Gov. Raimondo reflects on her first year and 2016 priorities

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Gov. Gina Raimondo gives herself high marks for effort in her first year but says it’s too soon to judge her results.

The Democrat got all the tools she requested in the budget to create jobs and new programs to make college more affordable and help students build skills.

She spearheaded changes to the Medicaid system to lower costs. The legal battle over the state pension system overhaul, which Raimondo oversaw as state treasurer, was largely settled. Combined, the reforms save the state nearly $500 million annually and increase its fiscal stability, Raimondo said.

The state’s unemployment rate, once among the worst in the nation, fell this year as thousands of jobs were created in Rhode Island.

There were some stumbling blocks, too. The House didn’t pass Raimondo’s plan to toll large commercial trucks to fund bridge repairs. The state Ethics Commission is investigating her hiring of a former state representative, and lawmakers didn’t change the state personnel systems as Raimondo requested.

“One year into a four-year term, it’s incomplete,” Raimondo said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’d certainly give us an A for effort and an A for a sense of urgency, enthusiasm and trying to push a rock up the hill and get some momentum into this economy. And at the end of the day, the end of a term, I’d like to be judged by my results. Did we get it done?”

The early results, she said, are “quite strong.”

Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he generally worked well with Raimondo and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed to enact a pro-business, pro-jobs budget. Paiva Weed, also a Democrat, said Raimondo demonstrated strong leadership and a willingness to tackle the most challenging issues, particularly reforming the Medicaid system.

“Her willingness to do that is central to Rhode Island’s economic recovery,” Paiva Weed said.

Raimondo said she was surprised by the amount of time she spends dealing with issues that weren’t previously on her radar, such as opioid abuse and problems at state agencies. During the campaign, she promised to be the “jobs governor.”

“I have been extremely focused on that, but when you get here, you realize there are so many other extremely important, pressing problems that you have to deal with,” Raimondo said.

The rigidity of the state’s personnel systems also surprised Raimondo, a former venture capitalist. In business, Raimondo said, it’s easy to look at an organizational chart, move people around, change job descriptions and let underperforming employees go.

That’s not the case in state government, she said. At the state-run Eleanor Slater Hospital, for example, overtime costs are high, but there’s resistance to hiring part-time employees, Raimondo said.

John Marion, executive director of the public interest group Common Cause Rhode Island, said that it’s laudable Raimondo is tackling issues at state agencies, but that she hasn’t shown an appetite for constitutional changes, such as restoring the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction over the Legislature or implementing a line-item veto.

House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, a Republican, applauded Raimondo’s focus on boosting the economy, though he said he’s concerned some of the economic initiatives give government officials too much power to dole out favors and influence to companies. Newberry wants the Legislature to continue reducing business taxes and social spending, such as Medicaid, and hopes Raimondo will support that.

Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, spoke highly of Raimondo’s unprecedented level of outreach to businesses, while Rhode Island KIDS COUNT executive director, Elizabeth Burke Bryant, said she’s pleased to see Raimondo’s significant emphasis on education.

For 2016, Raimondo said to expect “much more of the same” from her. She said she’ll continue to work to create high-wage jobs and make sure people have skills for those jobs, as well as work with the legislature on the tolls plan.

“We’ve just got to keep going,” she said. “More. More work, more action, more results.”

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