Tesla CEO Elon Musk, health care dominate last day of RI governors meeting

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A jarringly dark commentary by Tesla CEO Elon Musk and wrangling over the federal health care bill dominated the third and final day of the National Governors Association meeting in Providence on Saturday.

Organizers say roughly 1,800 attendees registered for the NGA’s gathering, including more than 30 of the nation’s governors, which Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said was the group’s best showing ever for a summer meeting. Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo said she was elated by the turnout.

“I think it’s been great,” Raimondo told reporters Saturday afternoon, before departing to take the other governors to Newport for festivities including a clambake at the Eisenhower House.

“Everyone seems to be getting a lot out of it. The governors are happy,” she said. “Everyone loves Rhode Island. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘Rhode Island’s amazing – I love it. The food’s great. It’s the best conference we’ve ever been to.'”

Saturday’s official NGA business was more low-key than Friday, when both Vice-President Mike Pence and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the gathering. The final headliner was Musk, the billionaire futurist behind the Tesla car company as well as the SpaceX space exploration initiative.

Musk urged the governors to focus on writing thoughtful regulations that don’t disincentive businesses from expanding and innovating. “It’s always important to bear in mind that regulations are immortal,” he said. “They never die unless somebody actually goes and kills them.”

Musk also issued a stark warning about the potential perils of artificial intelligence, calling it “a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.” He urged the governors to proactively examine how the technology should be regulated before it takes a dangerous turn and there are “robots going down the street killing people.”

The Trump administration continued a full-court press Saturday to convince skeptical governors to support the health bill proposed by Senate Republicans in Washington. Democratic governors and even some Republicans have expressed varying degrees of concern about how much the proposal would reduce federal spending on Medicaid in the future.

Pence used his speech Friday to pitch the legislation as “the right bill at the right time to begin the end of Obamacare,” and also met privately with some governors. On Saturday, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price held a closed meeting with the governors to try and marshal support for the bill.

Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, a Democrat, scoffed at Price’s message as he left. “Literally full of misinformation, lies, misstatements – it was exactly what I expected,” Malloy told Eyewitness News.

Malloy said few of his Republican counterparts spoke positively about the bill. “There’s two or three or four acolytes, but other than that everybody’s worried, because they know what’s happening,” he said. “This is probably the largest shift of federal cost-sharing back to state governments in the history of the United States.”

Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker, right, speaks to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at the NGA. (photo: Ted Nesi/WPRI)

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, was unswayed by the administration’s emissaries.

“Obviously, my primary interest is what does this mean for Massachusetts and the people of Massachusetts, and the redraft as currently written would cost the Commonwealth billions of dollars over the course of four or five years,” Baker told Eyewitness News.

Baker noted Massachusetts has implemented near-universal health insurance through waiver agreements that have the federal government share the cost. “I’m sort of one of those people who thinks a deal’s a deal, and I’m not going to support anything that doesn’t make it possible for us to honor that waiver and continue to implement the program that’s been so successful in Massachusetts,” he said. “This does not do that.”

Also speaking on Saturday were Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO who is now promoting a website called USAFacts that publishes government data, and FEMA Administrator Brock Long, who discussed disaster preparedness.

Raimondo met privately on Saturday with both Ballmer and Musk, and said she used the latter meeting to encourage the Tesla founder to invest money in Rhode Island. She said she cited the state’s pioneering offshore wind farm as well as its expertise in energy and brain science, and noted voters recently authorized the state to spend $20 million on a new innovation campus.

Beyond health care, Raimondo said her other big takeaway from the meeting “is how fast the economy’s changing, and how much of a job I have to do to make sure Rhode Islanders are going to have a shot and get a good job. Jobs are changing. The way we teach students has to change, the way we train people for jobs has to change, so everybody has a good chance throughout their career to get a good job.”

Governor McAuliffe, the NGA’s Democratic outgoing chair, and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, its incoming Republican one, both praised Rhode Island for hosting the meeting successfully. McAuliffe thanked the state’s citizens “for a spectacular three days here.”

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 and Facebook