In State of the State, Raimondo says RI is ‘stronger than we’ve been in decades’

Watch the governor’s full speech below.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo offered a campaign-year State of the State on Tuesday night, insisting she is making real progress in improving conditions in Rhode Island while acknowledging some residents remain frustrated as she begins her fourth year in office.

Raimondo, a first-term Democrat, gave the annual televised speech at 7 p.m. to lawmakers and other dignitaries gathered in the House chamber at the State House. She offered a variety of evidence to make her case, including a falling unemployment rate, multiple construction projects, stepped-up infrastructure repairs, and more flights at T.F. Green.

“I stand before you filled with optimism for the future,” Raimondo declared in her prepared remarks. “Rhode Island is stronger than we’ve been in decades.”

“But our work is far from done,” she said. “The recovery still hasn’t reached everyone. We’re not going to stop until every Rhode Islander is included. We’ll keep going until every child is lifted out of poverty; until every child can attend a flourishing public school; until we meet the needs of every senior; and until every Rhode Islander has a shot at a good job.”

“Let’s keep going,” she said repeatedly.

Raimondo also used the speech to outline some of what she will suggest Thursday when she releases her proposed 2018-19 state budget. As expected, the biggest headline was a proposal to spend $1 billion on school repairs over the next five years, partly funded by asking voters to approve a $250 million general-obligation bond in the November election.

“Don’t let anyone tell you we can’t afford to do this,” she said. “We can. We have a detailed plan that outlines how we can invest more and do it smarter so that we protect taxpayers at the same time. Every year we wait, we waste millions of dollars putting Band-Aids on our crumbling schools.”

Yet Raimondo did not address one of the biggest questions that remains about her budget: how she plans to close a combined deficit of roughly $260 million for the current and next fiscal years. She also made no mention of the Pawtucket Red Sox stadium debate or the problem-plagued Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP) benefits system. But she did say she will once again ask lawmakers to follow most other states and give the governor line-item veto power.

Other specific proposals in the speech: expanded funding for job training; a new Northern Rhode Island Higher Education Center, modeled on a successful one operating in Westerly; a “Supply RI” initiative to convince hospitals and colleges to buy from local companies; and a new requirement for insurers to cover addiction and mental health.

Republican rivals offer counterpoint

Even before Raimondo had delivered her speech, her Republican rivals were working to poke holes in her message.

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, whom Raimondo narrowly defeated in 2014 and who is seeking the Republican nomination again this year, told supporters in an email Tuesday morning: “I want to ask one favor of you: don’t believe Governor Raimondo’s spin.” His campaign released a short Web video and a laundry list of negative headlines to reinforce the message.

In a statement after the speech, Fung said: “More than ever, Rhode Island needs a laser-focused and competent chief executive who cares more about doing the job right in Warwick, than a next job in Washington. Sadly, Rhode Islanders will be left picking up the pieces – and price tag – for her arrogance and mismanagement. In every area of state government – we can do better.”

House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, who is also seeking the Republican nomination for governor, joined some of her GOP legislative colleagues to deliver their own message before the governor spoke.

“Let’s be honest with one another: our government is broken, and we can only fix the problems of Rhode Island if we acknowledge them,” Morgan said in her prepared remarks. She noted that one in three residents are on Medicaid, many of the jobs created since the recession are relatively low-paying, and that the state’s cost of living is high.

Morgan said Republicans have a number of ideas for improving the state, including the creation of an inspector general’s office; a new requirement for the R.I. Commerce Corporation to file quarterly reports on its spending; a reduction in health insurance mandates; and an exemption from prevailing-wage rules for school repairs. She also seconded Raimondo’s call for a line-item veto.

“The goal is to stop corruption, strengthen our economy, allow business to grow and create good paying jobs and create an educational environment in which every child can thrive. Republicans have the political will to search for and provide solutions,” Morgan said.

Added former Republican state Rep. Joseph Trillo, who is running for governor as an independent: “Governor Raimondo’s State of the State address would have you believe Rhode Island is a model of progress, despite four years of continued economic stagnation, runaway deficits, and rankings at or near last in terms of business environment.”

Also sounding a critical note was Joseph Molina Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, who said Raimondo should have highlighted the specific challenges facing Latino children. “While she did mention education for every child, it is clear that Latino students need more attention since what is being done for every other child is not working,” he said.

Protesters opposed to the proposed Burrillville power plant, which Raimondo initially supported but has since expressed reservations about, were on hand outside the House chamber as the governor walked in to deliver her speech.

Speech highlights individuals, defends incentives

During the speech, Raimondo talked about a number of Rhode Islanders whose stories she argued exemplify the state’s positive attributes. They included an overdose survivor now working to address the opioid crisis, an entrepreneur running her family company and raising three children after her husband’s sudden death, and the Rhode Island Teacher of the Year who used an ornamental fan to strike a pose in an Oval Office photo with President Trump.

They “love Rhode Island – not because it’s perfect, but because of the people – people who wake up every morning determined to make Rhode Island it better,” Raimondo said. “They love it for the same reason we all do. Because it’s home.”

One critique Raimondo addressed head on was the ongoing questioning of her administration’s use of tax incentives to lure companies to the state and subsidize construction projects. Raimondo said those programs have attracted 22 companies with promises of more than 2,000 jobs that pay an average salary of $70,000. (She did not mention the amount of incentives awarded so far, which totaled roughly $166 million as of last month.)

“Massachusetts, and nearly every other state in the northeast, still uses incentives,” she said. “And they’ve all been doing it for years. Until recently, though, our leaders didn’t have a strategy; and because of that, Rhode Islanders got left behind. And the few times our past leaders did take action, they put all their eggs in one basket or chased special deals. Any way you slice it, Rhode Islanders got hurt.”

Raimondo left any mention of President Trump and federal-level politics until the end of the speech, when she pledged to “protect Rhode Islanders” from “uncertainty in Washington.” She singled out for criticism Trump’s policies on health care, immigration and offshore drilling. She also drew prolonged applause from both sides of the aisle when she praised the #MeToo movement and called for the elimination of sexual harassment.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello gave a generally warm review of the speech, praising its focus on jobs and the economy and describing the overall tone as “uplifting.” The Cranston Democrat said he was particularly pleased to hear Raimondo reiterate her support for continuing to phase out the car tax, a signature issue for him.

Asked about the proposal for $1 billion in school repairs, Mattiello said: “I think it’s doable. I think you have to look at all the details of it. It’s something that we all want to get done, so we’ll take a look at the governor’s plan, we’ll work with her and do our best to get it done. The goal is laudable, and I think we can get it done.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook