You could say Gov. Gina M. Raimondo is a pragmatist. The way she puts it, she’s not trying to change the world so much as she’s trying to adapt Rhode Island to it for the public’s benefit. That includes the way she’s revamped the state’s job-training programs to cater more to the needs of employers, the financial incentives she’s established to recruit new and expanding businesses, and even her initiatives to cap health care spending and legalize recreational use of marijuana.
The Democratic governor discusses the impact of her first term, why she considers herself pro-business – yet supports another increase in the minimum wage – and why job training and education are the priorities for her final four-year term.
What’s been your biggest achievement? When I took office, there was a general malaise in the economy. Things were – I often say – just stuck. And now that isn’t the case. Which is to say there is some momentum, but things are not perfect, and we’re not done. But if you look at businesses moving here, the number of people working, road work – there’s now more road work happening than ever before. We have a sense of economic momentum that just didn’t exist when I started.
Do you attribute that momentum to your initiatives, such as financial incentives for new and expanding businesses? I would say it does seem to be clearly related to the work we’ve been doing. Now, the overall economy is better, and certainly some of [the improvement here] is because of that. … But in 2014 when I ran [for office], we had the highest unemployment rate in the country. The Interstate 195 land [in downtown Providence], they had been marketing it for six years and there was nothing. In 2014, the rest of the country had been out of the recession for a few years, but we were kind of uniquely stuck. And now we’re not. It’s not just the incentives. That’s one tiny piece of the puzzle. It’s RhodeWorks. It’s public works that have resulted in thousands of people working, rebuilding our roads and bridges.
All the job training, I would say, if anything, that’s probably my biggest accomplishment. That contribution to the economy. Job training, apprenticeships, career and technical education. The [R.I.] Promise program. They’ve all been a shot in the arm to the economy. The small-business loan fund. We’re just doing more. It’s the whole thing, and the incentives. We’ve recruited a couple dozen businesses because of that.
Would you describe yourself as a pro-business Democrat? Yes.
What does that mean to you? It means doing everything you can to make sure everybody has a decent job.
How do you balance social spending and what businesses want? I belong to the camp of, the best social program is a good job. And I think the more we can do with job training and economic development, the more people will have jobs, the better and stronger our communities and our families will be. So, to use your phrase, ‘pro-business Democrat,’ yes, because people need a job – a decent job. So, they can take care of their family, feel good about themselves and have some sense of pride. That’s why I’ve been such a big supporter of manufacturing. Under my leadership, we’ve created thousands of manufacturing jobs – a lot of them at [General Dynamics] Electric Boat.
But Electric Boat is a federal contractor that’s not under your control. No, I strongly dispute that. Yes, I don’t have much to do with how they get their contracts. Fair enough. I have a lot to do with whether they add jobs in Rhode Island versus Groton, Conn., or Newport News, Va., or Bath, Maine. Ask them. But I think they will tell you – as a direct result of our job training, apprenticeships, the work we did to improve the infrastructure at Quonset [Point] – they’re building a whole new building there. Thousands of jobs are going to be here, instead of those other locations as a direct result of our work.
You see yourself as a pro-business Democrat, yet you have supported some things that business groups have opposed, such as increases in the state’s minimum wage. People need good jobs. I understand that it’s more expensive for an employer, especially small employers, especially small manufacturers. But the data is pretty clear. If you look at it, increasing the minimum wage is pretty good for business and pretty good for the economy. I understand their logic: Labor costs go up, you hire fewer people. But if you look at the whole picture, people have more money in their pocket, they spend more money. I think it’s the right thing to do for the economy and for people. We still have way too many people who are working and are poor and struggling. And I especially worry about people who don’t have a good education and job training because they’re going to get left behind.
You want to expand Rhode Island Promise. How far would you like to take free tuition? It’s been a huge success at [the Community College of Rhode Island]. I would argue that it’s been one of the highest-impact, lowest-cost investments the state has made. For a few million dollars, thousands more people will get a degree and a job. And I want to see it expanded to Rhode Island College for those last two years [of a four-year degree program]. Many people drop out after their second year. I’m not saying a four-year degree is for everyone. What I am saying and what I know to be true is that it’s a very scary place to be in today’s economy if you don’t have a degree past high school. And we’ve got to make sure every Rhode Islander has the job training and the education they need. It’s got to be all about that. That’s got to be the primary focus of my second term. Job training and education. [Editor’s note: House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello has not committed to the expansion. “We have very limited resources and adding any new programs is going to be very difficult to do this year,” he said.]
Why are you proposing to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana in Rhode Island? I put it off for four years. But [legalization of marijuana] is here. Like it nor not, it’s here. It’s in Massachusetts. It’s about to be in Connecticut. It soon will be in New York and New Jersey. So, we are not an island. And I just no longer think it’s responsible to not regulate and allow it. And because it’s here, it’s going to cost us more money – more to regulate it, more to take care of kids. So, there is a revenue component [to bolster tax coffers with taxes and fees related to marijuana sales] and we’re going to need that money to do public-service announcements and other things for safety.
Does your cap on annual health care spending increases in Rhode Island at 3.2% through 2022 have any teeth, or is it just a target? The “teeth” is that we worked for two years to get all of the providers and insurers to the table to sign on to a contract. The “teeth” is – for lack of a better term – transparency and peer pressure. It’s for total spend on health care – hospital, nursing, pharmacy – the whole thing. We cap that spend at about 3%, which is the rate our economy is growing.
If there’s pressure on health care providers to hold down expenses, are you concerned it may hurt the quality of care? No. They came up with the target. They sat at the table. And we all agreed. [The United States has] the most expensive health care system in the world. We all know we spend too much money on unnecessary tests, on waste, on administration.
Why did you extend the contract with Deloitte Consulting LLP after its work on the state’s public-assistance computer system has been such an expensive problem? At the end of the day, I felt like it was the right thing to do for Rhode Island. It was a hard decision. I had many, many days when I wanted to fire them. But, first of all, they’ve really improved in the last year. Second of all, it’s clear that they’re the best company out there to finish the system and maintain [it]. And they’re giving us a good deal for taxpayers. I mean $50 million in cash payment and another $150 million in discounts. So, I just had to. It was not easy and probably not politically wise, but it was the right thing to do.
Some critics say the American two-party system is no longer viable; that Democrats and Republicans are just factions of the same party – the business party. Would you agree? No, I wouldn’t. I do worry that the extremes of the parties make it harder for politicians and public servants to engage in compromise. You were asking me before, “You’re a Democrat but you’re with business.” Well, I have to be because I have a job to do. And I have to, in my opinion, partner with business, work with business, and I’m going to keep doing that because that’s my job. If it ever becomes the case that, as a Democrat, you can’t compromise with business, then I think it’s a problem.
Scott Blake is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Blake@PBN.com.