McKee: ‘It [will] be my budget’

GOV. DANIEL J. MCKEE on Sunday during his inauguration address urged Rhode Islanders to come together as a team to combat the health and economic crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic. / COURTESY GOV. DANIEL J. MCKEE

PROVIDENCE – It’s been a whirlwind for Lt. Gov. Daniel J. McKee since Gov. Gina M. Raimondo was named on Jan. 7 as President Joe Biden’s nominee for United States secretary of commerce.

That news left McKee in line to become the next governor, succeeding a fellow Democrat with whom he has not worked closely since they were both first elected in 2014.

He’s spent the days since feverishly preparing for the transition, while getting up to speed on everything from state budget planning, education and the COVID-19 vaccine rollout to a potential easing of business restrictions and the long-term focus for R.I. Commerce Corp.

He spoke with Providence Business News on Tuesday about those and a different type of challenge he also faces, in “including all the networks that I [have] developed in a way that they feel as though they are important.”

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Can you talk about how the fiscal 2022 state budget plan is being put together? Will you be delivering a budget plan that was mostly put together by your predecessor, or have/or will you be able to make any significant adjustments to reflect your own priorities?

The bulk of the budget is a constant. It doesn’t change. So, you are really talking about maybe a small percentage that is somewhat arbitrary between the House and the Senate and my office. So, it would be my budget. We are trying to get our arms around what that looks like right now. Our transition committee group, which has experience with state budgets, is in the early stages getting up to speed as much as we can so that when I am sworn in, we can hit the ground running. That is the case with everything right now in terms of important issues. We want to do the work, so when I am sworn in that learning curve is eliminated as much as we can.

We are also in conversations with the budget and revenue offices, and in discussions right now with House and Senate leadership through the Senate president and the speaker, knowing that we will have a short time frame. We don’t know exactly the date that we will be sworn in. It depends on what happens in Washington, D.C. The anticipation is to have the budget by March 10.

So, you are not going to simply carry forward your predecessor’s priorities in the budget, such as legalizing recreational marijuana for adults, Rhode Island Promise, etc.?

I have been on the record saying that the time has come to legalize marijuana. I’m not on board with the New Hampshire plan. I think there should be more of an entrepreneurial type of plan that is regulated. So, that should be a piece of the budget, if it gets in there, and the General Assembly approves that. As far as Rhode Island Promise goes, the community college level is something I think makes a lot of sense. And, federally, they are talking about increasing the Pell Grants. So, if they increase the Pell Grants, what does that mean in terms of how much we need in the budget for it?

I’m heavy into education, and want to double down regarding R.I. Promise. So, I think that’s a big part of what we are going to do, as far as using potentially some of the federal dollars to establish municipal education departments throughout the state, like I did as a mayor in Cumberland, which is kind of a one-of-a-kind office that works on academic issues year round. I think that’s going to be a real important point because we are losing so much learning time with this hybrid strategy.

As far as the budget goes, there are so many unknowns that it is difficult to say where you are going to be and where you are not going to be in terms of whether you have to generate more income, or not generate more income. I’m not going to support more taxes just for the sake of adding extra programs right now over and above what is there. This is not the time to be increasing tax structures unless you actually have to.

What is the most important thing state government needs to do for small businesses right now?

The most important thing is to make sure we do everything we can to get as much [Paycheck Protection Program] money in the state as possible. Last time close to $2 billion in forgivable loans or grants came into the state. That is the top priority right now – to make sure we maximize that, and we let every business that qualifies know that they qualify, and we do everything we possibly can to get as much of those dollars into the state that is possible.

You have mentioned the potential easing of restrictions on small businesses when you take office, when the health data supports it. What do you see as priorities in easing restrictions?

There needs to be incremental flexibility for the businesses we have restricted in some ways. We should identify what those businesses are that have been restricted. All the businesses have been impacted by COVID, but not all have been restricted. So, we must identify those businesses that have been restricted and address them, so there can be an incremental easing of restrictions.

A North Providence lawmaker has been calling for an end to curfews, and early restaurant closings. Do you support that?

No, because I think we need to incrementally do the increase [in business hours and/or capacity], and not do it in one shot. I think that we can be intelligent and about increasing footprints and do that in a way that keeps the safety issue front and center. So, I think that if somebody is at 50%, we should be able to figure out a way to get them to 60%, and then take a look, and get them to 70%, etc. That is the way I look at it. I think a zero to 60 approach could backfire. … It makes sense to stagger it and look at it with the idea of getting to the highest level that you can in terms of the operation.

Are you satisfied with R.I. Commerce Corp.’s approach to growing jobs and economic development both pre-pandemic and since? Do you think it is already well-positioned to help businesses emerge from the recession, or would you like to see a different focus?

I was involved in probably the largest expansion of a Fortune 25 company in the country in CVS [Health Corp.] – in terms of an expansion of over 600,000 square feet and 1,000 jobs that came into that campus built in Cumberland. (Editor’s note: McKee was the mayor of Cumberland at that time.) So, I believe there is a spot for these blue chips and the big companies, and I think that has been the focus of commerce. And you want to continue to have that focus, but the small-business community has been clearly left out. There has been some work done in that area. We know the small businesses have been struggling. We need to put an additional focus on that, making sure that there is an equal consideration.

What sector of the economy do you see leading the state out of this recession, and what should the state’s role be in helping it?

I think we are positioned pretty well with some of the renewable projects, with the offshore wind sector. There are some big projects coming, and we are going to take full advantage of that. That is certainly a sector that we would want to continue to work on that, as long as we are not getting ahead of the technology. I have always felt that you ride the bumper of that technology as fast as it is going, and make sure you are right there with it. And we should not turn our back on the hospitality and tourism sectors. That is going to continue to be one of the really important areas in the state. So, you are going to have these new strategies with the renewables, and our staples, which are going to be very important. We do know that tourism is a big deal in Rhode Island. We have a beautiful, beautiful state. And we share that, and that is good for our economy.

Do you expect Stefan Pryor to continue to lead R.I. Commerce Corp. during your administration?

I expect that he is going to be on to complete the [current] projects. I think that he is going to keep his options open. But I was on a call with Stefan [on Jan. 25], regarding one of the major projects that is being considered, so I could be brought up to speed. He is going to play a definite role on that in my administration. I feel confident in Stefan to make sure that the projects that are in the pipeline, and new opportunities that could come our way, in the areas that he has the expertise, will continue. He is a talented guy, and we have been fortunate to have him.

When will you name your choice for lieutenant governor? And can you explain your idea of having the next lieutenant governor run with you as a team in the next election for governor? 

It is something that we know is important. It certainly is not a priority. I think that there is a real need to have a lieutenant governor/governor run together through the primaries; through the general election, and then manage together. So, this gives us a nice pilot strategy to make sure the person that the Senate does confirm is aligned with what we are doing over the next time frame that we are in office. We are prepared to do that once I am sworn in.

It’s been reported that you are considering changes to the state’s COVID vaccine priority phases, potentially moving up teachers and state lawmakers in the priority process. In a state that doesn’t have enough vaccine to meet its current schedule, how can occupations other than essential workers be prioritized while still saying the state agrees with the CDC that seniors 65 and older need to be the priority?

I have said 65, to follow the Biden administration. Remember, we are not going to be sitting on 14,000 vaccines forever. This thing is going to get ratcheted up. This is the time to be preparing for when we get additional vaccines. The president of the United States says he wants to do a million doses a day for a hundred days. That is going to increase our supply significantly.

I thought the educators would be prioritized for reasons that are fully attached to the economy and other purposes. I also said they would not be stepping over the groups that have been established as a priority. So, to move up the teachers, where they were not in the second phase, or whatever it might be, just makes sense to me. But it should be done in a strategic way that anticipates additional supply, which is coming.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

I think it is just hard work and doing your best. That is the plan, and to make sure that we are in all 39 cities and towns. There is a great deal of skill and talent throughout the state. We want to make sure that we give every community the opportunity to grow their economy in a way that they want to see it grown.

I think the real challenge right now is to include all the networks that I developed in a way that they feel as though they are important. And I believe that everybody is important, and everybody can contribute to making it a better state. So that is our biggest challenge right now – to make sure everybody I have been networking with – we continue to do that. That is the intention – and to add more people to the mix to create the state we want to see. The economy is one of the lynchpins of making sure that we have a state that people can afford to live in.

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  1. Not an exciting interview. On the economy, yes we have a beautiful state and tourism is big, but a more important need is to diversify our business base because as we have seen in the past and in this pandemic that over reliance on some sectors can really hurt.

    What the State needs is more expansive views of the state’s economy with the willingness to back that up with public investment where and when appropriate.

    McKee’s background, education and experiences make him a product of the Blackstone Valley, his higher ed credentials also are from the area. On the surface, he has parochial credentials, but while that in and of itself is not limiting, McKee has to prove pretty quickly that he is not just an “average Joe and has the vision and leadership skills to become a forward thinking and impactful Governor.