Governor touts economic upswing in State of State address
To view analysis of the response to Raimondo's State of the State by gubernatorial opponents and the Rhode Island Republicans, click here.
Governor Gina Raimondo delivered her State of the State address from the Rhode Island State House on Tuesday evening, weaving through a long list of topics relevant to what she claimed to be signs of Rhode Island’s continuing improvement from four years ago and with one common thread – “Let’s keep going.”
Raimondo’s address touched on everything from the state’s economy, small businesses, infrastructure, green energy, education, veterans services, social issues such as the opioid epidemic and mental health, government oversight and a smattering of stories from real Rhode Islanders who she pointed to as an example of the state’s potential for success.
“Tonight I stand before you filled with optimism for the future,” she said. “Rhode Island is stronger than we've been in decades.”
Raimondo touted the expansive growth of T.F. Green Airport, and how construction continues to advance in Providence, Johnston and Kingston. She noted the unemployment rate, which four years ago was the highest in America, is now on par with the national average, and has more jobs that “at nearly any other time in our state’s history.”
The governor told the story of Alan Tortolani, who started an online educational gaming LLC called ABCya from his basement. Despite raising a family during its startup, and being frustrated by some of Rhode Island’s laws, he persevered and one of his games – a math-centric version of bingo – hit #1 in the App Store.
“Last year, more than 120 million kids played a game on his site – kids from Warwick and Westerly to Guatemala and India,” Raimondo said.
Raimondo continued, saying that her administration had “cut over 3,000 pages of regulations” that were detrimental to Rhode Islander businesses, “and we’ve cut taxes every single year.” She claimed Rhode Island had the 18th best economy in America, and went from last in the nation to number 23 in unemployment taxes. She cited Gallup Jobs Index ranking Rhode Island last in economic status four years ago. “Today, we come in at number 29,” she said.
Raimondo’s focus on growing the economy going forward, as indicated by her address, hinges on a combination of utilizing job training programs – notably in manufacturing (through the Real Jobs Rhode Island program) entrepreneurial fields and even, she announced, for people in recovery from addiction – and offering incentives to out-of-state companies to come to Rhode Island.
“In 2015, we created a strategy combining job training and incentives that enables us to compete and prevent the special deals of the past,” she said. “The results are in. Our new approach is working. In the last two years, we've recruited or expanded 22 companies. Twenty-two companies that would have gone somewhere else. Because of our new approach, they're here and on track to hire more than 2,000 Rhode Islanders at an average salary of more than $70,000.”
In addition, her speech shined significant focus on stimulating small business growth in the state, which includes a partnership at CCRI in Warwick called 10,000 Small Businesses. The program is a skills training course that gives instruction to small business owners on how to grow their businesses. Raimondo said 100 companies have already gone through the program.
She referenced a Navy veteran from East Providence who started a cleaning company on the side. When he wanted to go full-time with the business, he had trouble getting loans from banks due to the size of his business.
“He applied for a loan through a new program we started for small businesses in 2015,” Raimondo said. “With that $10,000 loan, he was able to buy the equipment he needed to support his new contracts. And since then, his business has tripled.”
Raimondo pledged to double the number of loans granted to Rhode Island small business owners by the end of 2018, and urged larger local employers to support more small business endeavors as well.
“If our colleges, universities and hospitals shifted just two percent of their contracts to Rhode Island companies, it could add more than $50 million to our economy and create hundreds of new jobs,” she said, touting the launch of a new program – Supply RI – that will “make it easier for our biggest employers to buy from local companies."
The governor called upon the legislature to pass her Rhode Island Manufacturer Initiative, which would provide tax incentives for companies to purchase new equipment and hire new workers, expand dollars for Polaris MEP to provide more in technical assistance for manufacturing companies and increase support for training programs for aspiring manufacturing workers.
Raimondo also touted the creation of 5,000 green jobs – a 66 percent increase – since 2014. “We're the only state in America with an off-shore wind farm” she said. “We're on track to make our energy system 10 times cleaner by 2020.”
To perhaps help curb the notion of wasteful spending and curb a growing deficit, Raimondo called for the power of a line item veto to be placed on the November ballot, which would give her the power to approve or nix line items individually within a budget.
“Forty-four other states, including Massachusetts, already have it,” Raimondo said. “And they use it to eliminate waste and give taxpayers confidence in their government. Rhode Islanders deserve the same thing.”
Raimondo repeated what have become education mantras for her administration during her address – praising the success and opportunities provided by the Rhode Island Promise free tuition program (which she said 1,500 Rhode Islanders have utilized), and imploring the need for a “once-in-a-generation investment” into repairing public schools with $1 billion in state bonding funding over the next five years.
That billion dollar number may have come as a surprise to those who are accustomed to the recently-released plan by the School Rebuilding Task Force (chaired by treasurer Seth Magaziner), which recommended $500 million in state bonding over 10 years. However it is simply a combination of that state commitment over 10 years plus contributions from the local cities and towns, which would add up to around $1 billion.
“Our school buildings get a failing grade, and that's not acceptable,” she said. “And like anything, the longer we wait, the more expensive it gets. Rhode Island hasn't made a meaningful, statewide investment in our school buildings in over 25 years…Don't let anyone tell you we can't afford to do this. We can. We have a detailed plan that outlines how we can invest more and do it smarter so that we protect taxpayers at the same time. Every year we wait, we waste millions of dollars putting band-aids on our crumbling schools. So let's act now.”
Raimondo spoke about raising the minimum wage to $10.10, which went into effect New Year’s Day. It will again be raised to $10.50 next year. She also mentioned reforming the paid sick leave laws in the state and improving the quality standards for childcare, in addition to cutting taxes on social security.
“And we heard you,” she said. “The car tax is probably the most hated tax in Rhode Island. So, last year, we cut it.”
Raimondo announced during the speech that she will be proposing legislation “in the coming weeks” to mandate that health insurance companies cover addiction and mental health treatments like they cover diabetes and other chronic conditions, which is sure to cause a stir in the healthcare and insurance industries.
Along the lines of addiction, Raimondo reiterated a commitment to fighting the opioid epidemic, which includes the creation of a job training program specifically for people in recovery.
“It remains our most urgent public health crisis, taking people away from us in every single community,” she said. “In the last two years, we've made it a top priority, and as a result, overdose deaths were down 8 percent last year. But even one death is too many. The budget I'll send the General Assembly continues to fund what's working…There is no silver bullet in our fight against addiction, but helping Rhode Islanders in recovery to get a good job will save lives.”
Throughout the speech, Raimondo called upon citizens of Rhode Island to continue to take pride in their state, as she believes “we are only in the third inning of our economic comeback.”
She hearkened back to the story of Alan Tortolani, expressing with sorrow that he actually had passed away nine months ago after an unspecified medical issue. His wife, Lisa, has since took over his business venture and continues to raise the family. Raimondo said she asked her why she chooses to remain in Rhode Island, despite being born in New Jersey.
“She told me she's never lived in a community that's as kind-hearted, and as tight-knit as Rhode Island,” Raimondo said. “Alan's been gone nine months. Lisa can't remember a single night that a friend or neighbor hasn't brought dinner over for her and her three kids. That's who we are. That's the state we love. That's what Rhode Island is all about.”