RI biz leaders newly optimistic as 2015 kicks off

Execs see Raimondo, Mattiello moves boosting Rhode Island economy

Rhode Island legislative leaders prepare to speak at the Chamber of Commerce's annual luncheon in February 2015. (photo: WPRI/Ted Nesi)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island business leaders are expressing new optimism about the long-suffering state’s economic prospects thanks to a changing of the guard at the State House.

Corporate executives and other notables gathered Wednesday at the Rhode Island Convention Center for the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative luncheon, and the mood in the room was notably more positive than it had been before Gina Raimondo succeeded Lincoln Chafee as governor.

“Folks are very excited about the new leadership at all levels,” Chamber President Laurie White said, citing Raimondo’s election and Nicholas Mattiello’s ascension to the House speaker’s office. “That has provided a bit of buoyancy to the membership in terms of understanding and having a firm hope and aspiration that this will in fact be a breakthrough year.”

Peter Andruszkiewicz, president and CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island and the Chamber’s chairman, said he is seeing a new effort by business leaders, elected officials and college administrators to work together on an economic-development strategy.

“I’m so optimistic that working together we are on the right path,” Andruszkiewicz declared.

Asked whether rising corporate morale is a widespread phenomenon in the state, Bill Hatfield, Bank of America’s president for Rhode Island, told WPRI.com: “There is no question.”

“I check in with a lot of people, and people are encouraged,” Hatfield said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I know we have some headwinds, but we’re feeling a nice breeze at our back.”

The biggest reason, he said, is “new leadership in place that is very strong, has a great vision, is aligned, is collaborating across the sectors – public, private, institutional. I think there’s a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism about what we can do, and I’m confident we’re going to see some action as we look at the months and years ahead.”

The improving mood is striking, yet perhaps unsurprising.

Chafee, an independent-turned-Democrat who left office in January, had a clearly frosty relationship with the business community; he blamed them for the 38 Studios debacle, and they worked to block some of his major proposals. Raimondo, by contrast, is a former venture capitalist who has always been a darling of the CEO set.

Raimondo was not in attendance at Wednesday’s luncheon, but she gave a well-received keynote speech to the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner on Tuesday night that hit on similar themes to those she highlighted in her campaign.

One thing that became clear at Wednesday’s luncheon: business and legislative leaders are placing a lot of faith in Stefan Pryor, a former aide to then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker who was confirmed last week as Raimondo’s commerce secretary. He is the first person to hold that post since lawmakers created it in a bureaucratic shuffle in 2013.

Pryor told WPRI.com he is seeing “a palpable optimism” in his first weeks on the job in Rhode Island.

“Clearly there’s an appetite for a set of reforms and initiatives that will move our state forward economically,” he said. “That doesn’t happen very often. There is a unique moment that has been formed around the election of a new governor, around a legislative leadership that we’re blessed with, around a Chamber of Commerce that’s well-positioned.”

The Raimondo administration has spent its first month in office focused on filling jobs and making personnel decisions, but Pryor said the new governor will begin unveiling proposed “reforms and initiatives” soon, particularly as part of the budget blueprint she is scheduled to submit by March 12.

Pryor emphasized that it would take time for any new programs to get up and running, let alone make an impact on the state’s economy. “Having said that all of that, there are some increasingly obvious moves, and we’ll be able to articulate them soon,” he said.

Jon Duffy, a public-relations executive who co-chaired Raimondo’s transition team and used to chair the Chamber of Commerce, also said to keep an eye on the coming rollout of Raimondo’s initial moves on economic policy. “That will be very enlightening, to see what those are,” he said.

Mattiello, who took over as speaker last March after Gordon Fox resigned, received plaudits of his own at Wednesday’s lunch for including cuts to the corporate and estate taxes in last year’s state budget. “There is a deep sense of appreciation for that,” the Chamber’s White told him.

Mattiello pledged to “work very collaboratively” with his fellow Democrats Raimondo and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, who was also on stage for a Q&A Wednesday.

“We want our commerce secretary to have all the tools he needs,” Mattiello said.

“I’m looking to the governor and to Stefan,” Paiva Weed said.

Pryor is “like an energizer bunny on steroids,” declared state Sen. Roger Picard, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. “He’s everywhere.”

Both Mattiello and Paiva Weed made a pitch for their respective policy priorities this year: in Mattiello’s case, a new tax break on retirees’ Social Security income; in Paiva Weed’s case, an expansion of apprenticeship programs to additional industries and increased funding for education.

The Chamber itself, which holds a lot of behind-the-scenes sway on Smith Hill, will push state leaders to tackle unemployment benefits, regulatory red tape, and work-force development this year, according to White.

Even Rhode Island’s Republican legislative leaders, who saw their party suffer its worst defeat since 1960 last November, offered a positive outlook at the luncheon. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry said he is now the most optimistic he has been in his four years as GOP leader, suggesting Raimondo and Mattiello “genuinely have the right attitude” about the economy.

But, Newberry continued, “I temper that optimism with one note of caution.”

Rhode Island, he said, is “very small. We all know each other, and it leads to a culture of potential rent-seeking.” He suggested former Gov. Don Carcieri, a fellow Republican, had been guilty of choosing favored industries, and argued policies need to be enacted “that benefit the economy as a whole.”

But there were no such qualms expressed by Newberry’s upper-chamber counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, who served on Raimondo’s transition team.

“We have the momentum in this state that I haven’t seen in a while,” Algiere declared. “I’m very optimistic.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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