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PROVIDENCE — In his first State of the State address, Gov. Dan McKee on Tuesday laid out his vision for Rhode Island's recovery from the pandemic, vowing to put more than $250 million into housing, forgive student loans for health-care workers and "create a statewide network of electric car charging stations."
From his quirky call for a "Calamari comeback" to his vow to spend more than $430 million on school construction, from "kindergarten through higher education," Governor — and anticipated candidate — McKee laid out an ambitious agenda for his first and potentially last full year in office.
McKee, a Democrat, faces a crowd of declared and expected competitors in a September primary, his first election since he ascended from lieutenant governor to the state's top job last March, when then-Gov. Gina Raimondo quit to become U.S. commerce secretary.
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Against that backdrop, he used the annual agenda-setting address to talk about his Rhode Island roots, recall points of pride in his first 10½ months in the state's top office and preview the 2022-23 state budget he will propose to lawmakers on Thursday.
As if this was launch day for his 2022 campaign, he told his audience in the House chamber: "I'm a lifelong Rhode Islander. I was born here and met my wife Susan here.
"Rhode Island is where we raised our son and daughter and where I owned and operated small businesses in the Blackstone Valley. It is where I coached youth basketball and served as president of my hometown’s Boys and Girls Club."
"I’ve seen where Little Rhody has been, and I know where it can go," he said in his speech as prepared for delivery to the pared-back audience allowed in the House chamber.
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Toll of COVID on Rhode Island
He acknowledged the 3,000-plus Rhode Island lives lost to COVID-19, and the toll the pandemic continues to take on the state.
"The pandemic continues to challenge our health-care systems, our schools, our small businesses, and it has created significant staffing challenges across many industries,'' he said.
While the COVID-restrictions limited the number of municipal leaders who could come, McKee — in a very McKee-style moment — announced: "We have a flag from every city and town here in the chamber representing the people of our 39 cities and towns."
He also acknowledged the "dedication and service" of the state's health director, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, who last week gave two weeks' notice without explanation.
For those looking for budget clues, he signaled some of the ways he would like to spend more than $1 billion in federal windfall dollars "to strengthen Rhode Island’s economic recovery ... [and] increase per-capita income for individuals and families across our state."
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He teased an announcement planned for Wednesday about the potential launch of "over 100'' state and federally financed projects "valued at $2.1 billion that we are able to speed up because of .... federal infrastructure funds.
"This initiative will create safer roads, bridges and bike paths and will put many more tradesmen and women to work," he said. Details to come.
On the business-relief front, he told his audience, he also wants to permanently legalize takeout cocktails and cut the state's corporate minimum tax as part of a wide-ranging plan to help small businesses.
In sync with the Democratic leaders of Rhode Island's legislature, McKee put housing near the top of his spending and policy agenda.
"For Rhode Island to be an attractive place to live, work and raise a family, we must address the availability and quality of housing — that means everything from providing supports to those experiencing homelessness, to increasing affordable housing, to ensuring we build more workforce housing for our middle-class families," he said.
He called on the state's lawmakers to allocate $250 million "to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our state’s housing stock .... [to] create and preserve thousands of units of housing ... transform blighted properties, strengthen communities and create good-paying construction jobs in the process."
"Did you know that homeownership is one of the most important ways to build generational wealth, yet Rhode Island has one of the lowest homeownership rates in the country largely because families and individuals cannot afford the down payment?" he asked rhetorically.
He suggested another $50 million be used to "provide down payment assistance to Rhode Island households who need it most." Again: details to come.
Wind power and calamari
Under the heading "Blue Economy," McKee promised to invest in a "partnership with the University of Rhode Island that will make our state a world-leading center for researching, developing and testing ocean technology."
"Let’s also increase our port capacity to support the offshore wind supply chain by making critical investments into the Port of Davisville at Quonset and East Providence’s South Quay ... [and] invest in aquaculture, including seafood processing, so we no longer need to ship so much of our calamari out of state to prepare it for sale.
He also mentioned an effort by his administration "to create a statewide network of electric-car charging stations and converting our public-transportation vehicles to electric."
In an arena that already touches the lives of one in three in Rhode Island, McKee promised to seek legislative approval to expand the pool of eligible Rhode Islanders.
He wants to extend Medicaid coverage for new mothers from 60 days after birth to 12 months, to all kids — including presumably the children in undocumented families — and also raise the eligibility threshold for families to qualify for child-care subsidies.
"And let’s continue our investments in early-education retention bonuses,'' he said without elaboration.
State of the COVID battle
For the record: Rhode Island is still in the grips of the pandemic.
While the number of new cases declined last week, the number of new hospitalizations has continued to increase.
There were 520 COVID-positive patients in Rhode Island hospitals at last count, up from 484 reported Monday, with 40 in intensive care.
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The Rhode Island Department of Health on Tuesday also reported 12 more coronavirus-related deaths and 3,644 additional cases of COVID-19, along with 12,551 negative tests, for a 22.5% positive rate.
Rhode Island has reported an average of 4,634 new COVID cases a day over the last seven days, down 14% from a week ago.
McKee recently pledged an effort to determine how many hospitalized patients are being treated primarily for COVID-19 and how many have tested positive after being admitted for other reasons.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: McKee outlines plan for RI economic recovery in first state of state address