2014-12-31 / Front Page

Paiva Weed: Time to Do, Not to Plan

By Tom Walsh

State Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, said Rhode Island needs to work in 2015 to close a serious “skills gap” that prevents companies such as Fidelity Investments, Toray Plastics and Electric Boat from hiring locally in its search for technology-savvy workers needed by today’s industry leaders.

“It’s time to stop planning and do more doing,” Paiva Weed said in a year-end interview with Newport This Week. She added that the Community College of Rhode Island’s (CCRI) Newport campus could play an important role in that effort.

“Right now we’re underutilizing CCRI right here in Newport,” the Senate president declared. “This is not just traditional voc-tech. We need to expand our focus on nontraditional technology courses both there and in high school.” She said that Fidelity has posted jobs that have gone unfilled because applicants did not have the right skills. “We have to find a way to connect the right course offerings that can meet the demands of the business community."

Such courses, she said, include such offerings as health care technology. And, she added, “CCRI in Newport has a tremendous faculty.” Paiva Weed pointed to employers such as Toray Plastics and Electric Boat, both in North Kingstown, as two examples of nearby employers offering well-paying jobs with good benefits to those who have the necessary technology skills.

“It’s a statewide issue,” she stated regarding the skills gap. She said once the gap is closed, it’s up to the state to figure out how to match employers with workers with the right skills. She noted that there are two important audiences for her message: students of the future and workers who have been displaced and seek to re-enter the workforce later in life. “The community college has wonderful programs for this.”

The Senate president said she was encouraged that these things can happen after speaking with Newport School Superintendent Colleen Jermain. “Her intention is to do that, to expand the focus to non-traditional students,” Paiva Weed said.

Paiva Weed has long held that education is an important aspect of improving the state jobs picture. During the interview, she re-emphasized her oft-spoken mantra of education priorities: expanding fullday kindergarten across the state, lifting the statewide moratorium on school construction, and tying state college funding to graduation rates.

On college funding, she proposed awarding state colleges five percent to 10 percent in additional monies as a reward for improved results, and maintained that this has become a trend across the country. “But I also view it as something that won’t happen overnight,” she said.

Another issue championed by Paiva Weed—moving to a system of statewide teacher contracts rather than pacts for each individual school system—may not be ripe in 2015. “That’s certainly a political challenge,” she said. “I do not anticipate a single piece of legislation on that issue passing this session.” However, she believes the idea has merit and said she will encourage education leaders to discuss the matter with state leaders in 2015. “This is not an attempt to infringe on local control,” Paiva Weed told Newport This Week. “I’ve spoken to local people about this. They want to be part of the process.”

Of course, lurking above 2015- 2016 state spending is the most recent fiscal analysis that projects a revenue deficit of nearly $200 million for the next fiscal year. In addition, a revenue analysis projects a $21.7 million revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year unless spending is reduced or revenues increase.

House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello has proposed exempting Social Security benefits from the Rhode Island income tax. The cost of that is estimated at $26 million a year. Paiva Weed has maintained that while she is not opposed to the idea, it will not be a Senate priority.

She said she has not yet “seen a specific proposal” from the speaker on how his tax-cut proposal would work. And, she said lawmakers might also consider exempting military and government pensions from the state income tax.

How these cuts might work depends on how they are calculated. “Is it needs based?” she asked. “Or is it on a means basis? For example, you could tax retirement income on anything over $35,000 a year. We will need to review the proposals in the overall scope of the budget. I don’t think it makes sense to exempt Social Security in a vacuum. We’ll have to see what can be provided and balance the investment to ensure we don’t lose young people.”

With the considerable Navy presence in Newport, such moves might help to keep Navy retirees in the city, she remarked.

In winning re-election in November, Paiva Weed defeated political newcomer Republican Michael Smith. However, her 55 percent majority was her closest race yet and the first time she failed to gain at least 60 percent of the vote in Senate District 13 that includes most of Newport and Jamestown.

“I did very well in Newport,” she said. “At the end of the day, I was very happy with my election results.”

Asked how she would answer a constituent who asked what she would do for local citizens at the next General Assembly session, Paiva Weed replied, “I would tell them I will be fighting to protect and grow the sailing and marine business sectors here. "She also said she planned to work to ensure that Newport’s interests are fully considered in any statewide tourism marketing plan. “I can’t overstate how important a statewide marketing plan for tourism is, and how important it is that such a plan include our sailing and marine industries.”

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