PROVIDENCE — In her sixth annual State of the State address, Gov. Gina Raimondo on Tuesday night gave her audience a preview of the $10-billion budget she will propose later this week, by promising tens of millions more dollars for Rhode Island's public schools, an expanded job-training initiative and a bond to build more classrooms in schools and early-learning centers for pre-kindergartners.
She promised a permanent revenue stream to create more affordable housing options. She averted a political spat by committing to continue the car-tax phaseout championed by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.
"I stand before you truly optimistic about our future,'' she said in the print version of her speech from which she diverged slightly as she spoke.
"In the past few years, we’ve dug our way out of a deep economic hole,'' she said. "We have more than half a million jobs....More jobs than at any time ever in our state’s history. Unemployment is at its lowest point in three decades. Just think about that. That means our economy today is the strongest it’s been in a generation."
Mattiello's response, after the speech: "I love optimism. We have a lot to be optimistic for. The general theme is we need to continue investing and I would agree with that to a certain extent ... But I kept adding the numbers up as each proposal came along and I'm curious to see how that's going to be funded in the proposed budget."
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio was primarily focused on the fact that Raimondo had pledged a dedicated revenue-stream for the construction of more "affordable housing,'' saying: "That is one of our priorities this session."
Some takeaways from the speech which ran close to 50 minutes, punctuated by frequent bursts of applause:
DEFICIT: Democrat Raimondo's speech covered a lot of ground without once mentioning the potential $180-million deficit that hovers like a storm cloud over this year’s budget deliberations.
MARIJUANA: Her speech also never mentions the word “marijuana,'' having signaled plans to push again this year for legalization of its recreational use, despite the outspoken opposition of legislative leaders. (She did, however, mention vaping and her commitment to seek a permanent ban on flavored e-cigarettes.)
MINIMUM WAGE: She called on lawmakers to raise the state’s $10.50 minimum wage, but stopped short of suggesting, as she did last year, that they “put us on a pathway to a $15 minimum wage.” (In Massachusetts, the minimum is already $12.75 an hour and slated to rise to $13.50 next year and $15 by January 1, 2023.)
The disappointed response from Georgia Hollister Isman, state director of the Rhode Island Working Families Party: “This is a political moment for elected leaders to be bold, especially when it comes to the wages of the lowest paid Rhode Islanders. There is no good reason not to commit right now to getting Rhode Islanders to $15 an hour — it’s what we need and what our neighbors have already done."
But the National Federation of Independent Businesses tweeted: "Strongly oppose raising minimum wage again in RI. Minimum wage hikes reduce job opportunities for young & inexperienced workers. Leads to fewer hours, fewer jobs & automation."
ELECTRIC GRID: She included a one-sentence mention of a potentially economy-changing move. "This week,'' she said, "I’ll sign an executive order to make Rhode Island the first state in America to be powered by 100% renewable energy by the end of this decade."
FREE TUITION: She promised to fight to make the two-year, free-tuition program she championed at Community College of Rhode Island a permanent program, when it sunsets this year.
GUNS: Following recent shootings in Pawtucket, which may have involved a 3D-printed gun; and in Westerly, by a man with a history of making suicidal and homicidal threats, using a newly and legally acquired gun, Raimondo promised to push "a comprehensive package of gun reforms" again this year.
"Even one tragedy with an untraceable, homemade firearm is one too many. Loopholes that allow extremely dangerous people to get guns need to be closed. Military-style assault weapons don’t belong in our communities and should be banned. So this year, I will once again propose a comprehensive package of gun reforms. Stand with me and keep Rhode Island safe."
BEACHES: The governor promised to renovate the "tired bathrooms,'' and yes, the pavilions and concessions at state beaches. "I think it’s time to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our beaches," she said, without specifying where the state would get the money to do so.
EDUCATION: Few topics got more attention in the speech than education and, most specifically, the crisis in Providence schools that led to a state takeover.
"Nowhere is our challenge more obvious than in our capital city. Providence’s test scores last year were a call to action for all of us. The deeper we dig, the more we see a system in crisis. No consistent curriculum. Not enough student learning. Brown drinking water. Bats in classrooms,'' she said.
With all eyes on what the state's takeover team does to solve the problems, Raimondo said: "We’re moving to high-quality curricula across the district; expanding career education and college-level classes; making smarter investments in our buildings so everyone can be safe. Most important, we will end the culture of low expectations for our kids."
On the statewide front, Raimondo promised to pump an additional $30 million into core programs, as required by the state's aid-to-education formula. "We cannot think small. I’m committed to doing whatever it takes to set public education on a better path,'' she said.
"We’re starting to see some results,'' she asserted. "Last year Rhode Island saw improvements in third-grade reading scores ... But we still lag behind Massachusetts. We’re behind because for decades our decision-making lacked direction, and too often we shied away from the most difficult decisions. Those days are over. We have a moral and an economic obligation to do better by our kids."
BONDS & HOME CONSTRUCTION FINANCING: Laying out her borrowing plans, Raimondo proposed bonds to "develop new industrial sites all across Rhode Island, a housing bond and — for the first time in Rhode Island — a "dedicated funding stream" to build more housing, likely from an increase in real estate sales taxes.
She also proposed a bond to build more "spaces'' for children in "pre-K and high-quality child care."
"We currently offer Rhode Island state pre-k in 11 communities. In those communities, when we drew the lottery, the waiting list was 2,480. That does not reflect demand in communities beyond the 11 we currently serve,'' said Department of Education spokeswoman Megan Geoghegan.