Speaker Mattiello, Senate President Paiva Weed, and Members of the General Assembly; Our distinguished guests: our mayors and municipal leaders, our judiciary, our college presidents, members of my Cabinet: We come together this evening to continue a longstanding tradition. A tradition that puts a spotlight on the incredible and remarkable responsibility that we have as stewards of our state.
To our state employees: Thank you for all that you do every single day to serve Rhode Island.
To my family, Andy, Ceci, Tommy and my mother: Thank you for the love and support you give me every day which enables me to answer my own call to public service.
And, of course, to my fellow Rhode Islanders: Thank you for the humbling opportunity and trust you have given to me to work on your behalf.
At the end of last summer, I got an email from Cindy Strain, a mom from Lincoln.
She told me the economy has changed and she was worried her kids would have a tougher time than she did. I worry about the same thing for my own children. But she wanted for her kids what every parent wants: Opportunity.
Her son Christopher enrolled in CCRI after graduating from Lincoln High. He worked hard. But college just wasn’t for him. After leaving CCRI, Christopher enrolled in, and completed, one of our manufacturing training programs. He completed the program and today, he’s employed as a full time machinist with Greystone Manufacturing, a local company that added jobs last year because of our new economic development initiatives.
Cindy and Christopher are here tonight and are a reminder of the progress we’ve made and the promises we must keep.
As leaders in this state we have to protect the progress that we’ve made, and keep our promise to Rhode Islanders who ask for nothing more than an opportunity to work hard. To quote Cindy’s email, we owe every Rhode Islander “a shot at a good job, a full-time job, a job with benefits, a job that has room for advancements, and a job people can make a career out of.”
My fellow Rhode Islanders, because of hardworking, gritty, determined, and talented Rhode Islanders; Because of companies that are expanding here; Because we have come together as one state to invest in ourselves, I stand here this evening with optimism, confidence and pride and say that the state of our state is getting stronger every day.
Our economy is stronger.
We’ve cut our unemployment rate by more than half since it reached a peak of over 11 percent in 2009. Employers across our state – many of them small, locally owned businesses – have created thousands of jobs since I stood before you at this time last year. After years of marching uphill toward recovery, we have finally regained all the private sector jobs that were lost in the recession.
Our business climate is stronger.
Last year, we cut our unemployment insurance tax for the first time since 1992, saving employers $30 million. We eliminated the sales tax on energy and reduced the corporate minimum tax. And it’s all paying off.
For more than half a decade, the 195 land in Providence has been nothing more than dirt, a symbol of our economic challenges. But as we begin a new year – our third working together – shovels, construction and thousands of jobs are at long last on their way downtown.
Because of the hard choices we’ve made together and the strategic investments we’ve protected, businesses are finally taking a fresh look at Rhode Island. The budget I’ll send you this week protects our Commerce programs for one simple reason: Because they’re working.
For the first time in a very long time, world-class companies like GE and Johnson & Johnson are choosing Rhode Island as the place they want to be, the place they want to grow. Other local businesses like AT Cross, Virgin Pulse and Electric Boat have made the decision to add jobs here. I love the work I do convincing companies to come here because I believe in Rhode Island and I believe in the people of Rhode Island. These companies are lucky to be able to hire our talented people.
Our workforce is getting stronger.
Thousands of Rhode Islanders are learning new skills to compete in our growing advanced economy. I met a man, probably in his late 40s, last year in Westerly, at one of our training programs. He pulled me aside and he said, “Governor thank you for believing you can teach an old dog new tricks.” I do believe that. And I’m proud of the Rhode Islanders with the courage and determination to learn new skills in the middle of their careers.
The budget I’ll send to the legislature protects and expands our investment in training programs so that every Rhode Islander can compete.
Our infrastructure is stronger.
Last year, we passed the most comprehensive infrastructure program in recent history. It’s no secret that our roads and bridges are some of the worst in the country. But now, because of RhodeWorks, we’re fixing our highways. By the end of this year, we’ll have started or completed repairs on nearly 120 bridges: a visible sign that we are rebuilding Rhode Island together. And in the process, we’re putting thousands of Rhode Islanders to work in good jobs that don’t require a college degree.
Our schools are getting stronger and our kids are getting a shot at a brighter future.
To set all of our students out on the right path, we’ve made important investments in their success. We came together two years ago to guarantee that every child is able to attend all-day kindergarten. And we’ve made new investments to triple the number of public Pre-K classes.
By the end of this year, Rhode Island is going to be the first state in America to offer computer science classes in every town and at every public school around the state. Not California. Not Massachusetts or New York.
But Rhode Island. We’re first.
Our commitment to our environment is stronger.
Last year, we made it easier for Rhode Island homeowners and businesses to be a part of our march toward a renewable future. Tonight, I’m announcing a goal to double the number of Rhode Islanders working in the green economy by 2020 After all, we are the Ocean State. Let’s all continue to work together to protect the beauty of our state for future generations, and create jobs while we’re at it.
And finally, our commitment to our Veterans and military families is stronger.
For years, we had a Veterans Affairs Division with no Veterans Affairs Director. Last year, I was proud to appoint Lt. Commander Kasim Yarn. And he’s gotten right to work. Under his leadership, we’ve opened a new Veterans Service Center in Warwick and in less than a year, he’s visited every single city and town, meeting vets in every community. Thank you to every Rhode Islander who has worn the uniform, and thank you to the military families for your sacrifices and service to the nation.
Now, while we celebrate the success and the progress and the people who make us stronger, we still face challenges.
I share everyone’s frustration, especially the frustration of those who depend on government assistance, over the roll out of our new social services computer program. I’ve taken measures to improve accountability. Rhode Island taxpayers will not pay a penny more for this system until I am satisfied that we are getting what we paid for.
And it is with the heaviest of hearts that I come before you again this year and say there is still no challenge more urgent than our overdose crisis – a crisis that is taking our friends and family from us in every single community all across Rhode Island. Thanks to the courageous and heartbreaking advocacy from Rhode Islanders affected by this crisis – Rhode Islanders like Deborah Parente who lost her son Peter; and Barbara and Brian Goldner, who lost their son Brandon – we’ve increased funding for treatment and prevention, funding that I ask the legislature to approve again this year. I’ll also propose funding to support recovery housing for Rhode Islanders struggling with the disease of addiction.
We are strong.
We are resilient.
We are compassionate.
And we simply cannot afford to let up.
And we still have a lot of work to do to ensure that every Rhode Islander has a chance for dignified work at a decent wage.
When I was a kid, most people earned a high school diploma and went right to work. There was a pretty simple deal back then: Finish high school. Work hard. And get a decent job to support your family. You could buy a house, take a modest vacation – maybe to one of our beaches in South County or on Block Island.
There was dignity in work. There was pride in what you built and what you made.
For too many though, that deal is now out of reach.
So let’s invest in our middle class. Let’s put that deal back on the table here in Rhode Island.
In 2015 we raised the minimum wage. Last year, I stood with many of you to try raise it again. And we fell short. I think we missed an opportunity – especially as workers in Connecticut and Massachusetts got a raise on January 1st.
Our commitment to working Rhode Islanders has never been stronger. And I will stand up again this year – for the third straight year – for better wages. The budget I’ll submit will once again raise the minimum wage. This time to $10.50 an hour.
No one working full time should live in poverty.
The budget I will submit also includes a raise for homecare workers and the people who care for Rhode Islanders with developmental disabilities. These workers ensure that the people we love live their lives with dignity. We should make sure that we value their work.
Last year, thanks to Senate President Paiva-Weed’s leadership, we gave homecare and direct care workers their first raise in nearly a decade. And I propose that we give them another raise this year. It will make us more competitive with Massachusetts and help us make sure we have the highest quality people taking care of our Rhode Island families.
And while we’re raising wages, let’s also make sure people have a fair shot by allowing them a day off if they’re sick or their kid’s sick. It’s time to give every Rhode Islander an opportunity to earn paid leave if they’re sick or if they need to care for a sick child or parent.
Our neighbors across most of New England and in states across the country – states run by Democrats and Republicans – have passed or introduced modern, common-sense paid sick leave laws. Let’s do the same thing here in Rhode Island.
Rhode Island has always been known for making things. We used to be the jewelry capital of the world. Everyone had a story, including my own family: My father worked at Bulova Watch Factory for 28 years.
Not long ago, 40 percent of jobs here were in manufacturing. And they were good jobs.
But over the years, many of those jobs were automated. Others – like my dad’s – were shipped overseas. Factories closed, and the rug was pulled out from under us.
For too many years, our state’s leaders – in government and business – missed an opportunity to rebuild Rhode Island’s manufacturing industry. They sat back on a simple hope that jobs like my dad’s would come back; that the factories would miraculously reopen.
While the jobs may have left, and many of the factories have closed – Rhode Islanders’ grit and determination and desire to work is stronger than ever, and we need to tap into it. Let’s rebuild and reinvent the manufacturing industry in Rhode Island. Rhode Islanders are counting on us.
The budget I propose will include funding for a new manufacturing plan: First, we’re going to invest in manufacturing initiatives for our high school students. Second, we’re going to help smaller manufacturers invest in new equipment. Third, we’re going to make it easier for manufacturers to train and hire Rhode Islanders.
As often as I can, I visit and talk with manufacturers and workers all across Rhode Island. Next week, I’ll bring a group together to begin work on a comprehensive plan to expand our advanced manufacturing industries and position Rhode Island for success in growing industries like offshore wind and precision manufacturing.
If we commit to this together, there’s no reason we can’t succeed. We’re already the first and only state in America with an offshore wind farm. We have New England’s fastest-growing advanced industry economy. And we’ve seen wages for manufacturing workers grow consistently over the last two years.
So together, let’s commit to expanding and modernizing manufacturing so more Rhode Island families can make a living building things in Rhode Island again.
In recent years, we’ve made a series of tough decisions to cut our spending and put Rhode Island on stronger footing. We restructured the pension system. We cut $100 million in our health care costs, without cutting eligibility or reducing benefits. Because of that hard work, we are in a position to give back to our working people.
For the first time in five years, most state retirees will get a cost of living increase. We’ve also expanded the earned income tax credit each of the last two years. We reduced the income tax seniors pay on their social security income. Now, let’s take another step.
Let’s give every Rhode Islander the car tax relief that they deserve. The budget I’ll send you on Thursday will cut every Rhode Islander’s car tax by at least 30 percent, putting more than $50 million back in your pockets.
I agree with Speaker Mattiello that this should be a priority, and I look forward to working with the legislature on this important issue.
As we come together to begin this work, let’s commit ourselves to reform that’s fair, fiscally responsible, sustainable in the long run and provides relief for every Rhode Islander. We also must protect all the progress we are making: investing in our schools, job training, and economic development.
There is plenty of room for compromise and I’ll work with anybody. Rhode Islanders want car tax relief so let’s work together to get it done.
As we continue to invest in Rhode Island, we need to realize that our economy has changed in ways that are causing real challenges. How we meet those challenges will determine our future.
When I was my kids’ age, most jobs in Rhode Island required nothing more than a high school degree. But, for my kids and yours, that’s not the case anymore. The reality is that most jobs being created now in Rhode Island will require some degree or certificate beyond a high school diploma.
Our job is to ensure that there is opportunity for every Rhode Islander who is willing to work for it. Our job is to ensure that Rhode Islanders are getting the jobs businesses are creating.
Last September, I set a goal to ensure that by 2025, at least 70 percent of Rhode Island adults have some degree or credential beyond high school. To achieve that goal, we’ve taken strides to make college more accessible and more affordable. We now offer the PSAT and SAT, free of charge, in every public high school. We provide student loan relief for recent graduates who live and work in Rhode Island.
Last year, nearly 4,000 students were able to take college courses for free. These students earn college credits while they’re still in high school, and some are able to get a full semester of college under their belt before they graduate high school.
Last spring, I met a mom from Smithfield, Catherine Rickert. She’s here tonight. She pulled me aside. “Governor!” she said, “You saved my family $50,000.”
“$50K?!?” even I was surprised. “How’d we do that?”
She said, “I have twins.”
The budget I will propose expands funding for this program so more Rhode Island students can start college with a head start.
But we still have a lot of work to do. Right now, fewer than half of Rhode Islanders have a degree or credential past high school. Many of those without a degree are hardworking, determined Rhode Islanders, and college just isn’t for them. And that’s OK. We’re going to continue to invest in training and certificate programs for them.
But too many others who want a college degree, have been denied a shot at a bright future for one simple reason: They can’t afford it.
A century ago, we decided as a nation that every American had a right to free education up to 12th grade. We did that because those were the skills you needed to get a good job. But our economy has changed. And the playing field has changed. And so our promise needs to change, too. Our promise needs to change if the people of Rhode Island are going to have a real shot in the economy of the future.
Because the hardest part of college shouldn’t be paying for it.
So, tonight I say that we stand together and expand our Rhode Island Promise. That we ensure every young person in our state has an opportunity to compete for the good-paying jobs that we’re creating. Today, I say that we take charge of our future.
Tonight, I propose that we ensure Rhode Island is the first state in America to guarantee two free years of college for every Rhode Island student at CCRI, URI or Rhode Island College. I propose that we make a promise to Rhode Islanders like Juliette Xiong, a senior at Cranston East and Vinny Florio who both just got into URI; and Sarah Diallo from Tolman in Pawtucket who just found out she got into RIC.
You can read the full plan at FreeCollegeRI.com.
Rhode Islanders aren’t asking for special treatment. They’re asking for a shot. They’re asking for a chance to compete. They’re asking us to protect the dignity of work during uncertain times.
Because of the tough choices we’ve made in recent years and the success of our economic development efforts, we can afford to do this. In fact, we can’t afford not to.
We’re up for it. Rhode Islanders are up for it. We are counting on each other to meet this challenge.
After all, that’s who we are. That’s what people in our state expect of us.
When we’re confronted by uncertainty, we hold to our founding covenant: That there’s a place here for everyone. There’s a place here no matter your race, your creed, your gender, where you’re from or who you love. So, let’s come together as a community. Let’s dig deep to find the hope and the resilience and the faith and the love that’s going to allow us to keep making Rhode Island stronger.
It’s on us. It’s on all of us. We’re counting on each other. And I’m standing with you.
Together, we’ll give everyone a shot. Together, we’ll strengthen our state. Together, we’ll meet the challenges and build a better future for every Rhode Islander.
Together, we determine our future.
Thank you very much. God bless you. And God bless Rhode Island.