PROVIDENCE -- Governor Gina M. Raimondo on Tuesday said she does not see a way to avoid furloughs and layoffs for state employees now that the pandemic has punched an $800 million hole in the state budget.
“I would love to avoid furloughs and layoffs, but I don’t see how we are going to be able to do that,” Raimondo said in response to questions at her daily media briefing.
The governor said she has held off on making such moves as the state takes stock of how much the coronavirus outbreak is choking off revenue and how much more federal funding it can expect.
“What I’ve been trying to do is not contribute to the state’s unemployment rate and also use as many state employees as possible in aid of the crisis,” Raimondo said.
But on Friday, the state’s Revenue and Caseload Estimating Conference slashed nearly $800 million from projected revenues for this fiscal year and next. The House Finance Committee is set to review the revenue and budget situation on Thursday.
And Raimondo said it will be impossible to fill such a large budget gap with “traditional cuts” and “one-time fixes.” Rather, the state will need to undertake “some reorganization,” she said.
“This budget is going to be brutal,” Raimondo said. “I don’t know where we are going to find $800 million. Everyone is going to be unhappy. Everything is on the table -- everything.”
But the governor emphasized that much will hinge on how much additional revenue the federal government can provide to Rhode Island and other states. The stimulus packages already approved by Congress have largely been designed to assist states with expenses directly related to the coronavirus, but not to backfill lost revenue.
Most of Rhode Island’s top revenue drivers have taken a hit from the virus. The state has delayed its income tax filing deadline until July 15, sales taxes have dwindled because most businesses were closed for more than a month, and gambling revenues are off because Twin River’s two casinos have been shuttered since March.
“I am continually being told by our federal delegation, by the Trump administration, by the vice president, by the secretary of the treasury, that there’s very likely to be another stimulus package to help states with exactly this problem,” Raimondo said. “And they tell us we are going to have a lot more guidance in two to three weeks. So I am holding out for that.”
Also Tuesday, Raimondo defended her decision to begin reopening Rhode Island’s economy before other Northeast states, but warned that coronavirus cases will spike if residents begin gathering in big groups and return to their former routines too rapidly.
She lifted the state’s “stay at home” order on Saturday while keeping the limit on social gatherings at no more than five people. She said the state is seeing strong compliance with its requirement to wear masks in public.
“The truth of it is if we try to go back to old way of doing things, we are going to get into trouble,” Raimondo said. “Too many people are going to get sick.”
Places such as Singapore and Hong Kong moved too quickly in reopening their economies and had to pull back, she said, adding that she is trying to manage the crisis in a way that the state can avoid that.
Raimondo said she is trying to take small steps, such as allowing restaurants to offer mixed drinks to go and offering outdoor dining starting Monday.
But, she said, “if we push the limits, crowd into retail shops, do contact sports in parks, the cases and hospitalizations and deaths will go up in two weeks.” And if the cases go up too much, the state will have to tighten up on restrictions again, she said.
Raimondo made those comments as the state Department of Health reported another 14 Rhode Islanders have died from the coronavirus, and another 164 people have tested positive.
That brings the state death toll to 444, and the total number of positive tests to 11,614. The Department of Health director, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, said the 14 new fatalities include people ranging in age from their 60s to older than 100.
The state now has 277 people hospitalized with COVID-19, 72 people in intensive care units, and 53 on ventilators, while 863 have been discharged from hospitals.
“It’s a good data story," Raimondo said. "You see a continued plateau. We are not seeing a decline, which is what we eventually hope to get to, but it’s very steady.”
Raimondo emphasized the need for Rhode Islanders to keep a daily diary of people they come in contact with in case they get the virus. The contact tracing diaries are even more important now that residents are emerging from their homes and coming into contact with more people, she said.
If people become infected, state health officials will ask those people who they have come into contact with to help contain the outbreak, Raimondo said. “If you get sick this will save lives,” she said.
For a second time, the news conference took place in Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence, and reporters were allowed into the room rather than having to cover the news conference remotely.
Raimondo also announced that the nation’s four major cell phone carriers - Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile - have all agreed to extend their free WiFi hotspot services until the end of June so that low-income families can continue to participate in distance learning in schools.