Chafee urges more funds for schools, arts, bridges
The Democratic governor's address to the General Assembly came as he unveiled an $8.5 billion state budget proposal that eliminates a $150 million deficit while increasing spending on schools and leaving tax rates unchanged.
"When I was sworn in as governor, I said that if we were willing to take on the hard work necessary to correct our course, we could lay the foundation for a new era of opportunity," said Chafee, who is not seeking another term. "I stand here today mindful of our challenges but also hopeful for the future."
The budget proposal calls for $38 million in new spending on public schools and $10 million in increased higher-education funding to allow the state's public colleges and its university to avoid a tuition increase.
The spending plan would authorize $52 million in new historic tax credits to encourage redevelopment projects.
The proposal now goes to lawmakers, who will likely make big changes before approving a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Reflecting on his three years in office, Chafee said he's proud of work to increase school spending, overhaul the state's Division of Motor Vehicles, reduce debt and stabilize state finances. He listed the state's new gay marriage law and the emergence of Central Falls from bankruptcy as two other achievements.
Chafee, known for his habit of referencing Rhode Island's founder, Roger Williams, opted to end his 23-minute speech with a quote from Swift, who purchased a Rhode Island beach home last year.
"In closing, I would like to quote someone who may surprise you," Chafee said. "Not Roger Williams, but rather one of our more recent arrivals, Taylor Swift, of Westerly. When asked about her new part-time home state, she had this to say: "I've been in Rhode Island a lot . Man, Rhode Island's a good place. It's a really good place.'"
Chafee's proposal isn't laden with ambitious new programs or government overhauls. That's not surprising coming from Chafee, whose tenure has focused on the fundamentals: education, roads and financial stability. Legislative leaders said they agreed with the broad priorities in the proposal.
"Typical Chafee-style: back to basics," House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence said of the address and budget proposal. "He is some would say stubborn really about getting back to basics."
Chafee's budget calls for several significant investments in the environment, arts and culture and higher education that would need voter approval.
One referendum would seek $35 million for grants to performing arts centers, museums and other artistic and historic facilities. The money would help the groups renovate or upgrade facilities. Chafee said the money would help a vital sector of the state's economy.
The arts referendum could be among Chafee's more controversial suggestions. John Simmons, director of the Rhode Island Expenditure Council, a business-backed organization that analyzes economic policy, said he wants to know the details.
"What is the funding going for? Who is going to get it? These are the questions that will need to be asked," Simmons said.
Another referendum seeks $125 million for new facilities for the engineering school at the University of Rhode Island. A third would ask voters to approve $40 million to upgrade mass transit hubs around the state, and a fourth seeks $75 million for open-space preservation, environmental cleanup work and upgrades to local water systems.
The referendums, if approved by lawmakers, would be on the fall ballot. In all, they seek $275 million in new spending.
House Finance Chairman Helio Melo, D-East Providence, said he's wary of racking up more debt and will want to take a close look at each of the bond referendums.
"These are all important things, but there's a big cost to each of them," Melo said. "We'll have to see how much this will add to our annual debt payments."
For bridge maintenance and repair, Chafee recommends setting aside $10 million next year and a total of $80 million over five years. While that's a significant amount, the state estimates it will need $400 million over the next decade to fully maintain its 800 bridges. A 2012 federal report classified 20 percent of the state's bridges as structurally deficient.
"It's more than what we have now," said Phillip Kydd, deputy director of transportation. "Whatever dollars come our way we're going to use on the bridges with the most critical need."