PROVIDENCE – Don’t expect Governor Dan McKee to get much downtime during his first few months leading the state.
From continuing the state’s COVID-19 vaccination program to preparing the budget, McKee has spent several weeks meeting with his transition team and planning to make his mark running the state. Now that he has officially taken over for Governor Gina Raimondo, the new US secretary of commerce, here’s a guide to the top challenges he’ll face.
Rhode Island took a different approach than some states during the first phase of its COVID-19 vaccination program, focusing on health care workers and nursing home residents. McKee expressed frustration about the state moving too slowly, but a combination of factors have dramatically changed the landscape: There is more vaccine available (and that’s going to continue) and the state has successfully launched large-scale statewide vaccine clinics and local clinics that are doing hundreds of shots a day for elderly residents. The most pressing question for McKee is when all teachers will be vaccinated. He has said he wants to move quicker so that schools can fully reopen (roughly 25 percent of public school students are still in fully remote learning), but the state has not yet included them in rollout plans. On Tuesday night, President Joe Biden Biden called on states to begin prioritizing teachers and related staff as essential workers in the vaccination schedule, and on Wednesday morning Woonsocket-based CVS announced that they would consider “teachers K-12, daycare and preschool workers, and staff members” to be eligible for the vaccine immediately as part of a federal partnership.
Reopening the economy
The hospitality industry and other small business are continuing to lobby the state to relax its restrictions, and McKee told his transition team this week that he’s targeting March 14 for some significant announcement. If COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations remain stable or decline, McKee will face pressure to fully reopen. But he’s also been in close contact with officials in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and it’s likely that the entire region (or at least Southern New England) will follow similar timelines for reopening.
Talk about a good problem to have. It wasn’t that long ago that it looked like the state was facing a $513 million deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Now, with Congress set to pass another stimulus package, Rhode Island could be in line to receive more than $1.5 billion in new funds. That will shift the focus of McKee and state lawmakers, who are scrambling to plug holes to making strategic investments that will prepare the state for life after the pandemic. That could include providing permanent funding for the Real Jobs Rhode Island training program and will almost certainly result in the continued phase out of the state’s car tax. McKee is expected to unveil his proposed budget next week.
McKee is inheriting the state’s takeover of Providence schools, but his first real test in the education space will be this legislative session, as lawmakers appear poised to pass a bill to place a moratorium on new charter schools. That would include schools that already received initial approval in 2020. McKee doesn’t want to be known solely as the charter school guy, but he has made it clear that he opposes the bill. He also wants to set aside funding for municipal leaders to create education offices that would function separately from school departments (most mayors and town managers have little say over education).
The state now has significant control over two school districts: Providence and Central Falls. The takeover of Providence schools is barely a year old, and McKee has not signaled that he wants to make immediate changes. He will need to closely monitor the slow-moving contract negotiations with the Providence Teachers Union. Central Falls is a different story. The state has controlled city’s school budget for nearly three decades, but McKee expressed support in 2019 for transferring power back to the city.
Before the pandemic, Raimondo spent much of her time trying to recruit new businesses to the state and pitching the former I-195 land in Providence as an attractive location for construction. It often worked. In her first year in office, the state had just $84 million in commercial real estate investment. Three years later, it saw $1.3 billion. But the state’s tallest building at 111 Westminster St. – known locally as the “Superman” building – is still empty and a plan to build a 46-story residential tower on the I-195 land has moved slowly.
McKee doesn’t quite have the same national connections as Raimondo, and it’s unclear if he’ll spend as much time marketing the state. One big project that he may get to cut a ribbon on is a proposed 3.8 million square-foot “retail distribution facility” off of Hartford Avenue in Johnston. Amazon is widely expected to be the tenant, although the company hasn’t confirmed that plan.
All eyes might be on the proposed merger between Lifespan and Care New England, but there’s a more a pressing matter on McKee’s plate: Eleanor Slater Hospital. The state-run facility has been in financial ruin since the state had stopped billing Medicare and Medicaid for services due to compliance issues in 2019. It’s now a perennial budget challenge for the state.
The search for the lieutenant governor
This is purely political, but it will be an issue for McKee until he makes a selection and that person is confirmed by the state Senate. McKee’s team has already scheduled interviews for some of the folks who applied for the job (more than 70 residents submitted resumes). He’s looking for more of a partnership than he had with Raimondo over the last six years, and he also wants someone who can help when they’re on the ballot next year.