R.I. Foundation launches initiative to develop recommendations for state on stimulus spending

Updated at 5:30 p.m. on April 7, 2021

PROVIDENCE – The Rhode Island Foundation announced Wednesday that, with the support of the Economic Progress Institute and the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, it is launching a new initiative to develop recommendations on how the state can spend the federal stimulus it is expected to receive from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The initiative, titled “Make It Happen: Investing for Rhode Island’s Future,” will specifically address the approximately $1 billion in federal funding the Rhode Island government is expected to receive from the ARPA. The foundation said the initiative will not address additional ARPA funding that is already earmarked for “specific uses” nor will it address the ARPA funding that is going specifically to cities and towns across the Ocean State. However, the foundation said it will coordinate with municipalities on their respective efforts to use the funding.

Rhode Island Foundation CEO and President Neil D. Steinberg told Providence Business News Wednesday that the upcoming stimulus money the state is expected to receive is described as “broader” and also “longer term,” meaning the state has until 2024 to use the federal funds. Steinberg said he then wanted to get a group together to think “big picture and equitably” across the state and come up with “big ideas.”

“In many cases with federal money, programs get developed and they end,” Steinberg said. “They’re not sustainable. So, I said let’s get a group together and brainstorm this and bring it to the leadership without having preconceived notions without having preconceived influences of where that money might go.”

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The foundation, EPI and RIPEC also recruited a steering committee, with members representing the business, health care, nonprofit and education sectors, to assist in determining the best recommendations for the state to use the funding. The recommendations and findings will be developed over the next six months, the foundation said, and will be shared with Gov. Daniel J. McKee and the top leaders in the R.I. General Assembly to inform their decisions.

“These recommendations will help inform the General Assembly as we hear from state agencies, community groups and the public about the challenges facing Rhode Islanders as we emerge from this pandemic. Ultimately, the way the General Assembly invests these resources should help strengthen our economy and the financial well-being of our citizens,” said House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio in a joint statement Wednesday.

Steinberg said the initiative hopes to bring an array of ideas to elected leaders in lieu of a single program to spend the funds on.

When the state received the $1.25 billion a year ago from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, local government leaders at the time were criticized by some members of the community about how the funds were being spent and how fast. Providence Business News spotlighted in a Nov. 6 story that the state at the time still had more than $900 million to spend of the CARES Act money by the Dec. 31, 2020, deadline, or risk losing it.

Additionally, McKee, when he was lieutenant governor, was heavily critical of state leaders at the time, saying that financial support for small businesses was lacking despite the state encouraging businesses to apply for Restore RI grants. Other small-business owners and advocates criticized the state’s grant programs, with some saying the programs were flawed.

Steinberg said the process to distribute the CARES Act funding was at times cumbersome and was also constricted with having a Dec. 31, 2020, deadline to spend it. He said the CARES Act grant documents were developed “without enough attention to what people really have or need or [are] able to do.”

Now, with more time to work with the billion-plus dollars from the federal government, Steinberg said the public will have the opportunity to provide input for the steering committee to consider in addition to the ideas the committee itself can determine and  present to Smith Hill leadership.

The steering committee members selected by the foundation, EPI and RIPEC are:

  • Marcela Betancur, Latino Policy Institute executive director
  • Jessica David, consultant and former Rhode Island Foundation executive vice president of strategy and community investments
  • Ditra Edwards, Sista Fire executive director
  • John Friedman, Brown University professor of economics and international and political affairs
  • John Galvin, AAA Northeast CEO and president
  • Marie L. Ganim, former R.I. health insurance commissioner and former R.I. Senate policy director
  • Ross Gittell, Bryant University president
  • Rajiv Kumar, ShapeUp founder and technology entrepreneur
  • Tony Maione, former United Way of Rhode Island CEO and president
  • Anna Cano Morales, Rhode Island College associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion
  • Nina Pande, Skills for Rhode Island’s Future executive director
  • Dr. Megan L. Ranney, Brown University School of Public Health associate dean and associate professor of emergency medicine
  • Nic Retsinas, Harvard Joint Centers for Housing Studies director emeritus
  • Don Stanford, Brown University adjunct professor of computer science and former GTECH chief technology officer
  • Edinaldo Tebaldi, Bryant University professor of economics and executive director of institutional effectiveness and strategy

Steinberg said the steering committee is meeting now and will continue to meet “as often as possible” over the next several months. He is hoping that input comes from as many areas as possible, including from elected leaders.

“The challenge is [creating] big ideas,” Steinberg said, “and what is going to be transformational.”

In a statement Wednesday, McKee said the state will receive substantial resources from the federal government due to the ARPA and it’s “critical that we utilize these resources in a way that benefits Rhode Island – our economy and our residents – in the near term and the long term.”

McKee also said the public and other stakeholder groups are encouraged to offer input as to how the money is spent. The foundation said the public can share their thoughts with the committee by emailing arpideas@rifoundation.org.

(This story has been updated to include comments from Rhode Island Foundation CEO and President Neil D. Steinberg.)

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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