PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo focused on improving education, spurring economic development and building more housing in her annual State of the State address Tuesday night, proposing to expand public pre-K and “transform” K-12 education in Rhode Island.
Acknowledging that Rhode Island still lags far behind Massachusetts in test scores, Raimondo said she plans to again propose adding $30 million for public education in her budget. And she touted the recent state takeover of Providence’s struggling school system, lamenting “a system that has failed,” and asserting that improvements in Providence will be applied statewide.
Watch in full: Raimondo’s 2020 State of the State address »
“In every district across the state, we’ll invest in high-quality curricula and ensure more students have access to advanced classes in high school,” Raimondo said in her prepared text. “We’ll invest to support multilingual learners for whom the playing field is still devastatingly unequal.”
Raimondo, a second-term Democrat, made the remarks in a televised address in the R.I. House chamber before lawmakers, judges and other dignitaries. Her full 2020-21 budget proposal — which will include more details on her proposals and a plan to close a budget deficit as high as $200 million — is set to be submitted to the General Assembly on Thursday.
In her quest to have universal pre-K in Rhode Island by the time she leaves office at the end of 2022, Raimondo said she would propose increasing the number of pre-K seats by 50% in the upcoming year, bringing the total to more than 2,100. She also proposed floating a bond to build more pre-K classroom spaces, one of three potential bonds announced in the speech.
The other two bonds she proposed – she did not reveal the dollar amounts in her prepared remarks – would go toward affordable housing and the development of industrial sites throughout the state, modeled on the successful Quonset Business Park.
On the housing front, Raimondo proposed a “dedicated funding stream” to build more homes, but did not elaborate on how she’ll raise the money. The issue has been rising on the agenda as home prices soar while new construction remains limited.
“This affects everyone,” Raimondo said. “The young working couple who struggle to be good employees because they don’t have stable housing; small businesses that struggle to recruit people who are priced out of the community; even kids who fall asleep in class because they slept on a relative’s couch the night before.”
The comments surrounding housing evoked a string of reaction following the speech. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor quickly pointed out that investing in housing is necessary to ensure people can afford to live in the places where they work.
“Rhode Island is the only state in the entire Northeast that does not have a dedicated funding stream for housing,” Pryor said. “We need to fix that.”
United Way of Rhode Island, a Providence-based nonprofit, celebrated the proposal to invest in housing.
“Thank you [Gov. Raimondo]. We agree, a continuous funding stream is needed if #RI is to have safer homes and a successful future,” the group tweeted.
Crossroads RI President and CEO president Karen Santilli issued a statement praising the governor for her proposal.
“Rhode Island is facing a housing crisis. A commitment to sustained funding for housing is one of the most important economic development investments we can make because the simple truth is that Rhode Island’s prolonged economic security is not possible if all Rhode Islanders cannot secure housing,” Santilli said.
On the environment, Raimondo garnered a standing ovation when said she would 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.” She also promised a “once-in-a-generation investment” in the state’s beaches. (Last year she proposed hiking beach parking fees to pay for improvements, an idea that lawmakers quickly shot down.)
The General Assembly’s two Democratic leaders, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, reacted cautiously.
“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,” Mattiello told reporters after the speech. “I love the ideas, all the initiatives were good ones, but you have to look at where the funding is going to come from.”
Ruggerio called the renewable energy goal a “great initiative,” while Mattiello said it was a laudable goal but also expressed concern about the price tag to get it done.
“Make no mistake about it, that will lead to increased energy costs for our citizens,” Mattiello said. “We’ll evaluate the benefit versus the cost.”
Raimondo said she would once again propose a package of gun-control bills, including a ban on so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. She also referenced banning untraceable “ghost guns,” and closing loopholes in the background check system, two ideas Mattiello has indicated he’d be willing to consider this year. (The ghost gun ban passed the Senate last year, but did not make it through the House.)
On the assault weapons ban, which Mattiello has opposed, he told reporters “nothing is dead-on-arrival” and the bill will be considered in committee.
The Campaign for Gun Violence Prevention Rhode Island, a nonprofit advocacy group, lauded the governor’s remarks.
“We particularly appreciate the focus on banning assault weapons, 3D-printed guns and untraceable ghost guns … and on limiting the size of ammunition magazines,” the group said.
Raimondo praised the economy, low unemployment and economic development at places like the Quonset Business Park, where she said more than two dozen companies have moved or expanded.
But in his prepared Republican response, House Minority Leader Blake Filippi said it was highly concerning that Rhode Island is still facing a large budget deficit in good economic times, arguing the state government “will not be able to survive an economic downturn.”
“There will be immense pain from drastic cuts in the event of a recession,” Filippi said.
On education, Filippi called the state takeover of Providence schools “necessary,” but not a “cure-all.” He said Republicans plan to propose bills for school choice and “language academies” for English learners. And he opposed Raimondo’s plan to use taxpayer money to solve the housing crisis.
“If we fix the fundamentals of our economy, the housing crisis will be fixed by private investment responding to the pent-up demand,” Filippi said. “We don’t need more taxpayer money and bonding – we need to nurture private investment.”
Raimondo waved the white flag for now on expanding the R.I. Promise free tuition program, currently offered at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), to either of the state’s other public colleges. But she urged lawmakers to make the Promise scholarship permanent at CCRI, where the pilot program is set to end with the high school graduating class of 2020.
“We’ll be pulling the rug right out from under all of our other high school students,” Raimondo said.
Not included in Raimondo’s speech was any mention of marijuana, though she’s expected to again propose legalizing recreational marijuana in her budget, and she’s currently locked in a power struggle with General Assembly leaders over how to expand the medical marijuana program.
Another potential source of conflict with Mattiello is Raimondo’s renewed push for Rhode Island to adopt a line-item veto, which would give the governor the power to veto individual line items in the budget without rejecting the entire document. Rhode Island is one of the few states that does not give the governor such power.
“Nearly every other state uses line-item veto to reduce waste in government spending and corruption – and to ensure that tax dollars help all citizens, not just those with connections,” Raimondo said. “Let’s restore Rhode Islanders’ confidence in government and put line-item veto on the ballot.”
Ruggerio told reporters, “I think it puts a lot of power into the hands of the governor,” though he said hearings would likely be held.
Other proposals in the speech included raising the minimum wage, cutting unemployment insurance taxes, expanding the Real Jobs RI training program, and enacting a permanent ban on flavored e-cigarettes.
The Rhode Island chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, a small business trade organization, quickly pushed back on the idea of a minimum wage increase.
“[Gov. Raimondo] can’t talk about job growth and then immediately talk about raising the minimum wage on #smallbiz again. Wage hikes hit small, Main Street businesses that struggle to absorb higher labor costs hardest,” the organization tweeted during the speech.
But on the other side of the issue, the Rhode Island Working Families Party criticized Raimondo for not coming out strong enough; she didn’t mention any specific goal for the minimum wage in the speech.
“There is no good reason not to commit right now to getting Rhode Islanders to $15 an hour,” the group’s leader, Georgia Hollister-Isman, said. “It’s what we need and what our neighbors have already done. We are disappointed to see the governor fall short on this, particularly since we know it’s something voters across the state are looking for in their elected officials.”
Ted Nesi and Caroline Goggin contributed to this report.