Raimondo touts free college, car tax cuts in State of the State speech

Governor Raimondo

Watch Governor Raimondo’s full speech below. 

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo gave an upbeat assessment of Rhode Island’s condition in her State of the State speech on Tuesday, arguing the state has new economic momentum and urging lawmakers to support more spending on education and training.

“I stand here this evening with optimism, confidence, and pride and say that the state of our state is strong and getting stronger every day,” the governor declared during the 7 p.m. televised speech at the State House.

Raimondo, a Democrat elected in 2014, touted her newly unveiled proposal to offer two years of free tuition at Rhode Island’s public colleges, casting it as part of a broad set of initiatives she hopes will boost residents’ skills so they can succeed in the modern economy.

“Our job is to ensure that there is opportunity for every Rhode Islander who is willing to work for it,” Raimondo said in her prepared remarks. “Our job is to ensure that Rhode Islanders are getting the jobs businesses are creating.”

Raimondo also said the budget proposal she’ll release Thursday will included targeted funding for manufacturing companies, saying: “For too many years, our state’s leaders – in government and business – missed an opportunity to rebuild Rhode Island’s manufacturing industry.” Studies show Rhode Island has been among the states hit hardest by the decades-long decline in American manufacturing jobs.

Raimondo also made her opening bid in what will be a high-profile debate during this year’s General Assembly session: how to reduce the burden of the much-criticized municipal car tax, which House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has pledged to eliminate over the next five years at a cost of roughly $215 million.

Raimondo offered her own more modest proposal Tuesday. She suggested a reduction of more than $50 million by requiring municipalities to use a vehicle’s fair trade-in value, which is 70% of the full valuation. The tax cut would take effect in July 2018.

“I agree with Speaker Mattiello that this should be a priority, and I look forward to working with the legislature on this important issue,” Raimondo said, adding: “There is plenty of room for compromise and I’ll work with anybody.”

After the speech, Mattiello said he appreciated the governor’s decision to tackle the car tax, but said he remains committed to phasing out the tax entirely over the next five years. He said House aides are currently crunching the numbers on how to accomplish that. He also said he wants the car tax cut to take effect this coming July, a year earlier than the governor suggested.

“It will start this year,” he said.

Mattiello was noncommittal on the free college proposal, describing it as “a laudable goal” but repeatedly demurring when asked if he himself supported it. But he said it has significant support in the House, and added: “I suspect the public is going to be very supportive of it.”

The governor’s other proposals included raising the state’s minimum wage by 90 cents, to $10.50 an hour; doubling the number of residents “working in the green economy” by 2020; continuing to fund programs to tackle the opioid crisis; requiring employers to offer paid sick days; and expanding funding for the Prepare RI program that lets high-school students take college courses for free.

The speech comes at the midway point of Raimondo’s four-year term and follows a mixed year for the governor, marked by some noteworthy economic victories – luring high-profile companies such as GE and Johnson & Johnson to Rhode Island – and highly publicized missteps, notably the botched launches of a new benefits system and a new tourism campaign.

Responding to the speech on behalf of Republicans, House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan ticked off those missteps and other problems, arguing Rhode Islanders are “fed up with a broken government, a government that makes their lives harder, a government that takes too much, wastes too much, and refuses to be held accountable to the people who pay the bill.”

“Many have lost hope,” Morgan said. On the governor’s big-ticket policy proposals, she warned that the free college proposal is “another expensive entitlement program,” and said eliminating the car tax should be paid for by cutting municipal budgets rather than giving them more state money.

Raimondo is also now facing a radically different national political environment with the looming inauguration of Republican President-elect Donald Trump, who takes office Friday. Raimondo alluded to the anxiety some voters feel about Trump during her speech.

“When we’re confronted by uncertainty, we hold to our founding covenant: That there’s a place here for everyone,” she said. “There’s a place here no matter your race, your creed, your gender, where you’re from or who you love. So let’s come together as a community.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram