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4 pressing issues R.I. Governor McKee needs to address in 2023

We know that McKee is focusing primarily on the state budget proposal that will come later this month, but there are other pressing issues McKee needs to address in 2023

Governor Dan McKee delivers his inaugural address on Jan. 3.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Governor Dan McKee has officially started his first four-year term, and there is no shortage of major decisions he has to make in the coming weeks and months.

We know that McKee is focusing primarily on the state budget proposal that will come later this month, but here’s a look at four pressing issues McKee needs to address in 2023.

Providence schools

The state has been in control of its largest school district since 2019, but this is undoubtedly the most important year of the takeover so far. The relationship between the Providence Teachers Union and the school department (along with the Rhode Island Department of Education) is so toxic that you almost never hear anything about the 20,000-plus students in the system anymore. At this point, it’s just finger-pointing and Twitter-whining among adults.

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But the teachers and the McKee administration are about to enter their second round of union contract negotiations because the current agreement expires Aug. 31. McKee has repeatedly said he wants Rhode Island to match or surpass Massachusetts on standardized test results by 2030, but simple math suggests there is no way to reach that goal without dramatic improvements in Providence. Neither side has outlined goals for the new contract, both sides have long memories: the union doesn’t like that Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green’s contract was renewed and McKee doesn’t like that the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals (which includes Providence’s union) endorsed someone else in the 2022 Democratic primary.

Separate from the contract, there’s a debate about when control of Providence schools will return to the city. Mayor Brett Smiley has said he wants the state to follow through on some of the promises it made during the initial takeover — like reforming the union contract, potentially to include longer school days and years — but he’s getting pressure from the City Council and some state lawmakers to ask the state to return the district to Providence within the next two years.

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Housing

This is House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi’s No. 1 priority, which means no other state leader has a choice but to make housing among their top issues, too. Right now, things are messy. The newly hired housing secretary Joshua Saal doesn’t seem to have a single ally in government, and for the first time, every politician, expert, and advocate has one person to blame for every housing-related issue.

One area where McKee could have a huge impact is on convincing city and town leaders to move faster when it comes to expanding their affordable housing stock and changing zoning laws (with incentives, perhaps) to allow for more units to be built. He’s still most comfortable when he’s working with municipal leaders, and they might be more willing to listen to a reasonable governor who understands the opposition they might face (from NIMBY-types) as opposed to someone who appears to be strong-arming them into taking action.

Increasing wages

Ever since becoming governor and all through his last campaign, McKee has been consistent about his goal of raising incoming levels for all Rhode Islanders. He often points to the fact that the median household income in Rhode Island was $71,169 in 2019, which was higher than the national average, but lower than New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

While he doesn’t have a magic wand, the state is on track to reach a $15 per hour minimum wage by Jan. 1, 2025, and he’s made it clear he wants to advocate for increasing pay for child-care workers, nursing home staff, and tipped workers. There also appears to be momentum on issues like making wage theft a felony and ensuring that more state-supported construction projects pay a prevailing wage.

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The next big issue McKee and state leaders are going to need to tackle is going to be upskilling the workforce. The state Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner projects that 72 percent of all jobs in Rhode Island will require a postsecondary credential by 2030, but only 52 percent of adults have earned a certificate or degree past high school. The unemployment rate (currently 3.6 percent) remains remarkably low, and that’s part of the challenge. The state has to find a way to convince more employers to incentivize their workers to earn a higher credential and convince employed residents to purse those credentials.

Hiring

McKee has several acting directors in some of the most vital departments in the state, including Health, Human Services, and Children, Youth, and Families. He also has an acting secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to oversee all those departments, but Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has said he would like to eliminate that position and make the other directors cabinet-level posts.

The governor has hinted that he expects to ask at least some of the acting directors to become permanent directors, but it’s unclear when those announcements will be made. Another big question is whether former Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor will return to government after a failed run for state treasurer. He also has an important decision to make on the next chair of the state Board of Education, and president of Rhode Island College (that could later this year or early 2024).

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Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him @danmcgowan.