PROVIDENCE — Governor Daniel J. McKee on Tuesday delivered his first State of the State address, outlining plans for investing $250 million in housing, spending millions on climate-change initiatives, and launching a new “Higher Ed Academy” to get 1,000 people college degrees or training.
The former Cumberland mayor, who ran a family heating oil business, also proposed a new budget article aimed at boosting small businesses by, for example, reducing the corporate minimum tax from $400 to $375 and letting restaurants and brewpubs continue selling alcoholic drinks with take-out food.
“It’s because of you, Rhode Island, that I can stand here before you tonight with confidence and say that the state of our state is resilient and full of opportunity,” McKee said.
The speech comes 10 1/2 months after the Democratic former lieutenant governor took the oath of office, replacing former governor Gina M. Raimondo, who became US Secretary of Commerce.
It comes as Rhode Island is facing a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, with 2,481 new cases reported earlier in the day, 12 more deaths, and 520 Rhode Islanders hospitalized.
It comes five days after Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, who led the state Department of Health through two pandemic years and two administrations, announced that she will be stepping down.
And it comes at the outset of an election year, with five Democrats lining up to challenge him in a hotly contested September primary.
But the speech also comes as the state has received $1.13 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding from the federal government.
It comes as the General Assembly has approved McKee’s plan to spend $119 million as a “down payment,” providing funding for small businesses, support for children and families, and the tourism and hospitality industry.
And it comes as some of the weekly COVID-19 measures have begun trending downward, indicating the worst might be over.
“This COVID-19 pandemic has been part of our lives for nearly two years now,” McKee said. “It’s what we talk about at our kitchen tables over breakfast in the morning, and again over dinner at night.” But, he said, “I also want you to know that there is no question in my mind that we will get through this as we have for the past 21 months – together.”
The governor noted that Rhode Island ranked second in the country for the proportion of residents fully vaccinated (78 percent) and first in tests per capita. “Rhode Islanders should be proud of how far we’ve come together,” he said.
The governor did not mention that Rhode Island also ranked first in cases per capita (457 per 100,000).
But McKee took note of Alexander-Scott’s impending departure, saying, “I want to give a special thank you to Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott for her dedication and service to the State of Rhode Island. Thank you, doctor.”
Alexander-Scott received a standing ovation from the legislators and other state officials gathered in the House chambers for the speech.
After the speech, Alexander-Scott said she planned to set up interviews to discuss her tenure and decision to step down. When asked if she was frustrated or had other opportunities, she said, “I’m so proud of everything we have accomplished. It was time.” When asked if she was getting the support she needed from the governor, she said, “We’ll talk more.”
McKee said that later this week he will announce a committee of health professionals to lead the search for an interim and a permanent Health Department director.
He noted that he recently reassigned state Emergency Management Agency director Marc R. Pappas to lead the “whole of government COVID-19 response” with a focus on expanding testing and vaccinations. And he noted the National Guard has been reactivated to help with testing, vaccinations, and hospital staffing.
Later this week, McKee is expected to present his budget proposal to the General Assembly. While some progressives have called for raising the income tax rate on the richest Rhode Islanders, he said he will not call for any “broad-based tax increases.”
But he said he will propose “long-term investments to grow our economy and support our people.” And he said he will submit a plan for spending the rest of the American Rescue Plan Act funds, aiming to “launch Rhode Island into the next decade with strength.”
“This is a big moment for us,” McKee said. “We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to strengthen Rhode Island’s economic recovery and propel our state into the next decade with strength.”
The speech comes as Rhode Island is facing a housing crisis. The General Assembly has created a permanent funding stream for affordable housing and the state’s first deputy housing secretary position.
“But we can do more,” McKee said. “Let’s come together again and allocate a quarter-billion dollars to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our state’s housing stock.”
The governor said his budget proposal will include a plan to “create and preserve thousands of units of housing” while creating good-paying construction jobs. “How can we expect our sons and daughters to stay in Rhode Island if they don’t have housing they can afford to live in?” he asked.
McKee said he will propose $50 million to provide down payment assistance to first-time home buyers.
“Did you know that home ownership is one of the most important ways to build generational wealth, yet Rhode Island has one of the lowest home ownership rates in the country, largely because families and individuals cannot afford the down payment?” he said. “It’s time to change that.”
After initially raising concerns about the bill, McKee last year signed the Act on Climate, which made the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable. The legislation calls for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, by 80 percent below those levels by 2040, and to “net-zero emissions” by 2050.
McKee said his proposed budget will include millions in climate change-related investments, and he plans to unveil several of those initiatives on Wednesday. “Rhode Island is a national leader in clean energy innovation because we know that slashing greenhouse gases is not just the right thing to do for the environment – it’s also the right thing to do for our economy,” he said.
McKee unveiled his plan for a “Higher Ed Academy,” which he described as “a statewide effort to meet Rhode Islanders where they are and provide access to education and training.”
Run by Postsecondary Education Commissioner Shannon Gilkey, the academy would help more than 1,000 people “gain the skills needed to be successful in obtaining a credential or degree.” He said a college degree or credential is a basic qualification for more than 70 percent of jobs created since 2008.
McKee said Rhode Island has been a national leader in health insurance coverage. But the state stopped covering undocumented children in 2008.
“I am proud to propose that we cover all kids in Medicaid – we’ve done it before, let’s do it again,” he said. “Let’s also extend Medicaid coverage for new moms from 60 days after birth to 12 months. It’s the right thing to do – let’s get it done.”
McKee thanked the state’s congressional delegation for ensuring Rhode Island “got its fair share” of federal funding, including money from the federal infrastructure bill. He those infrastructure funds will alllow Rhode Island to speed up more than 100 projects, valued at $2.1 billion, that will be detailed on Wednesday.
“This initiative will create safer roads, bridges, and bike paths and will put many more tradesmen and women to work,” he said.
The speech came just hours after US Representative James R. Langevin, a Democrat who has represented Rhode Island’s second congressional district since 2001, announced that he won’t seek re-election later this year. Langevin’s announcement drew extensive media coverage on a day when the State of the State would otherwise dominate the headlines.
During the speech, McKee said, “I’ll give a special shout-out to our Congressman Langevin, who announced he will not be seeking re-election earlier today. Jim, you have been a champion for Rhode Island. On behalf of our state, thank you.”
After the speech, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, said, “I was happy the governor highlighted that his biggest expenditure was for housing. It’s a priority of mine and members of the House as well.”
Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, said, “I want the money to be invested and not spent. The difference to me is that investment is long-term spending. I want to have benefits that last Rhode Islanders for a generation to come.”
Shekarchi said he did not hear anything in McKee’s speech that he was opposed to, but he said, “The devil is always in the details.”
When asked what was the biggest surprise in the speech, Shekarchi cited McKee’s mention of how Representative Joseph M. McNamara cast votes from “The Calamari Comeback State of Rhode Island” during the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
During the speech, McKee proposed investing in aquaculture, including seafood processing, so Rhode Island no longer needs to ship so much of its calamari out of state to prepare it for sale. “As Rep. McNamara would say, that really is a ‘Calamari Comeback,’” the governor declared.
Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, said, “I think a lot of the governor’s proposals are very genuine. I liked them very much. I liked what he wants to do on education. I liked what he wants to do as far as helping small businesses get back on their feet.”
Ruggerio said he is looking for specifics on the “Higher Ed Academy,” and he noted Senate leaders want to speed up the process of making pre-kindergarten available to all children who want it in the state.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ryan W. Pearson, a Cumberland Democrat, said McKee identified broad priorities that include many Senate priorities, including education and housing. “I think it’s all going to be on how he structures and administers them,” he said. “Do we actually have the capacity in the programs he is proposing to fund to actually execute on that.”
Pearson said the voters and the legislature have approved millions for housing that has not been spent. “So what is your capacity to actually get this out there?” he said. “I think it’s going to require you to have not just the same programs we have had and putting more money in them, but new ways of thinking about how do we do affordable housing development.”