STORY OF THE WEEK: Now that the May Revenue Estimating Conference is complete, the General Assembly session is expected to race to a mid-June conclusion, with a few contentious issues still hanging …
STORY OF THE WEEK: Now that the May Revenue Estimating Conference is complete, the General Assembly session is expected to race to a mid-June conclusion, with a few contentious issues still hanging in the balance. The most high-profile topic is the proposal to ban military-style semiautomatic rifles, a concept supported by the state’s general officers and the gun safety activists who may be gaining more converts due to the frequency of mass shootings.
Gun-rights advocates call the proposal misguided and a further erosion of their rights. It’s worth noting how a ban on people under 21 buying guns – one of the three related measures passed by the legislature last year – has been deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge in Virginia.
At the same time, based on the outcome of legislative elections last year, lawmakers who support new gun restrictions do not appear to be vulnerable at the ballot box. Regardless, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio remains the biggest question mark on the outcome of the ‘assault weapon’ ban, so if he is opposed, it would be unlikely to for the bill to get a floor vote in the House.
‘Safe storage’ legislation may be more palatable to both chambers of the legislature, although that concept is also sharply debated; some gun owners express concern about being able to defend themselves in their homes if their guns are locked away, while advocates on the other side cite unsecured guns as a factor in accidents, suicides, and thefts.
KILLING SEASON: As the weather warms up and the amount of gun violence in the poor parts of American cities begins its seasonal climb, it’s worth remembering, according to the agent who created the FBI’s active shooter program (Via NPR), that public mass shootings make up less than 1% of firearms injuries in the U.S.
BUDGET: With budget surpluses in consecutive years, Rhode Island and the state’s top elected officials have enjoyed an extended vacation from the perennial deficits typically associated with state revenue. The state still has a sizable surplus heading into the 2023-24 fiscal year – roughly $540 million, even if the May Revenue Estimating Conference showed that down by about $65 million from the previous estimate. With federal COVID aid drying up and predictions of a more sluggish economic outlook, though, demands for state spending will increasingly outstrip the money available to pay for it.
DEVELOPMENT SLOWDOWN: Here’s the response from Gov. Dan McKee when asked during Political Roundtable what the state can do about how the climate of higher interest rates is slowing development, including that of high-profile projects like the Superman Building revitalization and the Pawtucket soccer stadium: “We got to be disciplined, and then we got to use the dollars that are available to keep people working. And that’s my goal is to use the federal dollars, whether it’s for road improvements, or whether it has to do with bridge improvements, or use the surpluses to invest in URI, Rhode Island College and CCRI. And in projects like down in, down in Quonset, or whether it’s Galilee with the fisheries, whether or whether it’s in Providence, with the health lab facility, the health building or private-public partnerships on the life sciences. So we need to continue to be smart about how we invest our dollars. $45 million alone, working with the General Assembly right now for really planting the seed to expand or to actually create a footprint for life sciences. We need to get the projects done that we can that we can get done. And then where you’re indicating where there’s private capital that’s needed, we need to, you know, press on, on those individuals that they made commitments to get projects done. And we expect that, you mentioned Superman and the soccer [stadium], we expect that those developers will follow through and do what they need to do to get the projects done.”
GOING ELECTRIC: Gov. McKee points to the cell phone as an example of why he’s backing a policy to end sales of gasoline-powered cars in Rhode Island 2035. “This is where the world’s going, this is where Rhode Island is going, to follow that lead and actually lead it in many ways,” he said on Roundtable. Republicans like Rep. Brian Newberry of North Smithfield see the governor’s initiative as a sign of Big Government and question how much it will accomplish. “Making everyone in Rhode Island drive only EVs will definitely send China a strong message and save the planet,” Newberry tweeted.
CANNABIS: The Rhode Island House unanimously passed a bill this week that would allow cannabis businesses to advertise in the state. Lawmakers held off on addressing the issue last year in the belief that the Cannabis Control Commission, the group charged with devising regulations and handing out 24 retail licenses for cannabis, would handle the matter. The commission was supposed to be filled with three appointees by last July, but that hasn’t happened. Gov. McKee told me the delay is due in part to finding and vetting suitable individuals and that he will name his picks later this month.
ON THE MOVE: The Christopher Columbus statue that became a target for vandals a few years ago will be getting a home at Johnston Memorial Park, businessman and former Providence Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr. announced this week. In a way, this makes perfect sense since Johnston is the most Italo-American community in Rhode Island. On the other hand, Paolino is RI’s Democratic National Committeeman, and Johnston, although traditionally considered a Democratic bastion, backed Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 (Joe Biden won handily in 2020), and favored Republicans for four of five state general offices last November. As I reported back in ’16, “Johnston Democrats lean to the right, especially on social issues like abortion. That’s due in part to the scores of Italian immigrants and their children who moved to the town after first settling in Providence.”
Paolino, who bought the Columbus statue from the City of Providence, said via release: “Italian Americans have made tremendous and lasting contributions to the State of Rhode Island. The Christopher Columbus statue is a symbol of Italian culture. I am thankful that Mayor Polisena Jr. has agreed to host the statue and create a destination for Italian American history in the Town of Johnston. The Mayor is playing an important role to ensure that this historic symbol is not melted down and turned into scrap metal. We cannot run away from history. The Christopher Columbus statue is a source of pride for many families in our state.”
TAKES OF THE WEEK: Various views from a mix of Rhode Islanders.
Lawyer, local historian and RI GOP National Committeeman Steve Frias: “One of our greatest challenges is our national debt. The federal government’s debt is already bigger than our nation’s economy. Because the traditional Washington budget-making process is broken, increases to the debt limit have become the best opportunity to take action to reduce the budget deficit. Over the past 40 years, legislation has been passed which tied increases to the debt limit with efforts to reduce the deficit. Some examples are: the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act in 1985, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, and the Budget Control Act of 2011.
“House Republicans passed legislation to increase the debt limit but also to lower increases in discretionary spending, which would reduce the deficit by nearly $5 trillion over the next decade. Both parties are at fault for the size of the national debt. It will take both parties to fix it. Republicans do not want to default on the national debt. The real question is whether President Biden and Democrats would rather default than negotiate with Republicans to reduce spending growth, and our budget deficit.”
Lawyer, lobbyist and blog-father Matt Jerzyk: “The polarization of the American republic isn’t isolated to the halls of Congress and the presidential trail. The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) no longer offers blind justice, with six conservative justices appointed by a Republican president and three liberal justices appointed by a Democratic president. This did not happen overnight and demonstrates that conservative activists were playing chess while liberals were playing checkers. In the wake of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, as well as a host of freedom-expanding decisions by the liberal majority led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, conservatives formed the Federalist Society in 1982. The Federalist Society served as the mothership for activists and entities – united by an ideology of ‘originalism’ or ‘take us back to the good old days’ – to recruit, advocate for and appoint conservative jurists to the federal district courts, circuit courts and SCOTUS. These efforts finally bore fruit 40 years later, on June 24, 2022, when Roe v. Wade was overturned.
“What, if anything, could or should Democrats have done about this, or do about this moving forward? They should have an equivalent organizing entity like the Federalist Society that serves as a home base for like-minded lawyers and jurists. They should have a much better communications strategy to link the importance of the SCOTUS to average voters on the issues that they care about. Base enthusiasm matters.
“So does public opinion, which has not raised judicial activism to a high level of importance. They should have better strategies and tactics for blocking appointments to the circuit courts and the SCOTUS; Merrick Garland got steamrolled while Gorsuch and Kavanaugh prevailed. They should prioritize the importance of Senate elections – especially in this coming vulnerable year of 2024 – and keeping a majority in the U.S. Senate. They need better inside baseball strategies within the halls of the Senate. And, they need to figure out what alternative strategies have legs – term limits, court expansion, ethics oversight – and make their own 40-year plan to win.”
WEAYONNOH NELSON-DAVIES, executive director of the Economic Progress Institute: “As we count down to the end of the 2023 legislative session, I want our legislators to focus on key equity and economic justice issues that will break the cycle of poverty, like protecting Medicaid, improving the RI Works program, and ending the predatory practice of payday lending. Payday lenders have been providing debt traps with triple-digit interest rates disguised as a service to Rhode Islanders, courtesy of a legislative loophole. Payday loan victims, mostly people of color and those living in low-income neighborhoods, are caught in a cycle of debt that results in an average of 10 loans a year with continuously growing fees, and an inability to pay them off.
“The payday loan industry siphons millions of dollars a year out of the Rhode Island economy because of special rules negotiated by corporate lobbyists. It is time to end the predatory practice of payday lending and close their loophole for good. Better options exist for lenders through local credit unions and banks that will reinvest that money in our communities.”
Sen. DAWN EUER (D-Newport), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee: “There was a lot of back and forth this week on the twitters about Rhode Island’s new commitment to curb our transportation emissions. Transportation emissions are almost 40% of R.I.’s total emissions, and that’s bad for our climate AND public health. As with many of our climate goals, the efforts to implement this will happen over time. Ensuring we have a well-planned and equitably implemented charging infrastructure is going to be key to the success of this initiative.
“R.I.’s small size is a strength in this area because not many average R.I. commuters travel far enough to trigger range anxiety. It’s important to note that legacy car manufacturers have been making bold commitments to EVs because they have been concerned about losing market share. Kudos to Rep. Terri Cortvriend, Sen. Alana DiMario, DEM Director Grey and Gov. McKee for positioning Rhode Island to take better advantage of federal funding while making sure RI is doing our part to combat climate change and address air quality issues.”
LIAM GARNER: Stop what you’re doing and get inspired by an NPR interview with a 17-year-old high school senior who bicycled his way from Alaska to Argentina. Excerpt: “I think people’s biggest setbacks is not having confidence in themselves. People tend to have crazy ambitions and dreams, but they just don’t think that they’re the person to do it or that it’s feasible. The way I planned my trip, I wanted to pick the most insane, impossible feat of achievement that I could pick. And I picked the most impossible thing because if I somehow managed to finish the trip – this crazy feat – that I would never be able to doubt myself again because from then on, I would have always done something that I thought was impossible. And so anything in the future that I considered to be impossible was now on the table.”
KICKER: Is there a Rhode Island angle to the Oakland A’s potential move to Las Vegas? You bet. Via the Nevada Independent: “The Oakland A’s and Bally’s Corp. have an agreement in place for the team to build a $1.5 billion stadium on a portion of the Tropicana Las Vegas site, a move expected to reduce the amount of public financing sought for the project to $395 million. Sources with knowledge of the negotiations told The Nevada Independent on Tuesday that under the scope of the deal, Bally’s plans to demolish the Tropicana and allow the A’s to construct a 35,000-seat retractable roof stadium on 9 acres of the 34-acre site on Tropicana Avenue near the southern end of the Las Vegas Strip.”
Ian Donnis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org