PROVIDENCE – Governor Gina Raimondo’s sixth annual State of the State Address focused on championing past policy and its effects while still finding room for new, bold proposals. Delivered last week at the Statehouse, the governor’s speech prefaced her FY 2021 $10.2 billion budget proposal, which now awaits the approval of the state legislature.
To begin, Raimondo focused on the economy, painting a picture of the recent fiscal upswing and sustainability by stating there were now more jobs in Rhode Island than ever before, and unemployment was at a three-decade low. The governor took the opportunity to champion Real Jobs Rhode Island, a workforce and economic development initiative she debuted in 2016, and called for the program’s expansion.
“Tonight, I stand before you truly optimistic about our future,” said Raimondo. “In the past few years, we’ve dug our way out of a deep economic hole and are preparing Rhode Islanders for success in a fast-changing economy. What’s changed is that we’ve put aside the old way of doing business and we’re working together to tackle our biggest challenges. And because of our hard work, the state of our state is strong. Now what we have to do is maintain that economic momentum into the future. We need to stick with what is working – like investing in job training and education.”
“Because of the success of this new approach to job training, Rhode Island businesses are calling on us to expand it,” Raimondo continued. “They tell us they need it to find the right talent. So let’s do it. Tonight, I’m proposing expanding the Real Jobs RI initiative. It has a proven track record of success. Can’t we all agree that every Rhode Islander deserves a shot at getting a good job?”
On economy, the Rhode Island Governor dove into specifics, pledging to continue development of manufacturing training programs in local schools, mentioning the looming construction of the Pawtucket-Central Falls rail station and shining a light on a recent economic development project in Pawtucket, the largest in the city’s history, which includes a new Major League Soccer stadium in wake of the exit of the Pawsox. Raimondo also touted her small business loan fund, stating the initiative had helped hundreds of entrepreneurs get started, more than half of which were women or minorities.
“We’ve made it easier to do business in Rhode Island, cutting thousands of pages of regulations and providing 120 loans to small business,” she said. “That small business loan fund didn’t even exist when I became governor.”
Highlighting the status of Quonset Business Park, Raimondo also announced a bond to develop new industrial sites across the state, adding “it’s a proven success, so let’s do more of it.”
The governor then segued into a discussion about RhodeWorks, another initiative started by Raimondo to address the state’s failing roads and bridges by tolling large commercial trucks and using the revenue for repairs, maintenance and construction.
“Thanks to RhodeWorks, we’re fixing our roads quicker than we ever have,” she said. “Projects that used to sit on the drawing board for years, like the 6-10 connector, are finally under construction. In fact, in the last four years, we’ve fixed more than 100 roads and bridges, and right now, we’re fixing another 100.”
But beyond providing a simple update on the program, Raimondo said when it came to transportation, she envisioned a high-speed commuter rail line from Providence to Boston and asked Rhode Islanders to imagine solar-powered busses in dedicated bus lanes.
“That’s within our grasp right now,” she said. “It’s not 10 or 20 years down the road. It’s today.”
Raimondo also called for a “once-in-a-generation” investment at the state’s beaches and addressed climate change, announcing a new executive order that would make Rhode Island the first state in the nation to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. Under Raimondo, Deepwater Wind, working alongside National Grid and various state departments, constructed the nation’s first-ever offshore wind farm just off the southern coast of Block Island. In her State of the State Address last week, Raimondo said Rhode Island would double its clean energy usage by the end of the year and asserted there would soon be enough offshore wind energy produced to power half of the homes in Rhode Island “in a few years.”
Announcing an additional $30 million to bolster education in communities across the state, Raimondo put forward sweeping changes to combat a year that has seen low standardized test scores and a scathing independent review of Providence public schools that painted a picture of extreme dysfunction.
“We’re moving to high-quality curricula across the district; expanding career education and college-level classes; making smarter investments in our buildings so everyone can be safe,” she said. “Most important, we will end the culture of low expectations for our kids. In every district across the state, we’ll invest in high-quality curricula and ensure more students have access to advanced classes in high school. We’ll invest to support multilingual learners for whom the playing field is still devastatingly unequal. We’ll increase the number of mental health professionals in our schools – so children’s learning needs are met.”
The governor also called on the state to continue the Promise Scholarship, an initiative enacted by Raimondo in 2017 that made the first two years at Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) tuition free. Rhode Island became the fourth state in the nation to offer free secondary education and CCRI’s graduation rate tripled, according to Raimondo.
“Statewide, we hit a record: more students than ever are enrolling in college,” said Raimondo. “In fact, our very own CCRI recently earned the distinction of best two-year college in America.”
Stating that the scholarship was expected to expire by the end of the year, Raimondo championed the initiative and said the state would be “putting an end to a proven success” if it did not preserve it.
“Economic experts agree the most important thing we can do to strengthen our economy is to have a more educated workforce,” said Raimondo. “We can’t go backward. Let’s make the Promise Scholarship permanent and cement affordable higher education and job training into the very foundation of our economy.”
Hoping to raise the minimum wage for a fourth time since she took office, Raimondo parroted a common point made by Democrats, asserting that “no one who works full time should live in poverty.”
The minimum wage is currently $10.50/hour in Rhode Island, $12.75 in Massachusetts and $10.10 in Connecticut. Raimondo has faced pushback for not continuously advocating for a clearer path to a $15/hour minimum wage in the state compared to Massachusetts, which has an explicit plan to get there by 2023.
The governor also proposed expanding the state’s Pre-K capabilities, proposing a bond to construct more classrooms for this purpose. Further, Raimondo pledged to begin a new initiative to “find and support” more foster and adoption homes for children and finally, pushed a housing bond that would create more housing around the state, and called for an assault weapons ban.