The state’s educational and economic fortunes are inexorably linked, Gov. Gina Raimondo said during her State of the State address Tuesday night – and with her administration set to unveil its budget plan for the coming fiscal year, she outlined numerous priorities she framed as essential to Rhode Island’s future prosperity.
“You know in the past few years, we’ve worked hard together to dig our way out of a deep economic hole, and now we’re preparing Rhode Islanders for success in a fast-changing economy … Now what we have to do is make sure that momentum lasts, make sure the strong economic momentum lasts into the future,” she told lawmakers gathered at the State House.
Raimondo touted the state’s economy as being “as strong as it’s been in a generation,” pointing to a record high number of jobs and an unemployment rate that is the lowest in decades. Those gains, she said, have resulted from a change in the culture and approach on Smith Hill.
“What’s changed is that we put aside the old way of doing business and we’re working together like never before to tackle our biggest challenges,” she said.
Raimondo made no mention of the projected deficits that loom as the state budget season begins, instead outlining an ambitious set of priorities in areas such as renewable energy, affordable housing and public transportation.
The governor’s proposals include $30 million in new education funding for districts statewide; action to make the RI Promise college scholarship program permanent; a bond question to fund the development of new industrial sites across the state; an increase in the minimum wage and expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit; and a major push to create affordable housing, both through a bond question and the establishment of a dedicated revenue stream.
Additionally, she called for new investments in Rhode Island’s child welfare system, including a push for new foster and adoptive homes; the development of a new program, modeled after RhodeWorks, focused on the state’s public transportation infrastructure; a “once-in-a-generation investment” in the state’s beaches and their related facilities; the creation of additional classroom space to accommodate universal pre-K programs statewide; and a permanent ban on the sale of flavored vaping products.
One pieces of business Raimondo announced Tuesday will not wait for lawmakers – the signing of an executive order that will call for the state’s energy needs to be fully met by renewable sources in just 10 years.
“It’s time to aim higher,” she said, pointing to Rhode Island as a national leader in offshore wind energy production and saying the state is poised to exceed its 2020 renewable energy goals. “This week I’ll sign an executive order to make Rhode Island the first state in the country to be 100-percent powered by renewable energy by the end of this decade.”
The governor appeared to avert one potential source of disagreement with lawmakers as she embraced the continued phase-out of the car tax.
The phase-out – which involves municipalities being made whole by the state for revenue lost through the gradual elimination of the tax – has been a top priority of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-Dist. 15, Cranston) and is set to enter its fourth year.
In other areas, however, Raimondo may be at odds with legislative leaders.
She concluded her remarks with a call for the governor’s office to be granted line-item veto authority, a move she said the “vast majority” of the state’s residents support. She called for the proposal to go before voters as a ballot question.
“Let’s restore Rhode Islanders’ confidence in government, and let’s put it on the ballot and let Rhode Islanders have a say,” she said.
Referencing the recent shooting incidents in Westerly and Pawtucket, Raimondo additionally said she will again bring forward a “comprehensive package of gun reforms.”
“Even one tragedy with an untraceable, homemade firearm is one too many and one that could have been avoided. Loopholes that allow extremely dangerous people to get guns need to be closed,” she said. “And military-style assault weapons belong in the military, not in our schools, not in our communities, and they should be banned.”
Raimondo highlighted one of her invited guests for the address, Warwick resident Jennifer Brown, as representing the success of a change in the approach to job training during her time in office.
The governor said that like her own father, Brown began her career in the jewelry manufacturing business. When that work disappeared, Brown went to work for a bank, but that job, too, was lost to offshoring.
“Also like my dad, she found herself in her mid 50s looking for a new career. And that is a scary place to be,” Raimondo said.
Through the Real Jobs Rhode Island training program, the governor said, Brown was able to “start over.” She now works for Cranston-based Mearthane Products, which develops and manufactures polyurethane components for a range of uses.
Raimondo shared Brown’s story in the context of calling for an expansion of Real Jobs Rhode Island, which she said has retrained approximately 7,000 through an approach that brings businesses to the table.
“Can’t we agree that every Rhode Islander deserves a shot at a good job?” she said.
The following are selected portions of Raimondo’s address on a number of the key subjects she raised:
INNOVATION: “[W]e need to embrace innovation in all that we do, from the jobs we that we’re bringing here to the way we run government. We’re changing lives, and we’re making Rhode Island competitive in a fast-changing economy … our new approach, working together, is a proven success.”
EDUCATION: “I also want every Rhode Island to know that our work in education is absolutely not limited to the city of Providence. We are every bit as focus on improving outcomes for every child in every school district across our state. We’re going to apply the lessons learned and make all schools better, everywhere.”
RI PROMISE: “We can’t go backwards. Let’s make the Promise scholarship permanent and cement affordable higher education and job training into the very foundation of our economy.”
PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: “Imagine a day when high-speed commuter rail connects Providence to Boston. Imagine electric buses powered by solar panels zipping through dedicated lanes. That’s within our grasp right now. Now 10, 20, 30 years down the road. Right now.”
PUBLIC BEACHES: “Millions of people flock to our beaches every summer, so let’s protect this beauty. It’s this beauty that sets our state apart.”
CHILD WELFARE: “No one needs our love more than these kids. I’m making it my commitment, and I’m asking you to join me.”
House Minority Leader Blake Filippi (R-Dist. 36, New Shoreham, Charlestown, Westerly, South Kingstown) delivered his party’s response to the governor’s address.
His speech also focused heavily on education, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. and outlining a proposed major overhaul of the state’s approach.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the civil rights challenge of our time is access to a quality education,” he said. “Rhode Island has a two-classed education system. If you live in the right ZIP code or have the means to send your family to private school, they will most likely get a good education and have limitless potential. If you don’t live in the right ZIP code, and can’t afford private school, your family faces an uncertain future, lacking social mobility.”
He added: “Our primary civic duty must be to fix our education system, and it must take precedence over any other government programs – and any other interest groups.”
Filippi called for expanded school choice and outlined a proposal to create “language academies” designed to “address the English as second language crisis we face.”
To fund the initiatives, he said, Republicans will seek a new tax on college and university endowments.
“It’s time for our local universities and colleges with substantial endowments to share in the cost of educating the next generation of higher education learners,” he said.
Filippi additionally proposed a new $1,000 annual tax credit to assist Rhode Islanders with student loan payments.
Other priorities outlined in the Republican response include the enactment of “intelligent tax policies and regulatory reform” that “will nurture local and out-of-state investment”; changes in retirement income and estate tax policy as part of a push to keep older residents in the state; creation of an independent office of inspector general; institution of zero-based budgeting practices at the state level; increased funding for the Department of Environmental Management; and, in one area of agreement with Raimondo, granting line-item veto authority to the governor.