A blow to R.I. manufacturers?

Restoration of American manufacturing has occupied a prominent space in President Donald Trump’s speeches, commentary and tweets.

But a mixed message was conveyed by the new president when he released a broad overview of his 2018 budget proposal this month.

The budget plan, “America First, A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” included a hefty increase in defense spending, by $52 billion over current levels. The $639 billion spending package includes a 10 percent increase in the base funding levels for armed services.

In Rhode Island, this signals good things ahead for defense-related manufacturers and suppliers, including General Dynamics Electric Boat, one of the nation’s largest military contractors. It has already begun work on the Ohio-class submarine replacement.

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The company, which will make 80 percent of those subs, expects to have a Rhode Island-based workforce of 5,000 or more within the next several years, up significantly from the fewer than 3,500 now employed.

But to pay for the boost in military-inspired spending, as well as decrease the national deficit, the Trump budget counterbalances the proposed new spending with cuts and eliminations.

The Department of Commerce, which promotes job creation and economic growth in the U.S., is slated to get a $1.5 billion cut to $7.8 billion. That’s a 16 percent annual decrease.

One of the programs that would be eliminated entirely is the $124 million federal match for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, which covers up to half the cost of state centers that provide consulting services to small and medium-sized manufacturers.

Explained the overview: “By eliminating federal funding, MEP centers would transition solely to nonfederal revenue sources, as was originally intended when the program was established.”

This came as a shock to manufacturing supporters in Rhode Island.

“The fact that the MEP system was not included in [Trump’s] budget was contradictory to other tenets the president supports – manufacturing and jobs,” said Christian Cowan, director of Polaris MEP, a division of the University of Rhode Island Research Foundation.

Polaris assists manufacturers in the Ocean State as part of a five-year, annually renewed grant. Polaris’ annual budget is $1.5 million, half of which is the federal grant.

Cowan speaks frequently with the Rhode Island congressional delegation about the effectiveness of Polaris’ programming.

The numbers are the story, says Cowan. Any dollar spent in the MEP system gains $8.70 in return, he said, citing a national study. Local results also are worth stating: “Our recent audit gave us the result of an annualized number of $91 million in sales impacts, with the Rhode Island manufacturing companies, and 365 job impacts,” he said. •