PROVIDENCE — When Rhode Island received its $1.13 billion slice of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make tangible investments across the state. But 10 months later, organizations, businesses, unions, and key stakeholders have proposed programs that would cost the state a whopping $7 billion.
“It makes it more difficult [to spend this money] because $6 billion of the asks will be disappointed,” said Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, during the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Leadership forum on Tuesday.
Cities and towns also have $500 million total in ARPA funds that are not controlled by the General Assembly.
Shekarchi and the other leaders on the panel agreed that every dollar of the ARPA funds will be spent, but the money is a one-time investment in the state’s future, not an annual appropriation.
“Everyone wants money for their program. And I’m sure a lot of these are good programs. But we want to fund things that are going to be sustainable,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, another Warwick Democrat.
In October, the Rhode Island Foundation released their own recommendations for spending the federal dollars, which suggested $405 million for housing, $305 million in small business relief and workforce development, and $255 million for behavioral health.
A group of Rhode Island housing organizations called on the state to use nearly half of its federal dollars to address the housing crisis. In their report, they called for $350 million to go toward producing, protecting, and preserving affordable homes statewide; $60 million to go toward housing access and stability statewide; and $90 million to support municipalities and the state in creating and preserving “safe and healthy homes.”
McCaffrey suggested that the money put toward housing “will pay off in the future.”
In October, the General Assembly launched an ARPA Fiscal Recovery Fund Recommendation Portal on its website where hospitals, trade associations, unions, advocacy groups, and others have submitted requests for ARPA funds.
And more demands for ARPA funds, on top of the $7 billion that has already been requested, are still flowing in.
“We just submitted our proposal today,” said Patrick Quinn, the executive vice president Service Employees International Union, District 1199 New England, on a call Tuesday. He said the unions that represent health care workers and the hospitals that employ them are submitted proposals to help stabilize the labor market.
Mary Marran, the president and chief operating officer of Butler Hospital, a psychiatric hospital owned by Care New England, requested $15.6 million in ARPA funds to provide premium pay for workers and support recruitment and retention of hospital workers. She said funds will be used to cover the cost of employee incentive pay programs and contract agency labor costs being incurred due to COVID-19.
Marran submitted a second request, for $8 million, to help provide a solution to address the lack of capacity for mental health patients and alleviate over-crowding across Rhode Island by creasing a “short-stay unit.”
Dr. Paari Gopalakrishnan, interim president of Kent Hospital (also owned by Care New England), requested $51.75 million to support recruitment and retention of workers. CNE-owned Women & Infants Hospital President Shannon Sullivan requested $22.95 million for the same reason, plus another $10 million for a new labor and delivery center.
All together, Care New England has requested more than $108 million in ARPA funds, about 10 percent of the state’s total allocation.
But Minority Leader Blake Filippi, a Block Island Republican, said during the forum that “everything we are talking about today is a waste if we don’t fix our education system.”
“You cannot have a robust economy without a critically thinking workforce,” said Filippi and went as far as saying that not “fixing” the education system in Rhode Island is a “civil rights issue.”
Filippi said the Republicans have proposed school choice so parents can take their children out of a failing district and then send them to another public school of their choice in certain zones.
“Many rich people have school choice and exercise it everyday,” said Filippi, mentioning private school options and the ability for wealthier families to move out of failing school districts. “Struggling families need to have that same choice. We cannot expect them to wait 10 years for a school turnaround.”
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, spoke in favor of offering universal pre-k to help boost education, reduce the cost of child care, and help the labor force recover from the pandemic.
“But it’s also going to be an expensive proposition,” said Ruggerio, estimating it will cost the state approximately $100 million.
Education “should be priority number one. Everything else is secondary,” said Filippi.