PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo marked the midway point in her four-year term Tuesday evening when she delivered her State of the State speech to lawmakers, other officials and residents watching on television at home.
Here are six highlights from the speech and what they say about the governor’s positions and priorities. (The text is from the version of her remarks as prepared for delivery.)
“My fellow Rhode Islanders, because of hardworking, gritty, determined, and talented Rhode Islanders; because of companies that are expanding here; because we have come together as one state to invest in ourselves, I stand here this evening with optimism, confidence and pride and say that the state of our state is getting stronger every day. Our economy is stronger. … Our business climate is stronger. … Our workforce is getting stronger. … Our infrastructure is stronger. … Our schools are getting stronger and our kids are getting a shot at a brighter future. … Our commitment to our environment is stronger. … And finally, our commitment to our veterans and military families is stronger.”
This is the classic where-we-stand statement that every president or governor makes in their annual addresses to legislators. Critics, of course, strongly dispute the governor’s assessment of the situation – House Republican Leader Patricia Morgan, for example, described Rhode Island as being “in critical condition” and offered a laundry list of problems facing citizens. But this passage shows how Raimondo’s team hopes voters view the present moment, and also gives a sense of her priorities – plenty of thought goes into which aspects of Rhode Island government get a shout-out in the governor’s biggest speech of the year.
“The budget I’ll send you on Thursday will cut every Rhode Islander’s car tax by at least 30%, putting more than $50 million back in your pockets. I agree with Speaker Mattiello that this should be a priority, and I look forward to working with the legislature on this important issue. As we come together to begin this work, let’s commit ourselves to reform that’s fair, fiscally responsible, sustainable in the long run and provides relief for every Rhode Islander. We also must protect all the progress we are making: investing in our schools, job training, and economic development. There is plenty of room for compromise and I’ll work with anybody.”
Consider this the governor’s opening bid in a negotiation that will now begin over how to tackle the car tax. There’s little doubt some reduction in the car tax will pass in 2017 – House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello made a campaign pledge to eliminate it over five years, and it’s a nonnegotiable for him. But Raimondo and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed have both balked at his stated plan to phase out the tax entirely and replace every dollar of lost local revenue with state money, which would cost roughly $215 million. Raimondo’s alternative proposal – to levy the car tax only on the fair trade-in value of a vehicle (70% of its full value) – would only cost about one-fourth as much as Mattiello’s plan. Her proposal also wouldn’t start until July 2018, a year later than Mattiello wants; he made clear after the speech he still wants to do more and isn’t interested in a delay. Raimondo’s use of the word “compromise” suggests she’s well aware this won’t be the final word on the car tax.
“A century ago, we decided as a nation that every American had a right to free education up to 12th grade. We did that because those were the skills you needed to get a good job. But our economy has changed. And the playing field has changed. And so our promise needs to change, too. Our promise needs to change if the people of Rhode Island are going to have a real shot in the economy of the future. Because the hardest part of college shouldn’t be paying for it. … Tonight, I propose that we ensure Rhode Island is the first state in America to guarantee two free years of college for every Rhode Island student at CCRI, URI or Rhode Island College.”
This is undoubtedly the most attention-getting proposal Raimondo rolled out for the State of the State, and a fairly straightforward one: two years of tuition-free college at the three state schools. Dan McGowan has the details on the proposal here. Raimondo’s argument is that this is an extension of the existing, long-established free K-12 public school system. The potential popularity of the idea is obvious, and Democrats across the country have been putting forward similar proposals in recent years – the question now is whether lawmakers will go along. Speaker Mattiello called the tuition idea “a laudable goal” but stopped short of endorsing it, though he said it has significant support in the House. (As an aside, this may also be a chess move in the debate over the car tax – Raimondo is putting forward an alternative way to spend some of the money Mattiello might prefer to put into that.)
‘Dignity in Work’
“And we still have a lot of work to do to ensure that every Rhode Islander has a chance for dignified work at a decent wage. When I was a kid, most people earned a high school diploma and went right to work. There was a pretty simple deal back then: Finish high school. Work hard. And get a decent job to support your family. You could buy a house, take a modest vacation – maybe to one of our beaches in South County or on Block Island. There was dignity in work. There was pride in what you built and what you made. For too many though, that deal is now out of reach. So let’s invest in our middle class. Let’s put that deal back on the table here in Rhode Island.”
On the one hand, this passage is standard political rhetoric about jobs and the economy; it’s certainly not controversial to suggest good jobs are a good thing. It’s worth noting, though, because it captures something Raimondo has been talking about a lot recently – in interviews and speeches since the election she’s repeatedly emphasized that elected officials need to view their top priority as policies that will help create and sustain good-paying jobs. She’s said she thinks Hillary Clinton’s failure to emphasize that goal is a key reason she lost to Donald Trump, and has argued the insecurity caused by too few good jobs is part of what drove Trump’s surprising success. Are Raimondo’s solutions the right ones? That’s for lawmakers – and voters – to decide. But this passage gives a sense of how she views the broad mission of her governorship.
The UHIP Mess
“Now, while we celebrate the success and the progress and the people who make us stronger, we still face challenges. I share everyone’s frustration, especially the frustration of those who depend on government assistance, over the roll out of our new social services computer program. I’ve taken measures to improve accountability. Rhode Island taxpayers will not pay a penny more for this system until I am satisfied that we are getting what we paid for.”
Governors like to use State of the State addresses as victory laps, so you know something has really gone off the rails when it’s such a major problem that it can’t be ignored in the big speech. Thus is the case with the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP), the $364-million new computer system for benefits whose botched rollout has been in the headlines for months now. As Raimondo noted in the speech, she announced last week the resignations of two top officials and halted payments to contractor Deloitte because of UHIP’s problems. It’s safe to say when the system launched in mid-September no one on her team was expecting she’d be having to make a very public statement about it four months later in her biggest speech of the year. And she’d better hope she isn’t still talking about its “challenges” in her State of the State a year from now – when she’s up for re-election.
“When we’re confronted by uncertainty, we hold to our founding covenant: That there’s a place here for everyone. There’s a place here no matter your race, your creed, your gender, where you’re from or who you love. So, let’s come together as a community. Let’s dig deep to find the hope and the resilience and the faith and the love that’s going to allow us to keep making Rhode Island stronger.”
Raimondo is a Democrat, but she’s faced criticism from the left over the years from those who say she’s too close to business and not progressive enough. The election of Republican Donald Trump has given Raimondo a chance to find common cause with those inside and outside her party who dislike the new president. While she didn’t mention Trump by name in this passage, her office made clear she was partly trying to contrast Rhode Island’s values with what happened in Washington, as she has before. It was the closest she came to acknowledging the new political reality at the federal level.