After releasing her $9.248 billion budget last week, Governor Gina Raimondo continued to promote her campaign for two years of free college education to Rhode Islanders, saying the initiative is not …
After releasing her $9.248 billion budget last week, Governor Gina Raimondo continued to promote her campaign for two years of free college education to Rhode Islanders, saying the initiative is not only necessary but more affordable than many realize. In a phone interview Thursday with the Beacon, she said the first year of the plan would cost $10 million.
Raimondo’s budget is about a $400 million increase from the current year but proposes no broad-based tax increases. The themes of the budget are “middle class relief, helping working families, strengthening the economy, protecting health and safety, and prioritizing fiscal responsibility.”
In her call to the Beacon, Raimondo discussed details of the free tuition plan, increases in revenues, and the car tax.
In terms of how her budget can increase spending without any broad-based tax increases, Raimondo gave some credit to the Amazon deal (the online retailer and others like it will start collecting and returning to the state sales taxes on purchases Rhode Islanders make) for bringing in about $35 million more in revenue. She said she isn’t sure exactly how much of an impact it would make on local retailers, but that she hopes it will benefit them and make for a more level playing field.
The governor also cited $43 million to $45 million in healthcare cost cuts, mostly in Medicaid as services are being “shipped away” from hospitals and nursing homes and into home care, she said.
She has made Rhode Island’s Promise, her plan to send students to Rhode Island College, Community College of Rhode Island or the University of Rhode Island with two years free, a priority. Raimondo said the proposal won’t be a cure-all for post-secondary education issues and that more will need to be done in that respect – for instance, she is supportive of efforts to make schedules more flexible at schools so students can take classes they need to graduate on time, a requirement for receiving the Rhode Island’s Promise scholarship. But she said this particular proposal is designed to tackle one of the biggest: affordability.
“The graduation rates at CCRI and RIC are unacceptably low, really very low, and a big part of the reason is affordability,” she said. “It’s really hard to finish college if you have to work three jobs.”
She put the cost of the initiative at $10 million in fiscal year 2018, $13 million in fiscal year 2019, $18 million in fiscal year 2020, and $30 million annually starting in 2021. Raimondo recognized that the proposal has its critics, like former Republican candidate for governor Ken Block.
In a public Facebook post, Block wrote that “competing fiscal priorities” don’t allow the state to be more generous than it already is and that other educational issues should be addressed first.
“We have a more important educational crisis to address. Way too many of our incoming college freshmen require remediation. In other words, our high schools are graduating college freshmen who academically are not prepared to be college freshmen,” he wrote. “We will do these students and our society a much bigger service by first solving the abhorrent performance of our K-12 system. Subsidizing the academic remediation of a college freshman has nowhere near the value of getting that student the quality education he or she deserves in K-12.”
However, Raimondo felt the response to her proposal has been overwhelmingly positive. People were actually surprised that it didn’t cost more, she said.
“Other Republicans who have run for governor might not be pleased about it, but the average response has been very positive and most people are saying, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it doesn’t cost more than that,’” she said.
Raimondo emphasized that educational initiatives like this one are important to the future success of the state.
“I really feel it’s one of the most important things I can do as governor. If I think about what are the couple of things I could do that really transform our economy and really make Rhode Island a place of opportunity, we just can’t be successful in the long run if only 40 percent of our population has some degree past high school,” she said.
Inevitably, criticism of Raimondo’s budget has rolled in. In a statement released on Thursday, Hospital Association of Rhode Island President Michael Souza expressed displeasure with “elimination of upper payment limit payments [federal funds used to ensure Medicaid reimburses hospitals at an amount equal to Medicaid], Medicaid payment reductions, and cuts to in-patient mental health providers.” He promised that the Association would work with the General Assembly to find “lasting solutions that address state fiscal problems while ensuring a financially stable healthcare system” and urged Raimondo and the General Assembly to protect access to health care, especially in terms of the Affordable Care Act.
“Hospitals provide nearly $7 billion in economic impact to our state. Elected officials must recognize hospitals are critical to a strong, healthy and stable Rhode Island,” Souza said in a release. “Hospitals could struggle with $1.7 billion in cuts on top of the $1 billion in reductions used to fund implementation of the Affordable Care Act.”
The governor did, in fact, understand the concern over the ACA, which she and HARI both said provides coverage to 10 percent of Rhode Island’s population. When asked (prior to the interview this story is based on) what was at stake for the state once the Trump administration comes in, it was the first thing she discussed.
“Depending on whether they repeal it and the way they repeal it, it could be devastating for Rhode Island. Right now, over 100,000 Rhode Islanders have health insurance because of the ACA,” she said. “If they were to do anything that disrupts that, that would be so crushing to those people. Also, if they put the bill on the states, as has been said, that would be crushing for our little budget. So I’m worried about it,” she said.
The budget will go to the General Assembly in June. While she said there is room for compromise (particularly in terms of car tax cuts), she plans on fighting for job training and economic development programs.
“I’m going to fight to protect all the job training and economic development programs that are just starting to work,” she said. “We’re finally just turning the corner of this economy, so we have to keep the foot on the gas.”