Three questions will appear on this year’s ballot statewide – all of which are related to approving the state government to seek bonds for various endeavors. Warwick voters will see one additional question for their community specifically, also related to seeking bond funds.
If all three statewide bonds are approved, it would amount to $367,300,000 in total principal and an estimated $589,462,045 in total 20-year liability for the state when accounting for interest.
Before diving into a report recently released by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) on whether or not the state can afford to amass this much debt in such a short period of time, we will first break down each question and what an affirmative vote by Rhode Islanders would mean to the state.
Question 1 – $250 million to repair ailing school buildings
If you’ve paid attention to any amount of local news since last September, you already know the depth of need that exists within the state’s public school buildings. According to an independent analysis of each school in every district across the state performed by Jacobs Engineering, the bottom line number of $2.2 billion needed to get Rhode Island schools up to acceptable standards put an exclamation point of reality on what was only a perceived problem in years prior.
The state has not gone out to bond for public school building capital improvements since 2011, when a moratorium was put in place by the General Assembly due to the potential high burden on the state to provide the aid necessary to fund projects for communities. That moratorium has since been lifted.
This $250 million bond is part one of a proposed $500 million investment into beginning to chip away at the drastic maintenance needs in the state. If this initiative is approved, another $250 million bond will go before voters in 2022. The bond proposals are the highest such initiatives in state history, and would be released over five-year periods.
The money will be capped so that the state can provide a maximum of $100 million in match funding to communities in any given year. Money must also be allocated in a way that is proportional, so that one community does not monopolize funding in a given year. Funding is allocated through reimbursements on work done, and communities get different reimbursement rates depending on their fiscal ability to pay. The most financially desperate communities will see a 95 percent reimbursement rate, while the wealthiest communities will get 35 percent – with a swath of rates in the middle ground, like Warwick, who currently would receive about 40 percent reimbursement for school capital projects.
However, communities can earn up to 20 percent in additional reimbursement through the state application process by showing a commitment to various incentives outlined by the state. These include things like promoting energy efficiency, showing a commitment to dedicate funds annually to maintain existing buildings and incentives for new construction rather than solely repairing old buildings.
Governor Gina Raimondo and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who has led the charge in support of the initiative, refer to the proposed bonding as a “once in a lifetime investment” into the state’s schools.
In Warwick, there is an additional $40 million bond initiative on the ballot, also to help pay for necessary school repairs. While Jacobs determined that Warwick schools needed about $190 million to make them “warm, safe and dry” and up to modern standards of education, the school department calculated its ability to do more with less, resulting in an $85 million bond request that before the city council in January. That request was ultimately chopped down to $40 million prior to its approval, as the council had concerns committing to that number.
If the bond is approved by voters, the school department already outlined how each school in the district would see improvements – most critically needed, like 12 fire alarm systems, $11.5 million in ADA compliance work, HVAC systems and nine full roof replacements. For a complete report on how the bond money would be allocated, visit www.warwickschools.org/2018/09/14/the-time-is-now/.
Mayor Joseph Solomon outlined his support of the bond in late October, saying “It is our responsibility as elected representatives, school officials and the larger community to ensure that our students not only receive a quality education that will prepare them well for the future, but to ensure that they have safe and healthy environments in which to learn.”
Question 2 – $70 million for URI and RIC capital improvement projects
The second question on the ballot relates to allocating $45 million in bond funding for the University of Rhode Island and $25 million for Rhode Island College in order for the public institutes of higher education to make capital improvements that they maintain will help to bolster their academic mission to produce talented young professionals and shine a spotlight on higher education in Rhode Island.
For URI, the $45 million would go to the university’s Narragansett Bay Campus to design, renovate and construct new facilities and infrastructure, including a new 20,000 square-foot Ocean Technology Center building to support its Graduate School of Oceanography, College of Engineering and the College of Environmental and Life Sciences. The money will also fund renovations to the campus’s pier, which in 2021 will become the home port of a $125 million research vessel awarded to URI by the National Science Foundation.
In an op-ed Bruce Corliss, Dean of URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO), and Robert Ballard, Professor of Oceanography for the GSO, make the case that this funding represents an important opportunity to continue researching areas of extreme implications for our planet.
“Since its founding in 1961, the GSO has served as one of the world’s premier institutions for the study and exploration of our oceans and has put Rhode Island on the map as a national and international leader in oceanography and marine science,” they write. As a pioneering leader in ocean research, and with sea level rise continuing to pose an imminent threat to our oceans and our coasts, even more will be expected of GSO in the coming decades. As expectations grow, so will the need for advanced facilities and technology that support these endeavors while continuing to attract top students who will become the next generation of ocean science leaders.”
Corliss and Ballard go on to write that the return on investment will not just be conceptual, but economical as well.
“During the last decade, the Narragansett Bay Campus successfully competed for $330 million in research funds from federal and state agencies and the private sector. These dollars are invested right back into Rhode Island’s economy through job creation, higher education and procurement opportunities for small businesses,” they write.
“An economic impact study commissioned in 2017 showed that the Bay Campus contributes nearly $50 million annually to the local economy,” they continue. “With approval of Question 2, we estimate that over the next 30 years the campus will receive $1 billion or more of research funding and will inject over $1.5 billion into Rhode Island’s economy.”
The remaining $25 million would provide an opportunity for RIC to reinvent its Horace Mann Hall, which houses the college’s crown jewel teaching program. According to RIC president Frank Sánchez, the building was built nearly 50 years ago and has seen no major renovations since. If approved, the money would go towards modernizing the building to make it a cutting-edge producer of local teaching talent.
Sánchez said that a redesign would allow for the college to create model classrooms that would enable students to put their learning to the test like never before. Utilizing integrated video and audio technology, the classrooms would be able to simulate real teaching situations and allow for students to be recorded as they engage in the lesson, giving them the chance to get feedback from instructors and their peers while watching their own performance.
“It’s the classroom of tomorrow,” Sánchez said. “It really has to do with providing the very best teachers for our children. We all know the impact that a highly trained highly prepared teacher can have on a child's learning.”
Sánchez said that 43 percent of teaching certificates in the state come from RIC, and that 70 percent of graduates stay in the state. He said the bond will help towards RIC’s existing mission to better prepare Rhode Island educators for a changing educational world that includes a heightened need for teachers trained special education and English Language Learner (ELL) instruction methods.
“Now, 100 percent of our graduates will have an endorsement in special education or in ELL,” Sánchez said, adding that, “The best cities in the nation have a very strong school system, and this is going to allow us to have the best teachers in our schools that are highly trained and highly prepared to teach Rhode Islanders. From a Rhode Islander’s perspective, I can’t think of a better investment than in our teachers.”
Question 3 – $47.3 million for open space, recreation and environmental conservancy
The final state ballot initiative would release another $47.3 million in bonds to make funding available for 10 different endeavors related to open space, recreation and the environment.
Included in that figure is: $7.9 million towards Capital for Clean Water and Drinking Water; $7 million for dredging of downtown Providence rivers; $5 million for coastal resiliency and public access projects; $5 million for wastewater treatment facility resilience improvements; $5 million for a state bikeway development program; $5 million for local recreation projects; $4.4 million for dam safety; $4 million for brownfield remediation and economic development; $2 million for access to farmland and $2 million for promoting local open space.
According to Save the Bay Advocacy Director Topher Hamblett, the bond question represents an investment towards securing all of the progress Rhode Island has made in terms of cleaning up Narragansett Bay and securing a positive direction for the state’s economy, which he said are clearly directly connected.
“As a whole, the 10 project areas in the bond represent a major investment in Rhode Islanders’ quality of life,” Hamblett said. “Rhode Islanders have always been great about going to the voting booth and supporting initiatives that help us achieve the cleanup of Narragansett Bay and upgrades to our environment and recreational resources in a way that actually puts Rhode Islanders to work, and strengthens our quality of life, and quality of life is really the bedrock of Rhode Island’s economy.”
Hamblett said Save the Bay was particularly interested in securing $7.9 million in funding to improve wastewater facilities throughout the state, which will continue to ensure the Bay stays clean and will additionally open up $40 million in federal funding towards the same endeavor.
“We can’t access those funds without skin in the game,” Hamblett said.
Additionally, the $5 million towards protecting wastewater facilities from damage through flooding is something that should ring particularly important for Warwick residents, following the flooding of the Pawtuxet River in 2010 that left the city’s wastewater facility underwater. Hamblett said a DEM study recently commissioned found that most wastewater facilities in the state were vulnerable and that, while this money will not fund the protection of all of them, it is at least a start.
“I see it as a down payment on something that we need to do more over time. The challenges facing wastewater treatment facilities are only going to grow over time,” he said. “It's a very important first step.”
Finally, Hamblett said the public should view the $5 million towards coastal resiliency as something that will address dangers posed to some of its most treasured recreational resources, such as Goddard Park and Rocky Point – both of which are at risk of damage or alteration from the threat of rising ocean levels via climate change. Hamblett said it is the first time in his recollection that the state has gone out for bond funding for something specifically related to threats posed by climate change.
“Seas are definitely rising and floods are more common. We need to be sure that ecological resources are protected, but also the places the public like to go need to be safe,” he said.
With the strides made to clean up the Bay and how reliant the state is on its marine industries and tourism, Hamblett said it is essential to make the investment into supporting these structural pillars of our way of life.
“Rhode Islanders are being asked to protect the investments we've made to date to clean up the bay and build upon those so we can have a robust, healthy Narragansett Bay that also supports a robust economy. It's the commercial and recreational fishing industry, hospitality and tourism,” he said. “It's really a remarkable story, I think, how Rhode Island has pulled Narragansett Bay back from the brink and really made it special.”
Can Rhode Island afford this proposed debt?
The simple answer is that, yes, the state can afford to enter into this proposed liability. However, it will also have an impact on how much the state can borrow going forward – and will also do nothing to help with an always looming, ballooning projected deficit that will amount to anywhere between $191 and $227 million in FY23, according to a report released recently by RIPEC.
Per the report, the unaudited results of FY18 reveal that the state is showing a surplus of $45.5 million, which is $14.3 million higher than anticipated – created by $16.3 million less in expenditures than projected counterbalancing $2.1 million less in revenues than projected. However, as stated above, RIPEC warns Rhode Island is still projecting deficits from FY2020 and onward.
According to the report, Rhode Island’s tax-supported debt totaled $1.76 billion as of June 30, 2018, a 3.1 percent increase from 2017 and a 6.7 percent increase from 2016. Direct debt, which is debt accrued through general obligation bonds and notes authorized through referendums, totaled $1.16 billion as of June 30, 2018, a 6.3 percent increase from 2017. While tax-supported debt is expected to decrease by 6.8 percent by FY23, RIPEC also measures this by warning this projection assumes there will be no additional bonds approved by voters in either the 2020 or 2022 election – and since the school repair plan includes a 2022 bond of another $250 million, this does not seem likely.
While these numbers are high enough to make Rhode Island the 10th most indebted state in the country in regards to tax-supported debt, comparatively, Connecticut and Massachusetts hold the number one and number two spots respectively. Rhode Island’s bond rating sits at Aa2, which is considered favorable for borrowing.
According to General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Rhode Island has the capability to borrow up to $1.2 billion in the next 10 years, and has warned in the past that waiting to begin addressing the issues in the state’s schools will only make the cost go even higher as time goes on. If his numbers are accurate, this year’s ballot initiatives, if all approved, would eat up about half of that borrowing capacity. If the second $250 million bond is approved in 2022, that capacity would decrease further.
In their report summary, RIPEC does not provide a recommendation to voters, instead urging everyone to make an informed decision and weigh the pros and cons of such an investment.
“Capital investments provide infrastructure improvements, and help boost the state’s economy. However, how the state funds these projects – particularly with regard to increased debt – is an important consideration,” the summary reads. “Ultimately, voters must weigh the benefits of capital investment against the long-term costs, especially given the state’s fiscal position.”