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Raimondo proposes $107 million state health lab for ‘next pandemic’

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Raimondo administration is already looking to prepare for the next public health crisis, announcing Monday a new proposal to build a $107 million state health lab most likely in Providence.

The announcement emerged when state officials submitted a slew of amendments to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s bond initiatives proposed earlier this year, which will be considered by the General Assembly. If approved, voters would be asked in November to approve $107 million in bonds to cover the cost of the new facility.

During a call with reporters, Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott – who has become a household name during the state’s COVID-19 response – said the $107 million project could vastly advance the state’s ability to prepare, research and respond to future crises.

“We know we need to make significant improvements for the long term, and to prepare for the next pandemic,” Alexander-Scott said.

The facility would include a state-of-the-art lab for public health officials to continue operations related to disease prevention and management, similarly to what’s already in place. But it would also open the door to public-private partnerships and research, which isn’t possible in the current space that’s deteriorating, according to R.I. Department of Administration director Brett Smiley.

“The Rhode Island Department of Health has been a critical component thus far and the men and women have been working tirelessly in very antiquated facilities,” he said during the conference call.

If the money is approved, construction would start within a year, and be completed 18 months after that, according to Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor. The state would build the new facility on state-owned or state-controlled property located near existing health and research facilities, including the former Interstate 195 land in Providence.

The downtown property is already home to the newly constructed Wexford Innovation Center, and Lifespan hospitals and Brown University medical facilities are within eyesight. Pryor acknowledged the land would qualify, but said there are other sites also under consideration.

“The Providence area works well,” he said. “Partners in innovation, medical science and biotech are going to be key.”

The governor’s cabinet members said the ability to pay for such a large project only materialized within the last month, after General Treasurer Seth Magaziner identified some additional borrowing capacity.

In a July 3 memo, Magaziner urged the General Assembly to consider an additional $200 million of bonding, “provided that all borrowing be for projects and initiatives deemed most impactful for combating the spread of COVID-19, catalyzing economic recovery, and supporting those Rhode Islanders facing hardships as a result of the epidemic.”

The borrowing would put the state above one of four affordability thresholds designed by the state’s Public Finance Management Board to ensure the state doesn’t take on too much debt. But Magaiziner said that would only be the case for one year, which he said is acceptable during times of emergency.

“Importantly, the [board’s] guidelines also state that these limits may be temporarily exceeded in times of recession: ‘the recommended liability limits, may be exceeded from time to time due to unforeseen events such as recession, natural disaster or other emergency,'” Magaziner wrote in the memo.

Other bond amendments

Based on Magaziner’s recommendation, Raimondo proposed several other bond amendments.

The governor is looking to increase her proposed Housing and Infrastructure Bond from $87.5 million to $310.5 million, which would include the cost of the health lab facility, according to Smiley.

Roughly $40 million would go toward the Housing and Community Revitalization fund, which is designed to bolster affordable housing in Rhode Island.

“Given the challenges that Rhode Islanders of every income level are facing in obtaining housing affordable to them and their families, we need to invest in housing,” Pryor said.

The boost in funding was met with praise from housing advocates, including Crossroads Rhode Island president and CEO Karen Santilli.

“The increased investment in housing announced today is a down payment on a brighter and healthier future for more Rhode Islanders, including those Rhode Islanders who are most at risk of becoming homeless,” she said in a statement.

Another $35 million would go toward reshoring jobs lost overseas, which Pryor said could happen more quickly in the future as businesses have suffered complicated losses because of the disruption to the global supply chain caused by the coronavirus.

Another $11 million of the additional money would go toward the Port of Davisville in Quonset and advancing the offshore wind industry, while $30 million would go toward the governor’s infrastructure project known as RhodeWorks.

“As we look to build a more resilient and equitable Rhode Island beyond this pandemic, it’s critical that we make significant, long-term investments in our future,” Raimondo said in a statement. “These updated bond proposals reflect the urgency of this moment and our need to spur economic growth and create jobs while supporting communities hit hardest in our state.”

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello spokesperson Larry Berman said the House isn’t taking a position on the proposals until they are “fully vetted.” The House Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday.

In contrast, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said in a statement he is “very excited about Governor Raimondo’s proposals.”

“I have had numerous conversations with the governor about the importance of making investments such as these, particularly with regard to housing, which is a Senate priority,” Ruggerio said. “Interest rates are at historic lows, and Treasurer Magaziner has noted that the state has additional borrowing capacity, so I wholeheartedly support increased borrowing to better meet this pressing need.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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