Last spring, when the pandemic began ripping through Rhode Island’s economy, painful budget cuts to social programs seemed not just possible, but likely. Progressives warned about the long-term fallout from an “austerity budget,” even as joblessness soared and business activity plummeted.
But here we are a year later, and Gov. Dan McKee has unveiled an $11.2 billion placeholder budget that continues the approach of former Gov. Gina Raimondo (no broad-based tax increases) and former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (maintaining the phase-out of the car tax, at a cost of about $140 million).
“It certainly is not a budget without sacrifices, but the worst that we had feared early on has not come to pass,” Jonathan Womer, head of the state Office of Management and Budget, told reporters last week.
The difference maker, of course, is multiple rounds of federal stimulus. And McKee’s first budget, coming just nine days into his administration, does not include any money from the gargantuan $1.9 billion relief package signed into law this week by President Biden.
This windfall, combined with positive trends on the pandemic, make it a good time for McKee to be governor. And it points to how Rhode Island’s budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 will likely be very different by the time when state lawmakers vote on it in June.
While McKee and Raimondo had a famously distanced relationship, they appear to share an aversion to raising the state income tax on more affluent Rhode Islanders.
Supporters of a tax hike call this a matter of equity, and they say the well-to-do aren’t paying their fair share. State Senate leaders tacked to the left on the tax issue, with progressives storming the chamber, but House Speaker Joe Shekarchi has remained cool to the concept.
Georgia Hollister Isman of RI Working Families expressed disappointment in McKee’s approach, and said RIWFP is looking for the General Assembly to respond. But with federal money flowing into Rhode Island, the legislature may be unlikely to tinker with the tax rate.
Dr. Megan Ranney, an ER physician at Rhode Island Hospital, said the state is faring better with the pandemic now than she thought it would six or nine months ago.
“This is a much better place than I thought we were going to be in, for a couple of different reasons,” Ranney said on Political Roundtable at The Public’s Radio. “The first is, I never anticipated that we would have three effective vaccines approved by the FDA and actively being distributed by this point in the pandemic. The second is that these new vaccines that got out, we were worried as to whether the novel variants were going to evade the vaccines. And so far, it looks like they’re doing a good job, certainly against that B1-7 variant from the UK, and possibly also against some of the other new variants. And then the third thing is, I think that our country finally started to take this seriously. And we saw the result of that over the last couple months.”
Looking ahead, Ranney said: “I’m expecting that within three months … If we continue to vaccinate at the rate that we currently are, we’re going to see schools more fully opened, we’re going to see greater safety in dining, we’re going to start to see more indoor activities start to open up. And I think that by the time we get to summer, assuming that everybody goes out and gets vaccinated, when they get their chance, we’re going to be really close to what we all remember normal as being.”
The comedian John Oliver had a characteristically pointed segment on his HBO show recently: pandemics are probably here to stay.
Dr. Ranney doesn’t disagree.
“I do, sadly, think that pandemics are going to be much more frequent,” she said on Roundtable. “You look at the past decade, and we’ve had H1N1, Ebola, Zika. Now the SARS-Cov virus, SARS, Cov-2 virus. I think that we’re going to see more and more as a combination of climate change and the ease of global travel. Stuff doesn’t stay put in one spot. And that’s been one of the challenges since day one with this pandemic – this is a virus that crosses borders, whether they’re borders between states, or borders between countries. It’s really one of the reasons that Dr. Jha and I have made such a commitment at the School of Public Health to developing pandemic preparedness as a core function of the School of Public Health. And it’s why we’re teaching that pandemic problem-solving course right now. Because although we may be vanquishing, fingers crossed, this virus, we’d be deluding ourselves if we think we’re not going to get another one in a couple of years.”
Dr. Ranney, who has connections to Lifespan and Brown University, is an enthusiastic supporter of the recently announced plan for Lifespan, Care New England and Brown to create a unified academic health system.
Asked about it by guest panelist Ted Nesi, Ranney said: “I actually think that it is not just exciting, but necessary. If we’re going to maintain any sort of local health care system, we need to go through with this merger. Lifespan and Care New England need to be one entity. Otherwise, we’re going to be taken over from the north and from the south. I also think it’s going to be really great for our ability to deliver population health. I think that we’re going to be able to do things like … having, you know, the ability to deliver care to populations that often get left behind, to invest in community health resources and delivery that somehow always get forgotten about, when you’ve got two health institutions that are constantly competing. And I think that ultimately, it’s going to result in lower costs and better care for most Rhode Islanders.”
Rhode Island appears poised to legalize recreational marijuana this year, an auspicious time since it’s not an election year.
Gov. McKee’s budget proposal includes a plan to award 25 retail licenses a year, for the next three years. A fifth of the licenses are meant for minority business enterprises, and the start date for sales is April 2022.
The Rhode Island Senate has its own plan to introduce what it dubs as “a competitive, inclusive and equitable regulatory structure.” Under the Senate plan, a Cannabis Control Commission would establish rules and vet applicants. Communities that don’t want marijuana shops could opt out through voter referendum, and each city or town would be eligible for at least three retail licenses.
Kristen Meinzer, a royal watcher, offers some insights to NPR on Oprah’s block-rocking interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, like why this interview happened now: “Well, I know a lot of people are trying to report this, especially in the U.K., as if this is an opportunistic thing. But, you know, they let the one-year period pass, the agreed-upon period with the queen, where they began to separate themselves from the family and they had time to, you know, reconsider stepping back from their senior roles. And now that that one-year period has passed, they’re allowed to tell their own stories. Up until now, they haven’t been allowed to. For the past five years, everything has been through the filter of the firm. And now they can set the record straight on certain things. They can make clear where they were coming from. And I think it was a really smart move for them, partly because there’s a lot of curiosity, and people are thirsty for this kind of content. But now that they have to support themselves, it’s important that they, you know, put themselves out there in the best way they can …”
Dr. Ranney appeared on CNN ahead of her taping with us on Political Roundtable, and she has more than 85,000 Twitter followers. Along with Brown colleague Dr. Ashish Jha, she has emerged as one of Rhode Island’s medical media stars of the pandemic.
Asked about the challenge of sharing good information in a world rife with disinformation, she said: “I think this is going to be a long road. I think we’ve seen tremendous dichotomization of our American public over the last four years, although, again, it didn’t start in 2016. It predated that. And I think we have a long road to go in terms of reuniting the American public and our sources of information. One of the things that I’ve learned most deeply about COVID-19 is the importance of having honest, nuanced and thoughtful voices out there. And it’s why I have continued to tweet and go on TV, despite the needs of my day job. I think it’s important for those of us on the front lines to have our voices shared. And I hope that will continue to do that. I think that those personal stories make a difference. And by getting the facts out there, that’s going to be a lot of work. We have a lot to do with engaging credible messengers from different communities, because not everybody is going to listen to me. There’s going to need to be different voices out there for different folks.”
Ian Donnis covers politics for The Public’s Radio and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can sign up here for his weekly politics newsletter and follow him on Twitter @IanDon