2017-08-31 / Front Page

15 Minutes with Gov. Gina Raimondo

By Joseph T. O’Connor

Being governor isn’t easy but it keeps you on your toes. Just ask Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo. At 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 30, she arrived at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Sail Newport’s new Mid-Park Marine Education and Recreation Center at Fort Adams State Park, where she spoke to a crowd of more than 200.

From there, she beelined to the Newport Marriott to address a group of private defense contractors and specialists at the annual Defense Innovation Day conference, before sitting down to an interview with Newport This Week. Then, it was off to a lunch and then to start the second half of her day.

In the Aug. 10 edition of NTW, candidates for the District 13 Senate seat answered the following questions, and we wanted to get Raimondo’s take. Read on to find out what she’s planning for Rhode Island schools, what could happen with Twin Rivers’ Newport Grand property, the impact of Teresa Paiva Weed’s recent departure from the political sphere, and how Newport can avoid flooding similar to what Houston, Texas recently experienced as it felt the rage with Hurricane Harvey.

But jumping from questions to events to initiatives is all in a day’s work for the Ocean State’s 75th governor and a native of Smithfield, Rhode Island. With a bachelor’s degree in economics (magna cum laude) from Harvard, a Ph.D. in sociology from Oxford, and a J.D. from Yale Law School, Raimondo is accustomed to a busy schedule. “I have a state to run,” she declared as she stood up from the interview.

Let's start with Hurricane Harvey. Rhode Island is about the size of metro Houston, and both Newport and Houston have elevations less than 100 feet above sea level. What steps are being taken to prevent devastation like that in Rhode Island in and Newport specifically, in the wake of Harvey?

We need to do more. In fact, I’ve talked to my team and director of environmental management. We need to develop a statewide resiliency plan. Since I’ve been governor, we’ve created an infrastructure plan to provide capital to cities and towns to do energy-efficiency retrofitting [and] we have a great coastal-resources management committee. We’re doing a lot but we’re the Ocean State. [We have] 400 miles of coastline and we are uniquely vulnerable [to ocean flooding], so we need to get more serious about it.

With the upcoming move and probable closing of Twin Rivers’ Newport Grand property, what do you feel is the best use of that site? Would you advocate for the city or state to try to acquire that land?

I’m not sure it’s up to me to decide. One thing about Newport is that it’s a very engaged community. So, this morning at the Sail Newport facility, 200 people showed up for a sailing facility [ribbon cutting]. Just down the road there’s an innovation facility going up in the old Sheffield School. They’ve completely transformed downtown Newport. I trust that this community will figure out the best use and if they need state support to make that happen, I’m open to listening to that.

In Rhode Island, there are 39 municipalities and 32 school districts. Considering the financial challenges facing most school districts and municipalities, would you recommend more school regionalization statewide, and what are your plans for implementing funding formulas for Rhode Island's and Newport’s school districts?

We have a system, which I support, where the money follows the student. In some cases, regionalization has worked, like in Bristol, so I’m open to it. But it’s not always the answer. What I’m trying to do is help cities and towns to be creative in lowering their cost. For example, we’ve helped them do joint purchasing of utilities, of healthcare. I’m more reluctant to go down a path of wholesale regionalization. Legally, it’s incredibly complicated.

Could you share your opinion of the schools in District 13?

Superintendent Jermain works very closely with my team and they’re doing good work. I was very supportive when they combined three schools into the Pell School. One of the first things I did as governor was lift the moratorium on new school construction, and put more money into new school construction. We’re doing a lot of work with Rogers High School [implementing] a cyber program with Electric Boat and a couple other companies. Students at Rogers can go to school and get an associate’s degree from CCRI [Community College of Rhode Island] and their high school diploma, and a cyber specialization and a job.

You mentioned in your talk at the Defense Innovation Day conference today that every high school grad in Rhode Island can attend CCRI for two years tuition free.

Yes. I just passed that. That was my big initiative this year, and this is the first year it’s possible.

So, 1,100 kids have signed up so far?

It’s closer to 1,200 now, and it keeps going up.

Would you work toward eliminating taxes on citizens’ pension incomes in order to keep retirees from leaving the state?

Actually we’ve started some of that. The first year I was governor we got rid of the state income tax on social security income, and last year we provided some relief on veterans’ pensions, so the answer is yes. I think it’s a good idea. The challenge is funding. We’re still in a budget deficit situation, so I wouldn’t say it’s my highest priority but it is something I’d like to be able to do because [some] people are on a fixed income.

How do you think Teresa Paiva Weed’s departure will affect Newport initiatives such as the bridge realignment and the budget for tourism?

She was an incredibly strong advocate for 20 years. There’s no question that it’s a loss. Having said that, the Newport delegation is still very strong and Rep. Marvin Abney, who spoke today [at the Sail Newport event], is a powerful guy as the chairman of the Finance Committee in the House. Sen. Louis DiPalma is great and has a lot of seniority.

Have you met the new District 13 senator, Dawn Euer?

It’s funny, I’ve met her [briefly] but I’m going to have lunch with her after [this interview].

Any words of wisdom or insights for her as a new freshman in the House?

There’s no substitute for hard work. [You have to] get into the substance, work hard, and it’ll make you a better advocate. And you have to earn respect. She’ll be brand new in the statehouse, so to earn the respect of your colleagues, I think the best thing is put your head down and work hard.

Can you discuss any economic news happening in Rhode Island or specifically in Newport?

I could actually break some news with you. There is a company in Newport called Magellan Health, and they have 80 or so employees in Newport and are growing. And just today the investment committee of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, which I chair, voted to approve a program where that company would expand and add 100-plus more jobs in Rhode Island. The company was considering different locations outside of Rhode Island, but they’re going to stay and they’re going to add jobs. They’re going to double in size.

Finally, and I think this is also an important question: New England, Manhattan, or Rhode Island clam chowder?

(Laughs) Rhode Island. I know you’re saying, ‘Of course,’ but the honest answer is that’s what my mother made. My mother makes the world’s best chowder. She’s older now and only makes it once a summer, but it’s so good. And it’s Rhode Island style.

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