PROVIDENCE -- When she gave her first big speech as governor in 2015, Gina M. Raimondo stood in snow and 16-degree temperatures outside the State House, talking about bringing down the high unemployment rate and slashing big budget deficits.
Five years later, Raimondo stepped into a packed House chamber on Tuesday to deliver her annual State of the State address, highlighting a much lower state unemployment rate but still grappling with budget deficits that remain as big as ever.
On Tuesday, Raimondo trumpeted a state unemployment rate that stood at 3.5 percent in November 2019 -- a number that matches the national unemployment rate and stands at nearly half what it was when she took office five years ago.
“Unemployment is at its lowest point in three decades,” she told the crowd. “Just think about that. That means our economy today is the strongest it’s been in a generation.”
But the Democratic governor said nothing about another goal she identified in 2015: In her first inaugural speech, she called for “eliminating our structural deficit over the next several years to put our state on sound footing” and “making the tough choices so that we will also be able to invest in job-creating priorities.”
In 2020, structural deficits and tough choices remain. The budget gap for the 2021 fiscal year plus the remainder of this fiscal year has been estimated at up to $200 million.
Raimondo will submit her fiscal year 2021 budget proposal to the General Assembly on Thursday. And in legislative preview interviews, House and Senate leaders underscored the need to close persistent budget gaps.
“I can tell you that the problem is becoming more significant,” House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, said of yearly budget deficits. “We have to start dealing with our structural deficit.”
Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, said, “I've been saying this for 20 years: We have to address the structural deficit, or every year we're going to have a $200 million hole, or more than that.”
While the details of her budget proposal remain to be seen, Raimondo on Tuesday outlined several new initiatives, including creating a dedicated source of housing funds and an executive order aimed at making Rhode Island use 100 percent renewable energy by the end of the decade. She also proposed an increase in the minimum wage, an increase in funding to pre-kindergarten classrooms, and more investment in the child-welfare system.
Raimondo said a housing shortage is threatening the state’s economic progress.
“This year, I will propose a housing bond and -- for the first time ever in Rhode Island -- a dedicated funding stream to build more housing,” she said. “Nearly every other state already has this. Let’s do it, and let’s get to work building more homes.”
Ruggerio has called for considering a bond or a permanent source of funding for affordable housing in Rhode Island, although he stopped short of backing a new tax to cover the costs.
As she has in past years, Raimondo said Tuesday she will propose a package of gun bills, including a proposed ban on “military-style assault weapons.”
“Stand with me and keep Rhode Island safe,” she said on Tuesday night.
Mattiello and Ruggerio each have “A” ratings from the NRA, but after recent high-profile fatal shootings, both legislative leaders mentioned gun control bills during their session-opening remarks -- focusing on proposals such as banning guns made with 3D printers. Neither offered support for banning assault weapons or high-capacity magazines.
In Tuesday’s speech, Raimondo called for putting a budget line-item veto on the ballot. Line-item veto power would allow Rhode Island’s governor to reject specific parts of the state budget rather than vetoing the entire package.
“We know this is something the vast majority of Rhode Islanders want,” she said. “Nearly every other state uses the line item veto to reduce waste in government spending and corruption – and to ensure that tax dollars help all citizens, not just those with connections.”
On the environmental front, Raimondo said Tuesday that Rhode Island has emerged as “the nation’s leader in offshore wind,” and she said she will sign an executive order this week “to make Rhode Island the first state in America to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by the end of this decade.”
“If we want to ensure Rhode Island’s beauty is enjoyed for generations to come, we have to address climate change with urgency,” she said.
In the speech, she did not mention the Transportation & Climate Initiative, a partnership that includes Rhode Island and other Northeast states. The plan to cap carbon emissions from transportation fuels could raise gasoline prices in the region by up to 17 cents per gallon.
In 2015, Raimondo noted that Rhode Island ranked near the bottom in business climate rankings. For example, Forbes ranked Rhode Island 46th among “Best States for Business” that year.
By 2019, Rhode Island had moved up to 41st in the Forbes business climate rankings, and Mattiello has called for improving the ranking further.
“We’ve made it easier to do business in Rhode Island,” Raimondo said Tuesday, “cutting thousands of pages of regulations and providing 120 loans to small businesses – more than half of which have gone to women and minority-owned businesses. That small business loan fund didn’t even exist when I became governor.”
But Forbes said that while Rhode Island ranked 20th for quality of life in 2019, it remains at 44th for both business costs and regulatory environment.
The House Republican leader, Representative Blake A. Filippi, of Block Island, delivered the GOP response to the governor’s address. In it, he called for allowing students “in failing schools" to attend schools outside their districts and having funding follow them there.
Republicans plan to submit legislation to create “language academies” to address “the English-as-a-second language crisis," Filippi said. “Many school districts are inundated with children that cannot speak English – driving up the cost and downgrading the quality of education for all children.”
Republicans would pay for these proposals, including transportation costs, with a new tax on the endowments of universities and colleges in Rhode Island, he said.
“Brown University sits on over $1 billion of real estate in Providence, with an over $4 billion investment portfolio,” Filippi said. “Yet it is largely exempt from property taxes that would help to fund the Providence school system. This is intolerable."
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org