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Moore: Raimondo’s Free College Folly

Monday, January 30, 2017


The cost of college is a massive problem in this country. And it is incumbent upon politicians and leaders across America to try and stem this problem.

So it made for a spectacular sound bite and headline when Gina Raimondo announced her plan for the state of Rhode Island to cover junior and senior years tuition and fees (not including room and board) for all students who attend Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island. If students wish to go for an associate’s degree, the state will pay for the tuition at the Community College of Rhode Island.   

The plan would be made available to all Rhode Island students who graduate high school this year and going forward. It sounds great.

But is it actually necessary? Her plan is such a liberal giveaway, and such blatant pandering to the far left wing of the Democratic Party, which dominated the Democratic Primary for the Presidential Preference here in Rhode Island.

Coming With No Strings

The problem with this plan isn’t the price tag. Raimondo estimates that it would cost state taxpayers roughly $30 million. Even if she’s being overly optimistic, and I would guess that she is, it still won’t be a massive dent in the state budget. For instance, if the cost is $50 million--it will still only represent about one half of one percent of the state budget--since the budget is about $9 billion.

The problem with the plan is that it requires no accountability from the folks who are receiving the free college. The students don’t need to maintain a certain GPA. They don’t need to score a certain proficiency on a standardized test.

And if they decide to skirt their responsibilities and not show the necessary focus and determination to make the grade, the students should have to reimburse taxpayers for wasting their money, right? Nope! Not according to the Raimondo Free College Plan. The students won’t have to reimburse taxpayers one dime if they spend more time partying, watching sports, or playing video games instead of studying.

Rational people would say that there should at least be some income guidelines that students should have to meet. In other words, why should taxpayers have to foot the bill for college tuition payments for students whose parents are raking in more than $250,000 per year?

Complete Giveaway

Don’t expect the Governor to be able to tell us why. But she believes there should be no income guidelines at all. Anyone who lives in Rhode Island will be able to take advantage of this plan--regardless of income. That means those who are struggling to get by, and God forbid, get ahead, will be forced to pay for the college educations of trust fund babies.

Make no mistake about it: this plan is far inferior to the college plan that Hillary Clinton proposed during her run for President last year.

Clinton’s plan had income guidelines.

"I'm a little different from those who say free college for everybody," Hillary Clinton told NBC back in 2015.

“I am not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump's kids. I am in favor of making college free for your grandson by having no-debt tuition.”

Clinton’s plan was an attempt to make college “debt free”, not totally free. Students would still have some skin in the game.

A Flawed Plan

Yet this plan is going over splendidly with progressives, because they love the word “free” more than any other in the English language.

But let’s face it: the plan is severely flawed.

It would have been nice if Raimondo’s plan, at the very least, required the students to spend a certain amount of time volunteering. There are food pantries, the Rhode Island Food Bank, and scores of other social service agencies in our state that could certainly use the help.

That’s what the state legislature should do. They should create income guidelines. They should set rules that make certain that students maintain a proper grade point average. There should be penalties that force students to pay for school if they don’t finish.

Any Giving Back?

And students should be forced to volunteer their time to worthy causes in exchange for receiving tuition compensation from taxpayers. Volunteering for good causes actually does more for the volunteer by way of character building than it does for the people receiving the help.

All things considered, we should be doing doing something to help struggling students so that they don’t leave school saddled with ridiculous debt levels.

But let’s craft a plan that helps people who actually need it, demands that students be responsible, and forces them to give back.

It’s up to the legislature to make this a reality, since the Governor’s plan certainly doesn’t do any of this.

Russell J. Moore has worked on both sides of the desk in Rhode Island government, both for newspapers and on political campaigns. Send him email at [email protected]. Follow him on twitter @russmoore713.  


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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