Raimondo on Trump, pot and 6 other hot topics

Governor also weighs in on Memorial Hospital, trucking, education, illegal immigration

Governor Raimondo speaks with reporters on March 15, 2016. (photo: Ted Nesi/WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo sat down with reporters on Tuesday to field questions on topics ranging from the rise of Donald Trump to legalizing marijuana in Rhode Island.

The first-term Democrat, now in her second year in office, provided updates on some major pieces of legislation as well as her views on the tensions roiling national politics.

Here are some highlights from what the governor had to say.

• On Donald Trump: Raimondo, who endorsed Hillary Clinton long ago, said she sees the Republican frontrunner’s campaign as fueled by a widespread sense of frustration that also exists in Rhode Island. “I think he’s figured out how to tap into people being kind of” – she paused, then decided to be blunt – “pissed with the way things are going.” She continued: “I see it when I’m out and about. People are just fed up. They’ve been listening to the same politicians saying the same thing for a long time, and what’s happening in their life? Their wages haven’t gone up in a decade, their kids are getting mediocre jobs – it’s just that feeling that they’re stuck and standing still, and they want someone who’ll fight for them.” But she warned that she thinks Trump, who is expected to win Rhode Island’s GOP primary, would be “awful” if elected president, saying: “I do not think he’ll be able to deliver.”

• On cuts at Memorial Hospital: Raimondo described Care New England’s proposed downsizing of the Pawtucket hospital as “a very tough situation,” particularly the closing of its birthing center. “As a mother my heart goes out to these young women who are planning to have their babies and then – oh, oops, you might not be able to at this birthing center,” she said. But she also seemed to indicate her administration is unlikely to block the move, saying Care New England’s shaky finances require its executives to “figure out if they can sustain what’s going on at Memorial.” The problems at Memorial come as Raimondo’s administration has been trying to rein in health care costs to lower spending on the state’s Medicaid program. “These kinds of difficult decisions are going to be made as we face a new reality of the health care system,” she said. She added that it’s “no secret” a recent state study found the state has roughly 200 more hospital beds than it needs, saying, “it’s just a fact – we’re going to need fewer hospital beds because more and more procedures are being done out of a hospital bed.”

• On marijuana: Raimondo made news on two fronts related to marijuana. First, she said she’s open to legalizing the drug in Rhode Island, and potentially calling a voter referendum on the issue, as House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is considering. Second, she said she’s strongly considering changes to her proposed new fees and regulations on medical marijuana in light of how much “pushback” it’s gotten. Here’s our full WPRI.com story on the governor’s marijuana comments.

• On driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants: Raimondo frustrated advocates of granting licenses to undocumented residents when she reneged on a campaign promise to do so by executive order. She defended her change of heart on Tuesday, saying that to enact the policy unilaterally is “not an approach that I favor. You need consensus. It’s a big issue.” She reiterated her support for legislative efforts on licenses, though General Assembly leaders appear wary of forcing a vote on such a hot-button issue in an election year. “I do hope at some point we get it done because it’s just a practical thing to do,” she said, noting that Rhode Island State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell thinks doing so makes sense for public safety.

• On incentives for the trucking industry: Raimondo and Democratic legislative leaders have said repeatedly since the approval of truck tolls last month that they plan to come up with some sort of package of tax breaks or other economic incentives to help offset the cost for local companies. Raimondo said she met with House and Senate leaders on the issue last week and they have staff members working out the details now, though she offered few specifics. “I would like to see something to go to the Assembly for their consideration this session,” she said, noting that the recent Brookings Institution report on Rhode Island’s economy singled out “transportation, distribution, and logistics” as a potential growth area for the state.

• On education: Describing herself as “a very practical person,” Raimondo said she is “open to changes” on her budget proposal to shift some money away from charter schools to traditional public schools. But she also pushed back at those who don’t want any rebalancing of spending, saying there is “a problem that we have to solve.” Raimondo also said her education commissioner, Kenneth Wagner, will deliver his annual State of Education address to the General Assembly soon, and as part of the speech he will unveil a proposed budget amendment on school choice. Raimondo said the amendment will flesh out her own State of the State mention of the need for “school empowerment and increased choice,” allowing districts to opt in to a program allowing students from elsewhere to attend their schools. She said Massachusetts is a model, and noted that only “a very small percentage of kids actually move” there.

• On transit links to Boston: Upserve CEO Angus Davis told WPRI.com recently that the best thing Raimondo and other Rhode Island leaders could do to boost the so-called “knowledge economy” would be to speed up train service between Boston and Providence. The governor said Tuesday she agrees the idea is hugely important. “I would love nothing more than to have a faster, cheaper train between Rhode Island and Boston,” she said. “The more we can connect ourselves to that economy, the better off we’ll be.” The problem? Money, or lack thereof, for one thing. Raimondo acknowledged her $1.5-million Rhody Pass proposal probably isn’t a game-changer, but said it’s what the state can afford on its own at the moment. She also said the MBTA, which currently runs trains into Rhode Island, has “so many stops” that it’s difficult to speed up service. But she’s also got other ideas. After reading that Maryland had received a $28-million federal grant to study a high-speed rail link between Baltimore and Washington, Raimondo said she called up U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to ask: “How do I get that for us?”

• On her budget and economic vision: Raimondo renewed her pitch for the $8.96-billion budget proposal she unveiled last month, insisting it will invest money in areas that will help Rhode Island gain more high-wage jobs. “Rhode Island has really suffered from the decline of advanced industries,” she said, citing the Brookings report. “We have to do a lot more to make our economy more innovative, more research-and-development-based,” she said, adding: “The highest-paying, fastest-growing sector of the American economy are advanced industries. … We’ve got to get Rhode Island in that flow of jobs.” The thing that “keeps me up at night,” she said, is Rhode Island’s relatively low level of business-funded R&D. Among her proposals to address the problems she cited: building an innovation campus, offering vouchers to companies doing research, and expanding the state’s tax credit for R&D. Lawmakers are currently weighing the budget in committee, but are not expected to unveil a final version until later in the spring.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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