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Guest MINDSETTER™ Van Leesten: Governor’s Proposal Will Unleash Opportunity for All

Wednesday, February 08, 2017


Mike Van Leesten

More than fifty years ago, I had the opportunity to graduate from Rhode Island College. I was one of only a small group of students of color in my graduating class – four to be exact. I got lucky for sports was my ticket. The harsh reality is that college was an opportunity denied too many of my talented friends as the result of limited access and affordability. I wish I could write to say “that was back then.”  Unfortunately, we’re not there yet as data bears out.  

Since then, much change has occurred and Rhode Island’s future is dependent on the success of its communities of color. Latinos, Asians, and African Americans have driven all the state’s net population growth over the last two decades. As a result of this growth, our businesses, schools, and neighborhoods are becoming more diverse, and Rhode Island continues to live up to the promise Roger Williams made that our state would be an open, tolerant and diverse society. 

Yet, communities of color are still struggling to succeed in our state. More than one out of every four of the state’s Latinos and African Americans live below the poverty level, compared with about one out of every 12 whites. People of color have higher unemployment and consistently lower wages, and Latinos and African Americans are far more likely to be “working poor”- meaning that they hold at least a full-time job but are still unable to escape poverty. For too long, communities of color have been left out of our state’s economic success. We must foster greater economic inclusion and continue to improve our commitment to ensuring that everyone can obtain a good-paying job or engage in business.

We also know that Latinos and African Americans continue to be left out of today’s economy because too few have a college degree. Employers continue to require a more skilled and educated workforce, and the majority of good-paying jobs demand a college degree. Just 30% of African Americans, 21% of US born Latinos, and 15% of Latino immigrants have one. These gaps significantly hold back people of color. We can and must close this gap. Without equipping our communities of color with the chance to earn a college degree, our state’s future is in jeopardy.

Kids and families of color are not looking for special treatment. There are people of every demographic in Rhode Island struggling to catch up with our changing economy. That’s why Governor Raimondo’s proposed Rhode Island’s Promise will so effectively tackle these problems. The proposal would give ALL Rhode Islanders the same opportunities for a postsecondary education, providing every high school graduate two years of a college education for free beginning with the Class of 2017. Under the proposal, a graduate from Central High in Providence would get the same benefit as a graduate from Barrington or Westerly. The Governor knows that every one of our kids will need the option to go to college to succeed in our future economy, and this proposal ensures that opportunity is available for all. 

The goal of Rhode Island’s Promise isn’t just to get students to go to college. It also institutionalizes equity and opportunity for all. The Promise guarantees everyone their shot at the American dream and will help ensure that everyone in the state has a fair shot in today’s economy. Let’s unleash the dream, and ensure that all our students are promised an opportunity to succeed.  The untapped talent and creative energy that exists in this demographic growth is Rhode Island’s greatest economic resource.  This educational initiative proposed by Governor Raimondo is progressive and should be viewed as a strategic investment that will yield great returns and make a qualitative difference in the lives of  all affected by matters of affordability.     

Michael S. Van Leesten is the CEO of the Opportunities Industrialization Center in South Providence and is a 1965 graduate of Rhode Island College.


Related Slideshow: Winners and Losers in Raimondo’s FY18 Budget Proposal

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Criminal Justice Reform

Per recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Working Group, the Governor is proposing nearly $1 million in investments such as the public defender mental health program ($185,000), improved mental health services at the ACI ($410,000), recovery housing ($200,000) and domestic violence intervention, in her FY18 budget. 

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English Language Learners

Under the heading of “promoting 3rd grade reading,” Raimondo proposed adding $2.5 million to make English Language Learning (ELL) K-12 funding permanent.  The Governor’s office points out that RI is one of four states that doesn’t have permanent funding.

The suggestion was one made by the Funding Formula Working Group in January 2016, who said that “in the event that Rhode Island chooses to make an additional investment in ELLs, the funding should be calculated to be responsive to the number of ELLs in the system and based on reliable data, and include reasonable restrictions to ensure that the money is used to benefit ELLs — and promote the appropriate exiting of ELL students from services.”

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Car Owners - and Drivers

Governor Raimondo wants to reduce assessed motor vehicle values by 30% - a change that would reduce total car tax bills by about $58 million in calendar year 2018. Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, however, has indicated that he might want to go further in its repeal.  

In her budget proposal, Raimondo also put forth adding 8 staffers to the the Department of Motor Vehicles to "address wait times."

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T.F. Green

The “Air Services Development Fund” would get an influx of $500,000 to “provide incentives to airlines interested in launching new routes or increasing service to T.F. Green Airport.” The Commerce Corporation set the criteria at the end of 2016 for how to grant money through the new (at the time $1.5 million fund).

Also getting a shot in the arm is the I-195 development fund, which would receive $10.1 million from debt-service savings to “resupply” the Fund to “catalyze development & attract anchor employers.”

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Minimum Wage Increase

An increase in the state minimum wage is part of Raimondo’s proposal, which would see it go from $9.60 an hour to $10.50 an hour.  Raimondo was unsuccessful in her effort in 2016 to bring it up to $10.10 — it was June 2015 that she signed legislation into law that last raised Rhode Island’s minimum wage, from $9 to 9.60.  

The state's minimum hourly wage has gone up from $6.75 in January 2004 to $7.75 in 2013, $8 in 2014, and $9 on Jan. 1, 2015.  Business groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business however have historically been against such measures, citing a hamper on job creation.  

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Cigarette Tax

Like the minimum wage, Raimondo is looking for an increase - in this instance, the cigarette tax, and revenue to state coffers.  Raimondo was unsuccessful in her effort to go from a tax of $3.75 to $4 last year. Now she is looking for an increase to $4.25 per pack, which the administration says would equate to $8.7 million in general revenue — and go in part towards outdoor recreation and smoking cessation programs.  

The National Federation of Independent Business and other trade groups have historically been against such an increase, saying it will hurt small businesses - i.e. convenience stores. And clearly, if you’re a smoker, you’re likely to place this squarely in the loser category instead. 

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As often happens in the state budget, winner one year, loser the next. As GoLocal reported in 2016, “the Rhode Island Hospital Association immediately lauded the budget following its introduction, and addressed that while it is facing some reductions, that it "applauds" this years budget after landing on the "loser" list last year.”

This year, it falls back on the loser list, with a Medicaid rate freeze to hospitals, nursing homes, providers, and payers — at FY 2017 levels, with a 1% rate cut come January 1, 2018. 

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Online Shoppers

The taxman cometh — maybe.  Raimondo proposed an “Internet Sales Tax Initiative” — which would purportedly equate to $34.7 million in revenues.

"Online sales and the fact that online sellers do not collect sales tax has created a structural problem for Rhode Island's budget — our sales taxes have been flat," said Director of Administration Michael DiBiase, of the tax that Amazon collects in 33 states, but not Rhode Island. "We think mostly due to online sales, we’re able to capture the growth. The revenue number is $35 million dollars — it improves our structural deficit problem. It’s an important fiscal development."

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Long Term Care Funding

The Governor’s proposal recommends “redesigning the nature” of the State’s Integrated Care Initiative, by transferring long-term stay nursing home members from Neighborhood Health to Medicaid Fee-for-Service and repurposing a portion of the anticipated savings (from reduced administrative payments to Neighborhood Health) for “enhanced services in the community.” “The investments in home- and community-based care will help achieve the goal of rebalancing the long-term care system," states the Administration. 

Cutting that program is tagged at saving $12.2 million; cuts and “restructuring” at Health and Human Services is slated to save $46.3 million. 


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