The legislators are back, and so are familiar fiscal worries

By Ian Donnis
Posted 1/9/24

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Rhode Island General Assembly returned to business last week, with the usual feeling of something akin to students returning to the classroom for the first day of school. House …

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The legislators are back, and so are familiar fiscal worries


STORY OF THE WEEK: The Rhode Island General Assembly returned to business last week, with the usual feeling of something akin to students returning to the classroom for the first day of school. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio used their opening day speeches to take a few victory laps (no recession here, a new tax exemption that will benefit 75% of businesses in the state, etc.) and they pointed to some of the state’s fundamental challenges, including creating more housing and strengthening the local healthcare landscape. But if there’s an overarching theme as Rhode Island marches into 2024, it’s that the state’s fiscal climate is returning to a familiar pattern marked by deficits and austerity.

A gusher of federal COVID aid made for unusually easy budgets and uncharacteristic surpluses in recent years, and the long-term disparity between revenue and expenses was cut significantly. Now, though, it seems a matter of time before annual budget deficits (which have to be wiped out before the start of a new fiscal year) once again become the norm, hindering investment in things that would promote growth.

Shekarchi is enthusiastic about plans for the RI Life Sciences Hub, with former RI Foundation CEO Neil Steinberg poised to lead that effort. But Rhode Island is late to that game, and behind more established sectors in Boston and Worcester. Back in 2021, when Gina Raimondo passed the gubernatorial baton to Dan McKee, she contended RI’s economy was stronger than when she came into office, but the state still faced familiar economic challenges. As URI economic professor Leonard Lardardo (who coined the pithy phrase “Rhode Island and Sisyphus Plantations”) told me at the time, “We don’t really have well-defined engines of growth.” That lack of productive new sectors remains with us today, posing an important and ongoing test for Rhode Island’s current elected officials.

MCKEEWORLD: Gov. McKee will have a chance to sketch his agenda for the year when he delivers his State of the State address on Tuesday Jan. 16. The budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 is typically released two days later, offering a deeper dive into the state’s spending plans, followed by months of legislative hearings and the General Assembly’s revisions to the plan. Ahead of this past weekend, McKee traveled to Pennsylvania to attend President Biden’s speech marking the anniversary of Jan. 6, although the governor was expected back in Rhode Island Friday evening, ahead of the state’s first winter storm of the year.

 MUNILAND: Gov. McKee, a Democrat, spoke during a recent political event for Cranston Mayor Ken Hopkins, a Republican, a juxtaposition that had some Democrats scratching their heads. Mike Trainor, spokesman for McKee’s campaign organization, confirmed the appearance and said the governor has close relations with various mayors and town managers and that he participated “in the spirit of collaboration with other municipal leaders.”

THE REPUBLICANS: Seriously outnumbered in the General Assembly with just 14 of 113 legislative seats, Rhode Island Republicans staged a news conference before the opening of the new session to renew calls for the creation of a state Office of Inspector General. Similar attempts have been made for years, by Democrats (former Rep. Larry Valencia and Republicans (Rep. Patricia Morgan). The election-year argument is that the roughly $1.5 million annual cost of staffing an inspector general’s office would more than pay for itself, by rooting out waste and fraud.

During a news conference in the Statehouse library, state GOP Chairman Joe Powers, House Republican Leader Mike Chippendale and Senate Republican Leader Jessica de la Cruz called for citizens to contact lawmakers to urge support for an inspector general. They suggested the sudden closing of the Washington Bridge last month could galvanize support. But legislative leaders remain cool to the concept, and barring a creative effort to mobilize voters, the proposal may remain just a concept.

PROVIDENCE: The 43-year career of Patrolman Frank Moody of the Providence Police Department spanned 10 different police chiefs and five elected mayors – Buddy Cianci, Joe Paolino, Angel Taveras, Jorge Elorza, and Brett Smiley. He goes back to when Providence officers wore brown uniforms. Moody was in the PPD for the tough times during Buddy II and the improvements ushered in by Dean Esserman. He’s caught fugitives, unraveled a 1990 plot to kidnap Mob associate Blaise Marfeo, and was once ordered by Cianci to salute while Moody was cuffing a suspect outside PPAC.

I spent a few hours with Patrolman Moody ahead of his last shift on Dec. 30, and you can listen to or read my story on our website at

RI IN DC: Brett Broesder, who ran Peter Kilmartin’s 2010 AG campaign with Chris Farrell — now an adviser to Gov. McKee — recently moved with his better half from Connecticut to our nation’s capital. More recently, Broesder’s Democrats Serve PAC has supported such local Democrats as Joe Shekarchi, Gabe Amo, Senate Majority Whip Val Lawson, U.S. Rep. Seth Magaziner and Newport Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong – and he launched another PAC, Tomorrow’s Jobs. While leaving the Nutmeg State was tough, Broesder tells me via email, “given what’s at stake for our country and democracy in this year’s elections, ensuring Democrats Serve and Tomorrow’s Jobs can play a small role in the larger goal of Democrats taking back the House while maintaining the presidency and Senate majority — it’s the right decision.” Spoken like a true politico, right?

NEW YEAR: My friend and former colleague Scott MacKay is fond of saying that you can leave Rhode Island and walk back into the same conversation 20 years later. It’s true, and as noted in the first item of this column, many of this state’s challenges are awfully persistent: underperforming schools, underfunded pensions, an economy in search of itself. But sometimes change does come to Rhode Island, and here’s a case in point: the General Assembly is considerably more diverse than it was even 10 years ago, the Providence City Council much more closely reflects the demographic makeup of the capital city, and the two largest law enforcement groups in the state, Providence police and State Police, are led by men of color.

BRAIN DRAIN: State Sen. Jake Bissaillon, who grew up on the North Shore of Massachusetts, is a counterexample to the long-bemoaned trend of young Rhode Islanders leaving the state for better opportunities elsewhere. In his case, he was able to become chief of staff for the Providence City Council at age 24. Providence was more affordable than Boston, and salaries were about equal in his field.

Bissaillon, a 2009 graduate of Providence College, added during a Political Roundtable interview, “Right now, we have a workforce that is in crisis, that we need to fill jobs, particularly our care economy: nurses, CNAs, teachers. I think if we can build out pipelines, not only that train those folks up through school, affordable education that’s accessible, but also make it more affordable on the back end once they start working in our public schools, at our hospitals, that that can be an attractive model for them. And I think as you talk about Rhode Island College, that may be an institution that’s probably trying to regain its footing in some sense. And it’s in the higher ed space. I think that’s a real potential for growth and purpose for that institution.” 

HOUSING: Bissaillon, who is close to Senate President Ruggerio as his former chief of staff, was non-committal on whether the Senate will pass the accessory dwelling unit bill cited as top priority in Speaker Shekarchi’s opening day speech.

COMING ATTRACTIONS: Common Cause of RI and the Latino Policy Institute are hosting an installment in its Demystifying Democracy series on Saturday, Jan. 27, at the United Way of RI on Valley Street in Providence: “Have you ever wondered how to testify at the General Assembly? What does the committee process typically look like? And what does it really mean when a bill you care about is held for further study? Learn from experienced advocates, legislators, and journalists about how the process has changed in recent years, what to look for when tracking legislation, and how to meaningfully promote the issues you care about. This is the first event in our annual Demystifying Democracy series.”

RI POLI/MEDIA PEOPLE ON THE MOVE: In a further sign that public media is becoming a colossus in Rhode Island, what with the planned merger of The Public’s Radio and Rhode Island PBS, the estimable Ted Nesi is part of a new segment on RI PBS Weekly …. Former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, who now lives in New Jersey, argued on Meet the Press last weekend that the U.S. is failing to treat mental health with the same urgency as other serious medical issues …. Jordan Day, formerly associate director of the RI League of Cities and Towns, has signed on as deputy policy director for the RI Senate …. Welcome to two new reporters on the local media scene, Alexander Castro, who will cover education, health and the occasional arts story for the RI Current, and Jake Rousseau, who will report on scholastic sports for ProJo.

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

JESUS SOLORIO, executive director of the RI GOP: “Rhode Island is at an inflection point. Unfortunately, the Ocean State has been under one-party rule for over eight decades, which has led the state to grapple with numerous ongoing challenges. Chief among these issues are the burden of high taxes, a struggling educational system, crumbling infrastructure, and a lack of transparency. That’s why we are working tirelessly on making significant gains in legislative races this year. We have to elect strong Republicans to local, state, and federal positions to ensure that we have balance and begin to turn the tide.

“Central to our strategy is the recruitment and support of candidates who authentically represent the communities across Rhode Island. We are prioritizing equipping these candidates with extensive and comprehensive training, amplifying their ability to address the state’s challenges effectively. Simultaneously, we’re intensifying our efforts to fortify the structure and influence of our city and town committees, recognizing them as the backbone of our grassroots movement. Furthermore, expanding our committed volunteer base remains a primary focus.  We understand that change is a gradual process. The growing extremism within Rhode Island’s Democratic Party emphasizes the urgent need to elect commonsense Republicans dedicated to delivering solutions for the hardworking people of Rhode Island.”

ALISHA PINA, entrepreneur, community leader and ProJo alum: “Happy New Year! 2024 can be a year of growth and needed change for our state and country, or one that continues (or worsens) the rife inequities and added, unjustified scrutiny toward people of color. If you desire the former, repeat these five **New Year, New You** resolutions and affirmations after me: 1) I will lead, speak and act with love rather than hatred; courage rather than fear; and compassion rather than judgment;  2) I will do my part to break the cycle and stronghold of systems of injustice, oppression and inequity even if long hours of my time are needed to move forward together; 3) I will earnestly examine the root causes of racism to better understand and improve myself and my community, state and country as a whole because I know diversity makes us great; 4) I will intentionally reflect on what voices aren’t at the tables I sit at, and invite them and/or diligently work to get them a seat; 5) In uncomfortable situations and discussions regarding inequities, I will look at it as an opportunity to learn and listen for ways to help instead of dismiss, shift topics and/or take what’s said as a personal attack.

“If we ALL take these steps, 2024 CAN be the pivotal shift from favoritism, bias, sexism, racism (all the -isms), micro-aggressions, denial, decisions made from fear/loss of power and whites-only sentiments to a country that waves its red, white and blue flag proudly because all its flavors, colors and residents feel, see and know they are represented, valued, embraced and celebrated.”

MEDIA: G. Wayne Miller’s recent Q&A with Tim White at Ocean State Stories is a good read. Excerpt: “For budding journalists, understand what a noble profession it is, and – despite what others may say – know that it is a cornerstone of a free society. The last time I checked, a free press was one of the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment. It’s not always the easiest job (and certainly not the most lucrative), but it’s immensely important. Good journalists help people cut through all the noise. To do that, you have to be a good writer, and that goes for print, broadcast, digital – any medium you pick. You could be the best reporter in the world — digging up critical information that is vitally important for the public to know — but if you can’t effectively communicate your findings, what good is it? To be a good writer, you need to read good writers, emulate them.”

MEDIA II: If you want an example of the vital role played by community newspapers, consider that recent changes at the RI Resource Recovery Corp., aka the state landfill agency, might have gone unreported were it not for Rory Schuler of Beacon Communications. First, Rory reported on the exit of RIRC head Joseph Reposa, whose annual salary was at least $245,000 and who was due to get a $25,000 bonus on the way out. (“During his tenure as head of the ‘quasi-public agency’ he refused Johnston Sun Rise requests for interviews. Reposa declined to comment on his next move.”) In a follow-up, Rory detailed how Reposa landed as the CEO of J.R. Vinagro Corp., and he’s filed a number of records requests in a search for more details.

Here’s this week’s nautical section of TGIF ….

FISH STORY: The City of New Bedford has outlined a process to create a statue of Herman Melville, whose 18-month voyage on a whaling ship from NB launched in 1841 inspired the classic “Moby-Dick.”

“New Bedford is the setting for what is arguably the preeminent work of American literature,” Mayor Jon Mitchell said in a statement. “The novel has had a profound influence on artists the world over and on American culture itself. As it was until recently with Frederick Douglass, honoring Melville with a statue in New Bedford is long overdue.” Plans call for a mix of public and private funds to pay for the statue.

FAREWELL FERRY: RIDOT has announced that Jan. 19 will be the final day of service for the temporary Bristol-to-Providence ferry launched due to traffic congestion related to the Washington Bridge issue. During 12 operating days, the ferries carried 3,285 passengers. “It is clear from the data that only a very small percentage of commuters utilized this service and people are overwhelmingly choosing to utilize the bypass lanes,” RIDOT Director Peter Alviti said in a statement. “A service that is costing about $50,000 per day and attracting only 300 to 400 passengers per day is not economically sustainable.”

KICKER: The common link between the Red Sox and The Boston Globe is John Henry, who has more money than most of us will see in our entire lives. So what to make of this: on one hand, the Globe has remained a vital newspaper in a devastating time for the industry — in part by expanding into Rhode Island and New Hampshire. However, at the same time Henry’s Sox are becoming (as one of the Globe’s excellent sportswriter notes) “philosophically … a second-tier team that no longer pursues top talent.”

Ian Donnis can be reached at

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