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R.I.’s attorney general is frustrated: ‘We’re asking for help, and we’re not getting it.’

Attorney General Peter Neronha spoke at the inauguration of Rhode Island’s governing officials at the Rhode Island Convention Center on Jan. 3, 2023.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The most interesting Twitter account in Rhode Island right now had just 2,230 followers as of Thursday morning and its owner, Attorney General Peter Neronha, isn’t paying for a blue checkmark.

What Neronha is doing is increasingly rare among our elected officials: offering an unfiltered take on key issues affecting the state, how his office is trying to address them, and most importantly, explaining what he needs to get the job done.

Add in a few snarky replies, like a reminder to his Republican opponent in last year’s election that he won by 23 points or a jab at the governor’s former chief of staff, and you’ve got a fun follow.

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Neronha happens to be the only one of Rhode Island’s statewide elected officeholders who is term-limited from seeking reelection in 2026, but when I visited his office on Thursday morning, it was clear to me that he isn’t planning to waste the next three-and-a-half years flying to conferences around the world or glad-handing with politicians.

And he wants his colleagues in government – specifically, Governor Dan McKee – to share the same sense of urgency that he feels around saving the state’s health care system, holding Rhode Island Energy accountable, and helping the state fully implement the Act on Climate so it doesn’t get sued up the wazoo in a couple of years.

“I know that my public voice has an end date on it,” Neronha said. “And there are challenges that this state faces that I don’t think we’re taking seriously enough or not moving quickly enough on. And if I can reach others to hopefully move those conversations forward, then I’m going to use it.”

Right now, all he’s asking for is an extra $2.5 million in his $41 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, which is a bargain considering his office has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in civil litigation and Medicaid fraud recoveries in the last couple of years, including a series of settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors.

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Somehow, McKee couldn’t find room for Neronha’s request in his $13.8 billion proposed budget. A spokeswoman for McKee cited the “uncertainty of a future recession and lower revenues” as the reason McKee didn’t include requests for any new full-time employees by any of the state’s general office holders.

That might make sense for the folks in the lieutenant governor’s office or the secretary of state. But Neronha wants the extra money to fund a cold case unit, a new office of the energy advocate, and additional prosecutors and support staff across several offices. In all, he wants 20 more employees.

“When there are 330 lawyers, by our count, [working for] the state, and I have 100 of them, and I’m wondering what the other 230 are doing, yeah, I’m frustrated,” Neronha said. “My people are working hard, and they’re delivering. And we’re the ones on the frontlines of what I think are the most important issues in the state. We’re asking for help, and we’re not getting it.”

Neronha pointed out that it was his office – along with the Federal Trade Commission – that blocked a proposed merger between Lifespan and Care New England, the state’s two largest health care systems. His office also intervened in the sale of National Grid, and help negotiate a deal that resulted in $200 million of value for ratepayers.

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In both cases, arms of the governor’s office didn’t do their jobs, Neronha said. The health department was legally required to weigh in on the merger, and didn’t. And the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (DPUC) actually tried to prevent Neronha’s office from stepping in.

These aren’t one-off issues, either.

Neronha called the state’s fragile health care system a “ticking time bomb” that elected officials and other advocates need to take seriously. Same with implementing the Act on Climate, which made the state’s carbon reduction goals mandatory. If state ends up getting sued, the attorney general’s office will be asked to provide the defense, he said.

I told Neronha that I was getting the feeling that he was annoyed with McKee.

Neronha acknowledged he and McKee do not have a personal relationship, and he said the two haven’t had a substantive conversation since last fall.

On the campaign trail last year, McKee frequently pointed out that he was endorsed by Neronha, especially when McKee was facing questions about an education consulting contract that his administration awarded and was facing legal scrutiny.

“That was awkward for me,” Neronha said, though he acknowledged that he did endorse the governor.

He also called it an “insult” that McKee’s former chief of staff, Tony Silva, publicly suggested that there was political motivation behind an investigation into Silva’s lobbying for the development of wetlands property owned by his family in Cumberland. Silva was cleared of any wrongdoing, but Neronha said at the time that he showed “very poor judgment.”

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“When you take a shot at my people and say that their opinions are politically motivated, that’s a shot as much at me as it is at them,” Neronha said.

Neronha has clashed with at least one other high-profile elected official since taking office.

Early on in his first term, he had a meeting scheduled with then-House speaker Nicholas Mattiello at the State House. Mattiello was notorious for operating on Eastern Speaker Time, which meant that if he didn’t like you or just wanted to show you who was boss, he’d make you wait to get in to see him.

As Neronha recalls, Mattiello made him wait 45 minutes for a meeting, and by the time it was his turn to see the speaker, he needed to leave to pick up his son from college. They met for five minutes.

“He was not interested in being collaborative,” Neronha said. “Candidly, he enjoyed power for power’s sake. That’s not an approach that I found constructive.”

Neronha isn’t painting McKee with the same brush, but he said he’s going to keep fighting for the resources he thinks his office needs.

And much to the chagrin of his staff, he keeps finding new problems to tackle. Just this week, he sent a no subject-line e-mail to Deputy Attorney General Adi Goldstein to ask if there’s any way to regulate broadband companies that charge excessive fees to consumers.

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On Thursday, he met with House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi to make his case for the extra $2.5 million he wants in the next budget. Shekarchi isn’t ready to commit, but he’s smart enough to see the value Neronha’s team brings to the state.

“If I was governor, I’d double the size of this office,” Neronha said near the end of our interview.

When I asked if he wants to be the governor, Neronha said he’d only run if he didn’t think anyone was serious about addressing the most serious issues in the state.

Sounds like he’s halfway there.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him @danmcgowan.