willful.” McKee called the GOP complaint against him a political stunt, although John Marion Jr. of Common Cause of RI characterized McKee’s lunching with a lobbyist and interested parties while accepting their fundraising checks as disappointing.

  

HEALTHCARE TROUBLES: The uncertain future of Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence and Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence, currently owned by California-based Prospect Medical Holdings, underscore issues involving for-profit operators of hospitals. Now, Massachusetts faces a wave of possible hospital closures involving the nine hospitals owned by Stewart Health Care, a Dallas-based for-profit entity. As Deborah Becker and Priyanka Dayal McCluskey report for WBUR, southeastern Massachusetts could be heavily affected by changes at Steward due to the importance for surrounding communities of Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brocket.

Steward also owns St. Anne’s Hospital in Fall River and Morton Hospital in Taunton. In a warning sign for Rhode Island, Steward attributes its problems to how 70% of its patients are covered by Medicaid and Medicare – a percentage that approximates the statewide payer mix in the Ocean State. As with Prospect Medical Holdings, Steward has tried to leverage its real estate in deals with Medical Properties Trust, a big owner of hospital properties. In another echo of the situation involving Roger Williams Medical Center and Our Lady of Fatima, Becker and McClusky report, “Many health care officials and experts in Massachusetts say the situation with Steward raises larger questions about the role of private, for-profit companies in health care — particularly those backed by private equity.”

  

HEALTH DIRECTOR: In related news, Frank Prosnitz at What’s Up Newp reports that Gov. Dan McKee said the state is zeroing in on hiring a new director at the state Department of Health while seeking to raise the roughly $150,000 current salary to be more competitive with nearby states. DOH has been without a permanent director since the departure of Nicole Alexander-Scott in January 2022. McKee has moved slowly at times in filling permanent positions for directors at state agencies, a situation raising concern among some lawmakers and government watchdogs. Asked last May about when the Health Department would have a permanent director, the governor defended the interim leadership at DOH.

  

POLICE ACCOUNTABILITY: After years of delay, the General Assembly is moving ahead with an update to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, although not everyone is satisfied with the overhaul. The version of the bill sponsored by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio sailed through on a 35-0 vote this week, suggesting that even progressives see this as the best hope for change. Like the House version sponsored by Rep. Ray Hull (D-Providence), a sergeant with Providence police, the Senate version expands LEOBOR panels from three to five and raises from two to 14 days the amount of unpaid suspension that can be imposed by a chief without triggering a LEOBOR hearing.

Earlier this month, nine community groups, including the RI ACLU and Black Lives Matter RI PAC, issued a statement saying that it’ll take more than LEOBOR reform to address concerns about police-community relations. They pointed in part to the difficulty of getting details of findings about police misconduct and how Rhode Island is an outlier as a state without a decertification mechanism for police who have engaged in misconduct.

  

PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: Hard-to-predict fluctuations in the population at the ACI and related overtime costs propel perennial budget overruns for the state Department of Corrections. During the budget briefing last week, officials outlined plans for a recidivism study, with an eye to potentially lowering spending. Meanwhile, up in Massachusetts, the oldest men’s prison in the state, in Concord, will close this summer, in part since the facility is operating at 50% capacity. Meanwhile, the number of prison inmates in the Bay State has dropped by about a half since 2013.

POLI-MEDIA SHORT TAKES: Matt Rauschenbach, who as a recent Brown University graduate impressed with his polished comms chops during U.S. Rep. Gabe Amo’s winning run last year, is leaving his post as Amo’s DC-based press secretary .... Patricia Socarras, comms director for Providence Mayor Brett Smiley, is headed to the Cactus League for a gig with Arizona Democrats. Get ready for the dry heat .... Speaking of the capital city, June Rose – who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, according to a City Council news release – will be the highest-ranking transgender staffer in Rhode Island history. Rose grew up on the East Side and did organizing for Angel Taveras before working for other local, state and national campaigns .... G. Wayne Miller continues his series of compelling interviews with local reporters, this time with Antonia Noori Farzan, who has a penchant for uncovering distinctive stories. Excerpt: “I’d always enjoyed exploring places where I didn’t belong, and wanted to learn everything possible about the community where I lived. I also knew that I wanted to be a writer. It just took me a little while to realize that journalism was a way to do all of that — and that if no one was writing the stories that I wanted to read, I’d need to do it myself.” ... General Treasurer James Diossa rolled out an “Investing in Rhode Island” initiative last week.

TAKES OF THE WEEK – a mix of views from various Rhode Islanders.

LIZA BURKIN, lead organizer with the Providence Streets Coalition: “Last week, Gov. McKee’s State of the State speech focused on several worthy goals – improving school attendance, raising household incomes, implementing the Act on Climate, and solving the housing crisis. It’s impossible to see a path to achieving these goals without a robust public transit system, yet the governor’s proposed budget doesn’t even do the bare minimum to keep RIPTA running. Tens of thousands of Providence high schoolers and college students statewide depend on RIPTA to get to class. Behind housing, transportation is the second highest household expenditure, and emissions from cars and trucks make up 40% of Rhode Island’s greenhouse gases.

“Last year, Speaker Shekarchi passed a sweeping package of legislation focused on housing production. One of the bills going into effect in 2024 is a Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) pilot, planning mixed-use communities near public transit with easy access to jobs and services. This is an exciting opportunity to foster vibrant, walkable communities where people can live and work without complete dependence on a car for mobility and survival.

“But if RIPTA operations fall off a fiscal cliff, as projected this year, there will be no ‘T’ to pursue TOD ambitions. That is why our 2024 goals are laser focused on RIPTA and the impending driver and fiscal cliff, which began hitting home Thursday with the agency announcing drastic cuts in service due to the ongoing driver shortage caused by egregiously inadequate wages. Inaction will be felt for generations if we allow public transportation to languish at this critical moment.

“We encourage lawmakers in the General Assembly to end the decades of chronic underfunding and finally give RIPTA the resources it needs to move more riders – and the state – in the right direction.”

ROBERT A. WALSH JR., former executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island: “In 1955, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, in his short story ‘Franchise,’ posited that his ‘supercomputer’ Multivac could use the answers and attitudes of a single voter to decide all elections in a given year. While we have not yet achieved that level of technology (or at least that’s what we tell ourselves, to sleep better at night), many analysts believe the state most likely to serve as a tipping point in determining the outcome of a Biden-Trump rematch is Wisconsin – the same role it served in the two prior presidential contests. Tipping point is defined as the state with closest margin of victory that puts one side or the other at or over the 270 electoral vote count, and the discussion serves to remind us that presidential races are still all about the Electoral College.

“In this space last November, I noted that Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), along with Pennsylvania (19), Georgia (16), Arizona (11), and Nevada (6), were the five presidential battleground states, and Michigan (15) should be added to that original list. Interestingly, five of those six states (all but Georgia) will also play a key role in determining whether Democrats keep control of the U.S. Senate. (Democrats, on the other hand, will look to flipping Biden-friendly Republican-held seats in New York and California in their quest to regain control of the House.)

“You don’t need a supercomputer to mathematically determine that if President Biden keeps his base plus Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, he can get to 270 electoral votes for the win. The conflict in the Middle East, due to a large Arab-American voting bloc in Michigan, could potentially switch it to the role of the tipping point among those three states.

“Scenarios that don’t involve a Biden-Trump rematch are worth pondering, but we will leave that topic for another day. For now, Trump’s challenge in extending support beyond his base – which is more limited now than in the last election – bodes well for Biden’s chances, as does the news that Rhode Island’s Mike Donilon is moving from the White House to a leadership role in the Biden campaign.”

DR. AMY NUNN, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute and professor of public health and medicine at Brown University: “Tuesday was a great day for public health in Rhode Island. My team at the Rhode Island Public Health Institute was thrilled to join the state Department of Human Services, U.S. Rep. Gabe Amo, Sen. Valarie Lawson and dozens of elected officials and other community leaders from across the state to mark the official launch of the Eat Well, Be Well Pilot Rewards Program – a first-of-its-kind statewide initiative that provides SNAP recipients with additional benefits every month for purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables. Through the program, SNAP recipients will receive an additional 50 cents in benefits for every SNAP dollar they spend on healthy items, essentially doubling their purchasing power when shopping in the produce aisle. Right now, these benefits are available at all Stop & Shop and WalMart locations in Rhode Island.

“Our long-term goal is to bring this program to every retail setting in the state. Our celebration on Tuesday was the culmination of a years-long effort to make this program a reality – one that put the passionate leadership of so many Rhode Islanders working in public health, government and the nonprofit sector on full display. Eat Well, Be Well Rewards, to be clear, certainly isn’t going to solve the still-growing problem of food insecurity in Rhode Island overnight. Hunger remains an injustice that impacts the day-to-day lives of far too many of our neighbors. But it is a bold, innovative and – most importantly – immediate step in the right direction toward a future in which healthy food options are more accessible and affordable to all.

“In the years ahead, I am confident that we’ll look back on this week as a first step. We are committed to continuing to advocate for the funding and support we need to make this pilot program a permanent, statewide fixture in Rhode Island’s communities.”

KICKER: The bad news is that getting to your destination may take longer due to the side effects of the Washington Bridge. The good news is that Rhode Island is home to a growing number of superlative culinary destinations, as seen by how the latest James Beard nominations offer appreciation of the state’s burgeoning food scene.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@thepublicsradio.org.

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