Moore: Mattiello Must Leave Pawsox Fate Up To Voters

Monday, May 11, 2015


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If there were ever a time to get voter approval for a massive expenditure, it’s now. Rhode Islanders should be asked directly if they want to spend tens of millions to pay for a new stadium for the wealthy men who now own the Pawtucket Red Sox. 

The time has come for direct democracy—particularly on the Pawtucket Red Sox issue. The state legislature needs to support Patricia Morgan’s (R-West Warwick, Coventry) bill that would require any subsidies to the new Pawtucket Red Sox owners before a voter referendum.

Does anyone else find it ironic that so many state legislators grovel obsequiously in the presence of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, yet businessmen push him around while he, in turn, genuflects?

In other words, for a man who everyone in the legislature seems so afraid of, his primary motivation for the most prominent actions he's taken as House Speaker have been driven by fear.

It obvious why most rank-and-file state legislators lack courage. They're worried about securing and maintaining jobs for family members, receiving grants for the local little league, and passing obscure legislation that nobody will recognize or understand anyhow--not to mention invitations to the Christmas Party or a parking spot or a decent office at the statehouse. In other words, go along to get along.

Go Along, Get Along

But Mattiello isn't much different than his minions in that respect. The only real difference is he calls the shots.

Rhode Islanders don't need to be reminded of the fact that they're in the midst of paying back the $100 plus million dollar 38 Studios debt which, the bond documents explicitly states, was not a legal debt of the state of Rhode Island. Mattiello should have taken a hard line stance with the bond buyers, who got a better interest rate because the investment was so risky (and they knew this full well), and negotiated a settlement that was more favorable to the taxpayers. Instead, he took the easy way out and simply paid them.

His rationale, he said, was that he was afraid of the bond rating companies. He said that they'd wreak havoc on the state's bond rating, which would in turn cost us more money to borrow money in the future, thus costing us more in the long term. Mattiello always fails to point out that bond rating companies merely issue opinions (that's they're position), and it's what bonds sell for at the auction that really determines bond prices. Bond ratings agencies are nothing to fear. 

Running for (Political) Cover

A year later, the state finds itself faced with another difficult financial decision--whether or not to lay out the financial red carpet for the new, wealthy owners of the Pawtucket Red sox. The ownership group is led by the uber connected Rhode Island lawyer and political insider James Skeffington, who has given thousands in contributions to Rhode Island politicians.

Once again, Mattiello is cowering in fear and for no good reason. Mattiello told that he believes the majority of Rhode Islanders will ultimately want the team to stay in Rhode Island as opposed to moving to Massachusetts. (It's hard to imagine a more foolish negotiating tactic than handing the person on the other side of the table leverage.) Keep in mind, this was before a closed-door House Democratic caucus. How's that for transparency?

What exactly would Rhode Islanders be losing if the team were to pack up and move to Worcester? Some sales tax revenues on the sales of hot dogs, cracker jacks, and beers?

Mattiello has now hired a consultant to tell him what he wants to hear. It's more political cover at taxpayer expense. (I thought we already paid for a House Policy Office for a reason?)

Irrational Propensity to Fear

Given Mattiello's irrational propensity to fear, this decision, which could cost Rhode Islanders tens over tens of millions of dollars, should be left up to the voters to decide directly. Instead of guessing whether or not Rhode Islanders are in the mood to cower to the threats of the well-heeled Pawtucket Red Sox owners--like former Fleet Bank CEO Terry Murray, and former CVS CEO Tom Ryan--let them make the decision. Hold a high profile voter referendum later this year.

It makes perfect sense. The state routinely asks voters to approve various expenditures during every statewide and off year election. Last year, the state asked voters to approve expenditures of $125 million to construct a new College of Engineering building; $35 million to fund artistic, historic and cultural centers;  $35 million in bonds to fund enhancements and renovations to mass transit hub infrastructure; and $53 million in bonds for environmental and recreational purposes. 

The money that Mattiello is considering forking over to the owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox, will certainly be in that range, if not more. It's a significant expenditure of taxpayer dollars, and the people paying the bills should have a direct say in whether they agree with it.

It might be nice to have people who aren't motivated by fear to make the decision.

Editor's Note: A previous version had that Mattiello hired a consultant for 38 Studios, which he did not.  Mattiello had met with two bond ratings agencies in New York City.  

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Russell J Moore has worked on both sides of the desk in Rhode Island media, both for newspapers and on political campaigns. Follow him on twitter @russmoore713. Send him email at [email protected]


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