PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Islanders want their leaders to use the state’s federal relief money to help small businesses and schools, but they aren’t convinced the dollars will be spent wisely, according to a new poll.

The survey by Bryant University’s Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership found 76% of voters see funding for small businesses hurt by the pandemic as a major priority for the state’s funding, whether through grants or loans. At the municipal level, 64% rank enhancing public school programs as a major priority.

“Rhode Island and our localities are receiving over $2 billion in federal aid to spend over the next few years,” Gary Sasse, director of the Hassenfeld Institute, said in a statement. “How we spend that money matters, and voters overwhelmingly support funding education and small businesses.”

However, the survey showed only 41% of Rhode Islanders trust elected officials to spend the American Rescue Plan Act money wisely, compared with 48% who don’t trust them to do so and 11% who aren’t sure.

Distrust of elected leaders’ decisions is highest among Republicans (86%), men (59%), voters who make over $200,000 (59%), and independents (58%). Trust is highest among Democrats, at 60%.

The poll of 400 Rhode Island registered voters was conducted via cell-phone and landline interviews from April 25 through April 28 by Fleming & Associates of Cumberland, Rhode Island. The survey has an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus approximately 4.9 percentage points. (Fleming has also been conducting polls for WPRI 12 since 1984.)

Rhode Island is set to receive billions of dollars under the American Rescue Plan Act, which Biden signed in March. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed’s office said Monday the total will include $1.1 billion in direct aid to the state, plus another $539 million that will be distributed among the cities and towns — a huge windfall.

The leaders of the General Assembly’s budget-writing committees indicated Monday they expect conversations about how to use the state’s allocation will stretch into the summer. Municipalities are taking a variety of approaches to the issue.

The new poll shows a majority of Rhode Island voters oppose creating new permanent programs using the one-time federal money, with 50% saying they don’t support any spending that will require higher taxes once the federal money runs out.

Similarly, 38% of voters suggested spending the federal money on one-time capital improvements, versus 26% who suggested spending it on daily operations; however, more than one in three voters said it should go toward a combination or they weren’t sure.

The survey tested voters’ level of support for various spending options at both the state and local level, with small business support and school funding both emerging as clear winners. When voters had to pick just one option, the top choice for the state was grants and loans to small employers (35%) and the top choice for municipalities was enhancing public school programs (40%).

By contrast, only 5% of voters picked eliminating budget deficits as their top priority for the state, and just 8% selected buying new vehicles and equipment for police and fire personnel as their top priority for cities and towns.

Much of the discussion among state leaders about the American Rescue Plan has been around using the money to make one-time investments in capital projects that won’t require ongoing revenue. The poll asked voters to rank the importance of six types of projects.

Four types of spending were all cited as a top priority by about one in three voters: modernizing school facilities; increasing affordable housing; repairing bridges and roads; and investing in climate resilience and renewable energy.

Access to high-speed internet was a top priority for 23% of voters. Further down the list was improving state parks and beaches, a top priority for only 13% of voters, and developing industrial sites and business parks, a top priority for just 9%.

Ted Nesi ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook