Senator Jessica De La Cruz’s team shared her prepared remarks in advance of her response to Governor McKee’s State of the State address.
Good evening fellow Rhode Islanders. My name is Jessica de la Cruz. I’m the Minority Leader in your Rhode Island Senate. As a daughter of Portuguese immigrants, a working mom of three school-age boys, a dedicated wife, and a lifelong Rhode Islander, I come to you tonight committed to making sure that this state that we love, with its beautiful coastlines, vibrant communities, and resilient, hard-working people, is on a stable path forward with its best days yet to come.
At this time every year, we pause to assess our progress and reassess our priorities for the years to come. But to learn from our mistakes, we need to be honest in our assessment — the issues I will touch on tonight did not start because of the pandemic, so it’s time to stop blaming our systemic problems on COVID.
The Governor has put forth his 2030 plan, and it’s important to recognize that we agree on many of the issues facing our state, but our solutions are very different. Republicans will continue to put forth legislation and policy-based solutions to create not only structural changes to benefit Rhode Island long term but also provide immediate relief for our residents who are struggling daily to make ends meet.
Tonight, I would like to touch on 3 issues: the economy, the housing crisis, and educating our children:
First, our economy — In his plan, the Governor offered many ideas for how to spend the projected $610 million-dollar surplus. Republicans, however, want to provide immediate relief. Our state over-taxed Rhode Islanders, and now it’s time to send a refund! Therefore, we will be introducing legislation to require taxpayers get their money back as they’ve done in other states.
We are going to need your help to get this done! Please consider testifying in person or in writing once this legislation is ready to be heard in committee. Email and call your legislators…Remember, we work for YOU!
And while we are at it, let’s make bold tax reforms — we should decrease our sales tax to finally make Rhode Island more competitive. Let’s have people from Massachusetts shop in Rhode Island for a change. Let’s lower our 7 percent sales tax to 5% so we can do even better than Massachusetts, which is at 6 and a quarter %. Why does Rhode Island continue to be so timid and lackadaisical with tax policy? We cannot and will not prosper without bold tax reform.
As for immediate relief — as gas prices were going through the roof last year, I submitted legislation to temporarily suspend the entire state gas tax, which would have put $75 million dollars back into the hands of our friends and neighbors. That would have been real relief to ease the burden on all Rhode Islanders. That legislation was rejected. Now, the Governor’s proposed 3-cent per gallon gas tax relief is too little and too late. We have needed bold action, not indecision.
With record inflation and the strong possibility that we will enter a recessionary period, it’s more important than ever that we are responsible stewards of the funds provided by your tax dollars.
Through legislative oversight, we must ensure Rhode Island is getting a good return on investments made with our taxpayer dollars, whether those investments are in the economy, education, or health and human services — we cannot afford to blindly throw money at problems with no measurable results while our fellow Rhode Islanders are making the choice between heating their homes or putting groceries on their tables. To that end, we are calling on Governor McKee to dismiss his appeal of the unconstitutional truck tolls. That is a prime example of what it looks like to waste millions in taxpayer dollars.
Second, affordable housing and homelessness: In total, the legislature has appropriated $250 million dollars for the housing crisis with no tangible progress by the Governor. Unfortunately, our Governor has yet to execute on this emergency, but even worse, he hasn’t given it the urgent attention he’s known it’s needed since he took office in 2021. Just this past week, the Governor’s Housing Secretary had to resign when it was clear that he had no plan and no strategy to fix our housing crisis. As a result of his poor choice of personnel, precious time was wasted.
As President Ronald Reagan’s personnel director famously said, “PERSONNEL IS POLICY.”
We need cabinet-level directors and secretaries with a proven track record of effectively working with stakeholders and actually following through with a well-executed plan.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, is education: Our children have immense potential, but their progress is being stunted by our broken system.
On average, we spend $20,000 per student annually on Kindergarten to 12th grade, yet...2 out of 3 students in Rhode Island are not proficient in English Language Arts; 3 out of 4 students in Rhode Island are not proficient in math; and as the President and CEO of the RI Public Expenditure Council asserted just a couple of days ago, “When it comes to our education, Rhode Island should be embarrassed.”
This administration must stop failing our children. There must be a sense of urgency, and we need to take decisive action now! Recently, 3 former mayors of Providence urged the new Mayor to consider shifting to an all-public charter school district. They reasoned that in Providence, so many families have concluded that public charter schools offer better options for their kids.
Two years ago, as I stood here before you responding to then Governor Raimondo’s State of the State, I spoke about learning loss and the heart-wrenching Johns Hopkins report… Republicans urged immediate action and submitted legislation to stop the moratorium on new public charter schools as well as allowing the expansion of existing public charter schools. Since then, I have received input from parents, teachers, and administrators and was engaged in multiple Senate Oversight hearings on what our Department of Education has done to address this issue.
Unfortunately, very little was done.
This session, Republicans are submitting an ambitious legislative package that contains achievable solutions — Rhode Island families deserve more choice and ownership over their child’s education. Whether it’s transforming to an all-public charter school district, expanding existing charter schools, or creating Educational Savings Accounts for private school enrollment, there are solutions. They will require creativity, resolve, and the courage to stand up to those who benefit from the status quo. Republicans have repeatedly affirmed that access to a quality education is the civil rights issue of our time. We can no longer allow a child’s zip code or a family’s wealth to determine the quality of a child’s education. It’s critical that we, as parents and lawmakers, be the strongest advocates for our children’s education.
As the former Providence Mayors emphasized, “we need to lift up and amplify the voices of the families — in order to effectuate the changes necessary.” I say there IS an appetite for change, especially when we have one school district with demonstrated proficiency of only 5% in English and less than 5% in math.
What I’ve learned in my 4 years in the Senate is that we need people to challenge the status quo and present alternative solutions. Republicans can and have been effective in advocating for solutions. We know that working with our colleagues across the aisle is necessary, and often, we must agree to disagree. Last year, in the wake of numerous reports of persons in positions of authority taking advantage of our children, we sponsored and passed legislation that closed a major loophole in our sexual assault laws. We also built a coalition of families, nurses, and other stakeholders to save Zambarano Hospital, Rhode Island’s only state hospital, which is an acute care facility. A place that is near and dear to my heart.
Our state has a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We could take bold action on housing, the economy and our failing education system. We shouldn’t squander our surpluses and ARPA funds on gimmicks, pet projects, and insider deals. We must do the right thing, the just thing. I believe Rhode Island’s best days are ahead if we realize our potential by putting power and money back into the hands of the people of our state.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless Rhode Island.