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The clash between the pandemic and public finances in Rhode Island

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Happy Thursday and welcome to Rhode Map, your daily guide to everything happening in the Ocean State. I’m Edward Fitzpatrick, and there’s no truth to the rumor I’ll be riding shotgun in the SpaceX flight. Follow me on Twitter @FitzProv or send tips to

ICYMI: Rhode Island was up to 14,353 confirmed coronavirus cases on Wednesday, after adding 143 new cases. The state announced 21 more deaths, bringing the total to 655. There were 218 people in the hospital, 49 in intensive care, and 35 on ventilators.


Perhaps there’s no more fitting image for a panel discussion on public finances and the pandemic than The Clash “Out of Control” poster that was visible over Paul L. Dion’s shoulder during Wednesday’s Zoom conference.

The panel’s grim projections of soaring unemployment and plunging revenue were neatly encapsulated by the group’s “London Calling” lyrics: “Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin’ thin.”

Dion, chief economist for the state Department of Revenue, joined three other panelists in the virtual event, “COVID-19 and Public Finance in Rhode Island,” organized by Bryant University and the Rhode Island Foundation.

Federal Reserve Bank of Boston economist and vice president Jeffrey P. Thompson said New England is higher than the US average for unemployment insurance claims as a share of the labor force, and Rhode Island had the fourth highest share of any state.

“The results are quite depressing in terms of the steepness of the revenue losses,” he said.

With just over a month left in fiscal year 2020, state officials have precious little time to respond now that revenues are expected to be $281 million below previous estimates, panelists said. And while there’s a hiring freeze in place and hope for higher revenues, the state will have to rely on federal funding and its “rainy day fund,” they said.


“It’s definitely raining,” said Michael DiBiase, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

Budget problems will only grow worse now that fiscal year 2021 revenues are expected to come up $516 million short, and the state will have to consider layoffs, furloughs, and other cuts, panelists said.

But panelists also called for using this moment to make broader changes in the state economy, state spending, and state revenue.

“One obvious answer is innovation,” said Gary S. Sasse, director of Bryant’s Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership.

The state must rely less on the low-wage service-sector jobs that were the first to go when the pandemic hit, he said. To compete, the state should focus on technology, innovation, and better public education, he said.

Also, in a bit of a surprise, Sasse said the state should consider increasing the income tax rate on the top 1 percent of Rhode Island earners and using that money to address property tax and school funding problems.


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⚓ House Republicans on Wednesday demanded that the House Oversight Committee convene — with or without House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello’s blessing — to review how the administration is handling the coronavirus crisis in the state’s nursing homes, and House Minority Whip Michael W. Chippendale decried the “Kafkaesque system” that lets the elderly die without loved ones holding their hands.


⚓ Governor Gina M. Raimondo began preparing Rhode Islanders to return to the gym next week by spelling out the rules that will apply to all fitness centers under Phase 2 of the reopening of the state economy. As if treadmills weren’t bad enough, now you have to wear a face mask.

⚓ While Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has been pressing to reopen churches, a coalition of other Rhode Island faith leaders issued a statement Wednesday, saying it’s too soon. While Phase 2 of the state reopening plan lets congregations gather with restrictions, they’re “urging their members to take a slower and more deliberate pace.” The statement was signed by Episcopal Bishop W. Nicholas Knisely, Rabbi Sarah Mack, and the Rev. Elizabeth Lerner Maclay of the First Unitarian Church of Providence, among others.

⚓ The Rhode Island ACLU on Wednesday filed a lawsuit challenging the Department of Labor and Training’s decision to freeze unemployment insurance payments to hundreds of Rhode Islanders. “It is outrageous that DLT is stopping benefits without any notice at all,” ACLU cooperating attorney Ellen Saideman said. Governor Raimondo said one of her top priorities is getting money into the hands of people who are unemployed in the pandemic, but she said an investigation is underway into fraudulent unemployment insurance claims for stimulus benefits.


⚓ The Globe’s Deirdre Fernandes reports that colleges and universities are scrambling to figure out how students can safely return to campus in the fall, but they’re not totally confident that they will have the needed testing, tracing, and protective equipment in place.


Each day, Rhode Map offers a cheat sheet breaking down what's happening in Rhode Island. Have an idea? E-mail us at

⚓ Governor Raimondo’s daily coronavirus update is at 1 p.m.

⚓ The Senate Finance Committee will meet at 4 p.m. to take up the appointment of Brett P. Smiley to replace Michael DiBiase as director of the Department of Administration and the reappointment of Tony Mendez to the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority.

⚓ Rhode Island Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor and the Department of Health will hold a Facebook Live event at 10:30 a.m. to provide the latest guidance to hair stylists and barbers, nail technicians, massage therapists, and other personal services.

⚓ Rhode Island Commerce and the Department of Health also will be hosting a Facebook Live event at 4:30 p.m. for a discussion and Q&A with restaurant owners.

⚓ Tenant Network RI is hosting a “Car Parade to Stop Evictions and Cancel Rent/Mortgages” beginning at 1:30 p.m. at the State House.

⚓ Rhode Island School of Design interior architecture students are revealing their proposals for a “re-imagined Superman Building” during a Zoom conference at 10 a.m.


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Thanks for reading. Send comments and suggestions to, or follow me on Twitter @FitzProv. See you tomorrow.

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.