Good evening. Thank you. Mr. Speaker, Senate President, members of the General Assembly; distinguished guests; my husband Andy, my son Tommy; and my fellow Rhode Islanders:
Tonight I stand before you filled with optimism for the future. Rhode Island is stronger than we’ve been in decades: Four years ago, our unemployment rate was the highest in America. Today, it’s in-line with the national average. The number of people who filed for unemployment insurance last year is the lowest it’s been in 50 years. Our economy has more jobs than at nearly any other time in our State’s history.
We’ve cut our deficit in half. TF Green is booming. And we’re the first state in America to teach computer science in every public school.
We’ve made this progress together, and I want to thank everyone who’s been a part of it: the legislature, mayors and town managers, and my team. Thank you for your hard work and commitment to our state.
But of course, the real credit goes to the people of Rhode Island: People like Lisa and Alan Tortolani.
LOVE FOR RHODE ISLAND
Alan grew up in Burrillville and went to school in Pawtucket. After college, he fell in love with a girl from Jersey. (Which I can relate to since I’m a Rhode Island girl who fell in love with a guy from Michigan.) It took a little while, but when he was ready to start his company – ABCya – he convinced Lisa to move to Rhode Island. He couldn’t imagine chasing his dream anywhere else.
Alan got started in the basement, balancing a kid on one knee and his laptop on the other, while Lisa supported their young family teaching Italian. But when his game Math Bingo hit #1 in the App Store, they knew it was time to move out of the basement. ABCya started hiring programmers, designers and project managers from all over Rhode Island.
When I met Alan, it was clear to me that he loved Rhode Island, but he didn’t shy away from telling me that it sometimes it frustrated him. Our maze of regulations drove him crazy, and it was sometimes too hard to find people with the right skills. It seemed to him that the state was putting up barriers instead of clearing the way for him to grow. That kind of thing drives me crazy, too.
I asked Alan to keep believing in Rhode Island, and I promised him that we were going to work together to make things better. Alan kept going. It would have been easier for him to get frustrated and let cynicism crush his dream. But he was proud of his company and he wanted to grow it in Rhode Island. Last year, more than 120 million kids played a game on his site: Kids from Warwick and Westerly to Guatemala and India.
LET’S KEEP GOING: A COMMITMENT TO CHANGE AND PROGRESS
Four years ago, it didn’t seem like we’d have so much to celebrate today. At that time, our economy had run out of gas because our leaders hadn’t positioned us for growth in the new economy. One out of four bridges in our state was crumbling and unsafe, and we didn’t even have a plan to fix them. But worst of all, people were losing their pride because they had been out of work for so long. And some people felt like our state leaders weren’t listening, and they were losing confidence in Rhode Island.
We came together four years ago and decided to chart a new course. We decided to change the old way of doing things, so that we could do better by Rhode Islanders.
Our progress didn’t just happen. It wasn’t an accident. And it wouldn’t have happened if we kept doing things the same old way. But we had a willingness to try a new approach; a commitment to build a new economy, and not settle for anything less for our kids and our future.
We’ve come a long way, but we’re only in about the third inning of our economic comeback. So tonight, I say: Let’s keep going.
We’ve made Rhode Island more business friendly: Our economy is the 18th best in America; Last year, we went from No. 50 to No. 23 in unemployment taxes; Four years ago, the Gallup Jobs Index ranked our economy dead last. Today, we come in at Number 29. And we’re not stopping until we’re at the top of the list. Let’s keep going.
We’ve made record investments in education, and we’re committed to ensuring that everyone has a shot to continue their education past high school: Today, there are three times as many public pre-K classrooms as there were four years ago; We’ve guaranteed all-day kindergarten for every child in Rhode Island; And more than 1,500 Rhode Islanders are getting a shot at a career because we’re the first state on the East Coast that’s made community college tuition-free. But there’s so much left to do. So let’s keep going.
Let’s continue to support our veterans: Last year, we opened a new Veterans Home in Bristol; And last month, we launched a new online portal to better coordinate the services that our Vets and their families have earned. To everyone who wears – or has ever worn – our nation’s uniform, and to your families, we say thank you.
We’ve also been listening. We’ve listened to Rhode Islanders who felt like their leaders weren’t doing enough to support them: We raised the minimum wage, and we’re gonna do it again next year; We passed paid sick leave, because no Rhode Islander should have to choose between a paycheck and taking care of a sick child at home; We’ve improved the quality of child care so parents can have peace of mind while they’re at work. And we listened to seniors like my mom, who say it’s too hard to live on a fixed income, and we cut the tax on their social security.
And we heard you. The car tax is probably the most hated tax in Rhode Island. So, last year, we cut it.
Tonight, I’m asking the legislature to put the line item veto, on the ballot in November, and let Rhode Islanders decide. It’s time. Forty-four other states, including Massachusetts, already have it. And they use it to eliminate waste and give taxpayers confidence in their government. Rhode Islanders deserve the same thing.
LET’S KEEP GOING: RHODE ISLANDERS WHO INSPIRE
I know that every member of this chamber cares deeply about Rhode Island and works hard for the people of our state. Tonight I’d like to share the stories of Rhode Islanders who inspire us all to keep going. Rhode Islanders who give us confidence that we’re on the right path. Rhode Islanders like Alisa Richardson. Her story gets right to our core mission: to make sure every Rhode Islander can keep up and get ahead, whether or not they have a college degree.
Alisa and her kids are here tonight. Congratulations, you guys are doing great.
The reality is that 70 percent of jobs in Rhode Island require more training and education than just a high school diploma, but they don’t all require a four-year degree. It’s on us to make sure that every Rhode Islander has the job training and education they need to get a good job.
We’ve also expanded more than two dozen career and tech programs in our high schools, like the welding program at Coventry High School. Austin Ferrara enrolled in that program last year. He graduated in June, and got his high school diploma and a credential. A week later, he started a job at Electric Boat. And if you ask him if he likes his job as a welder, he’ll look you dead in the eye, filled with pride and tell you: “I’ve got a real job.”
Tonight I’m proposing that we expand our job training initiatives and our technical training in high schools.
A year ago, we opened the Westerly Higher Education Center which trains people for jobs at local companies. It’s been an incredible success. In just one year, more than 500 Rhode Islanders have earned a certificate to get a good job, and 345 of them already started working at Electric Boat.
Let’s keep going. Let’s put the same kind of center in the Blackstone Valley. In the weeks ahead, I’ll announce a new public-private partnership to establish the Northern Rhode Island Higher Education Center which will provide hands-on training and a path to a good job for Rhode Islanders without a college degree.
A couple years ago, we announced 10,000 Small Businesses, a unique partnership at CCRI that helps small business owners learn the skills they need to jump to the next level. Since then, more than 100 companies have gone through the program. These are local stores, restaurants, jewelry makers, and small food companies. These are our neighbors and friends who put everything they have into their business.
Nearly every one of them has added jobs, including Evan Oliveira, a Navy veteran from East Providence.
For years, he worked a desk job that he tolerated; but, on the side, he owned a small cleaning business that he loved. His company was growing, and he finally built up the courage to tell his family that he was going to quit the desk job to focus full time on his company, Universal Cleaning. So, as you can imagine, Evan really needed to make this work. He also needed some capital to grow, and banks wouldn’t lend to him because he was too small. He applied for a loan through a new program we started for small businesses in 2015. With that $10,000 loan, he was able to buy the equipment he needed to support his new contracts. And since then, his business has tripled.
Like every Rhode Islander I’ve ever met, Evan is determined to succeed. Rhode Island small businesses are expanding because of these loans, and tonight I’m committing to double the number of loans awarded by the end of this year.
The responsibility to support small business, though, can’t rest solely on state government. It’s time to come together as a community and support one another. We need our biggest employers to use their spending power to support our small businesses.
Here’s an example: If our colleges, universities and hospitals shifted just two percent of their contracts to Rhode Island companies, it could add more than $50 million to our economy and create hundreds of new jobs. This year, we’ll launch “Supply RI” to make it easier for our biggest employers to buy from local companies like Evan’s. Andy and I do as much local shopping as we can, and we hope our biggest employers will do the same.
Most of our manufacturers are small businesses, too. For every Electric Boat, there are dozens of smaller manufacturers like FarSounder in Warwick and Swissline Precision in Cumberland. Last year, manufacturing companies created 1,500 new jobs. My dad spent his career in manufacturing, and making a living making things gave him so much pride.
Let’s bring that pride back. This year, I’m again calling on the legislature to pass the Rhode Island Manufacturing Initiative. It’s a good plan that helps smaller manufacturers buy new equipment and hire more people.
For decades, we just sat back and watched as Massachusetts rebuilt and thrived. Boston and its suburbs flourished, while the mill buildings along 95 and the Blackstone River stood vacant and crumbling. The resurgence in Massachusetts didn’t just happen. It wasn’t an accident. They had a strategy and a plan to create jobs and put cranes in the sky. They used job training investments and incentives to create thousands of jobs in and around Boston.
Massachusetts, and nearly every other state in the northeast, still uses incentives. And they’ve all been doing it for years. Until recently, though, our leaders didn’t have a strategy; and because of that, Rhode Islanders got left behind. And the few times our past leaders did take action, they put all their eggs in one basket or chased special deals. Any way you slice it, Rhode Islanders got hurt.
So in 2015, we created a strategy combining job training and incentives that enables us to compete and prevent the special deals of the past. The results are in. Our new approach is working. In the last two years, we’ve recruited or expanded 22 companies. Twenty-two companies that would have gone somewhere else. Because of our new approach, they’re here and on track to hire more than 2,000 Rhode Islanders at an average salary of more than $70,000.
So, yes, our new approach is working. And if we go back to the old way of doing things, we’ll put hard-working Rhode Islanders at risk. So, let’s keep going.
When our kids were younger, Andy and I would take them to soccer practice and drive across the Newman Avenue Bridge in East Providence. That bridge made me so mad. The Massachusetts side was in great shape: The road was smooth; the lanes were well marked. But when we drove back into Rhode Island, you could literally feel exactly where the state line was.
But, we have to do more. If we’re going to save lives, we have to support people’s recovery. One of the members of our Opioid Task Force, Jonathan Goyer, has often told me that his job has been critical to his recovery. That’s true for so many people. This year, we’re going to create a new job training program for people in recovery. There is no silver bullet in our fight against addiction, but helping Rhode Islanders in recovery to get a good job will save lives.
I’d also like to talk about another topic we don’t talk enough about because of the unfortunate stigma, and that’s mental health. I hear from so many Rhode Islanders who are beside themselves because they or their loved ones can’t get access to good mental health care, mostly because their insurance company won’t to cover it.
That needs to stop.
In the coming weeks, I’ll propose legislation to make health insurance companies cover addiction and mental health treatment just like they cover diabetes or other chronic conditions.
Last week, schools across our state had to close and send students home. All across Rhode Island, there are teachers putting trash bins in the middle of the classroom to collect water dripping from leaky ceilings. Teachers and students are getting sick because of mold.
Our school buildings get a failing grade, and that’s not acceptable. And like anything, the longer we wait, the more expensive it gets. Rhode Island hasn’t made a meaningful, statewide investment in our school buildings in over 25 years.
One of the first things I did as Governor was to end the previous administrations’ freeze on school construction and add funding for high priority projects. Because of that decision, we’ve been able to fix a handful of our worst schools, including Potter Burns Elementary School in Pawtucket. It was a 100-year-old building, and you knew it the minute you walked in the door. Today, because we came together and made an investment, it’s bright, it’s clean, it’s got a new library, and it’s been totally rebuilt and wired for 21st century learning so that kids are ready for 21st century jobs.
Attendance is up, and disciplinary problems are down. Students and teachers are proud to attend Potter Burns. And there isn’t a parent in Rhode Island who wouldn’t be proud to send their child there.
So, let’s keep going. Our children deserve to know we value them.
Tonight I’m calling on all of us to take action. Let’s make a once-in-a-generation investment in our schools. Together with our cities and towns, let’s commit to investing $1 billion over the next five years to fix our public schools. Don’t let anyone tell you we can’t afford to do this. We can. We have a detailed plan that outlines how we can invest more and do it smarter so that we protect taxpayers at the same time. Every year we wait, we waste millions of dollars putting band aids on our crumbling schools. So let’s act now.
LET’S KEEP GOING: OUR WORK IS FAR FROM DONE
My fellow Rhode Islanders, we’re making real progress. But our work is far from done. The recovery still hasn’t reached everyone. We’re not going to stop until every Rhode Islander is included. We’ll keep going until every child is lifted out of poverty; until every child can attend a flourishing public school; until we meet the needs of every senior; and until every Rhode Islander has a shot at a good job.
Let’s stay at it until every Rhode Islander can work free from harassment, abuse or bullying. I applaud every woman who has come forward to tell her story. And I pledge to work with anyone to root out harassment in this building and every other workplace in our state.
We also have to come together to make sure that the uncertainty in Washington doesn’t derail our progress. Now, more than ever, we need to stand up to protect Rhode Islanders.
Nearly every person in Rhode Island has health insurance, and the premiums on our health exchange are the lowest in America. When politicians in Washington tried to take health care away, we spoke out and we stopped it. We are not going to let Washington take your health care away.
When politicians in Washington took aim at our Dreamers we stood with them because in Rhode Island we don’t just tolerate diversity; we celebrate it.
And last week, when President Trump announced a plan to open our coast line to drill for oil, we, the people of Rhode Island said: “Not on our watch.”
We’ve come so far and need to keep going.
THE RHODE ISLAND WE LOVE
I’d like to end tonight where we began, and share with you the rest of Alan and Lisa Tortolani’s story. It’s a story that offers a window into what Rhode Island is all about. Who we are, and what our state can be.
Nine months ago, on a Friday, Alan called Lisa while he was heading home from work. Before they hung up, they said, “I love you,” just like they always do. And after that, Alan went out for a bike ride.
But Alan never came home.
His wife and kids miss him every single day. Somehow, Lisa’s found the strength to pick up the pieces. She keeps going. She’s running ABCya now, leading it to new heights, honoring Alan’s work and deepening ABCya’s commitment to Rhode Island.
I asked Lisa, “Why are you so committed to Rhode Island.” I mean, she wasn’t born here; she didn’t grow up here.
She told me she’s never lived in a community that’s as kind-hearted, and as tight-knit as Rhode Island. Alan’s been gone nine months. Lisa can’t remember a single night that a friend or neighbor hasn’t brought dinner over for her and her three kids. That’s who we are. That’s the state we love. That’s what Rhode Island is all about.
Lisa’s here with us tonight. Lisa, you’re amazing, and inspire us all to keep going.
Let’s all keep going for Rhode Island. Let’s commit ourselves to making our recovery real for everybody. Let’s stand up for our values and protect the progress we’ve made.
The Tortolanis love Rhode Island – not because it’s perfect, but because of the people – people who wake up every morning determined to make Rhode Island it better. They love it for the same reason we all do.
Because it’s home.