After years of focus, the state's economy remains a work in progress

By Ian Donnis
Posted 4/11/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: Former Gov. Gina Raimondo talked a lot about the need to improve workers’ skills while building a more diversified economy. Her successor, Gov. Dan McKee, has emphasized …

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After years of focus, the state's economy remains a work in progress


STORY OF THE WEEK: Former Gov. Gina Raimondo talked a lot about the need to improve workers’ skills while building a more diversified economy. Her successor, Gov. Dan McKee, has emphasized making targeted investments around the state and boosting the focus on improving the state’s underperforming public schools. Yet with economic storm clouds lingering on the horizon, it’s unclear if Rhode Island has shed its dubious distinction as the state first to head into a downturn and last to emerge.

Brown University President Christina Paxson points to the university’s investment of more than $300 million in the Jewelry District over the last decade, including a planned life-sciences building, as a sign of how Brown is fostering economic growth. “I think we’re at a position where we can see the outlines of a very vibrant area of the city,” Paxson said during an interview on Political Roundtable. “That is commercial, residential, university, health system, mixed-use area. That’s a hub of economic activity for work for the city in the state. That’s exciting.”

Paxson downplayed how Brown ranks 96th on the National Science Foundation’s ranking of the R&D funds spent by universities (up from 111th about 20 years ago), calling it an indicator of the size of institutions: “Putting that aside, we do have very ambitious plans to grow our research,” Paxson said. “And it has grown a lot over the last 10 years. It will continue to grow. And if we collaborate, if we work strategically with our health system partners and we collaborate with the University of Rhode Island, which is a fantastic institution, we will be better positioned to apply for and win large grants that are going to bring money and jobs to the state. So in my mind, it’s all about being aggressive, being collaborative, and working together.”

Still, while public officials can cherry-pick indicators to paint a brighter picture of Rhode Island’s economy, the state’s economy remains a work in progress. By the time Raimondo left for D.C. in 2021, for example, the top job sectors remained unchanged from when she became governor in 2015, and Rhode Island was one of only two Northeast states to have lost jobs in advanced manufacturing.


SMITH HILL: The Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the powerful hiring and spending arm of the General Assembly, will hold a public meeting on Wednesday, April 12 – the first such meeting by JCLS in more than a decade. This follows the resolution in February of a lawsuit involving the group.


BRAIN POWER: A new book – “The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology” – offers a window on the changing stakes of technology. Elon Musk, who continues to botch virtually everything he touches at Twitter, wants to put computer chips in people’s heads.

Researchers at Brown have been working on the brain-computer interface for years. Some of this research has been funded by the military, raising questions about how it will be used. Brown’s Christina Paxson, though, remains bullish on the university’s research: “It promises to transform lives, transform the lives of people who are paralyzed or suffering from other diseases. So I haven’t seen anything happening here that raises any ethical concerns, in my mind.”



*** With the White House task force on COVID set to end its work next month, there is no timeline yet for Dr. Ashish Jha to return as director of Brown’s School of Public Health, although he is expected to return.

*** Paxson, 63, on whether she hopes to continue her presidency beyond the June 2026 end of her current contract: “I have made no decisions and I serve at the will of the Brown University Corporation.”


THE BASE: CD1 hopefuls could do worse than to get a voter list for a mail-only special March 2021 election, during the height of the pandemic, on a series of bonds. People had to be pretty motivated to participate in that election, so it’s not a bad place to start.


DECORUM: The GOP-led Tennessee House voted to expel two of three Democratic lawmakers “who recently led a raucous protest from the House floor calling for gun law reforms.” (The third Democrat, who is white, said she suspects her race is a factor in why she was not expelled.)

Compare this with the recent controversy in Rhode Island where Rep. Robert Quattrocchi (R-Scituate) got a far milder sanction, getting stripped of one of his three committee assignments, after asking a lesbian colleague during a committee meeting if she was a pedophile.


PROVIDENCE POLICE: Col. Oscar Perez has seen a lot in his almost 30 years with Rhode Island’s police department. During an interview this week, we shared a laugh reminiscing about one of his predecessors, the late Urbano “Barney” Prignano, who once yelled at me when asked in 1999 about the department’s less than robust implementation of community policing.

As a native of Colombia who came to Providence at age 13, Perez has a compelling personal story – and he said those experiences have shaped him. Asked about how poor neighborhoods sometimes suffer from too much and not enough policing, he said in part, “Doing community police work and doing proactive police work are not mutually exclusive. You just have to be able to do them right, properly, in a professional, in a constitutional manner. I mean, I grew up in the city, I got pulled over by police officers. And I said this before – some were professional, some were not as professional. However, I also appreciated the fact that they were policing my neighborhood. Because I was trying to go to school, I was trying to get ahead, I was hungry, hungry to get a career. And I had individuals doing the wrong things in my neighborhood and in my street.”


SMILEY’S BACK TO BASICS: Col. Perez was on hand, answering reporters’ questions in English and Spanish, when Providence Mayor Brett Smiley unveiled an initiative this week to curb problems associated with ATVs. As Olivia Ebertz, the new Providence metro reporter for The Public’s Radio reports, this squares with Smiley’s campaign pledge to address quality of life issues for city residents. The plan to use a five-officer unit to clamp down on ATV riders also attracted criticism from the Rhode Island ACLU and the local chapter of Black Lives Matter.


TAKES OF WEEK: Various views from a mix of Rhode Islanders.

PAIGE CLAUSIUS-PARKS, executive director of RI KIDS COUNT: “Rhode Island’s public education system has been plagued by inequities since its founding, and these inequities continue to be one of our state’s greatest challenges. Education is the gateway to opportunity for children and families — and it’s vital for the economic prosperity of our state.

“This is why Rhode Island has taken several steps in recent years to ensure that all children have access to the kind of high-quality education they need to succeed in school, career, and life. But these measures have not been enough. Inequities remain, and bolder action is needed.

“This week, the RI House of Representatives heard testimony on legislation that would give Rhode Islanders the opportunity to vote on whether the state constitution should be amended to include the right to an equitable, adequate, and meaningful education and for this right to be judicially enforceable. This amendment would help close gaps in academic opportunities and outcomes for many students, including low-income students, multilingual learners, and students of color.

“The Rhode Island Senate passed this resolution unanimously, and now it’s up to the House. This resolution has been heard in the House for nearly a decade, and thanks to the leadership of Rep. Mary Messier it has gained wide support. It’s time to get this out of committee to a floor vote and ultimately to the ballot so voters – the families who rely on our public education system – can decide.”

Strategist and consultant CARA CROMWELL: “As the General Assembly pauses for its unofficial halftime, I spotted a huge step forward in transparency at the State House. This week, Capitol TV debuted an on-screen QR code that viewers at home can capture to take them directly to the bill being debated. Not quite as good as a Lady Gaga halftime show, but pretty exciting for those trying to follow the action in Smith Hill.”

State Rep. BRIAN C. NEWBERRY (R-North Smithfield): “Amidst the usual hoopla surrounding all things Trump, it is striking to note that a snap poll shows 72% of independents believe the recent indictment by the Manhattan DA is politically motivated, but 62% of them still support it.

“Likewise, the next court hearing is not until Dec. 4 and the DA is seeking a trial in January 2024 – right before the avalanche of GOP presidential primaries, guaranteeing around-the-clock coverage of Trumpworld drama just as Ron DeSantis and possibly other, credible GOP options are trying to make their voices heard to voters. One need not be a conspiracy theorist to view this, along with the constant coordinated attacks made by the mainstream media and a series of ostensibly ‘anti-Trump’ groups on his leading primary rival, the highly successful and polished governor of Florida, to conclude that this is the 2024 version of ‘election interference,’ trying to rev up Trump’s popularity with conservative voters just enough to get him the nomination while knowing he may be the one rival the ancient and historically unpopular Biden can beat. “GOP primary voters have a choice: 1) vote for a man who won a single general election seven years ago by the barest minimum amount, against another historically unpopular opponent (Hillary Clinton), but who has lost every election he has touched since then, his own or those to whom he leant his personal endorsement, or 2) turn the page and choose a younger, better option.”

State Sen. DAWN EUER (D-Newport), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee: “This week’s election results for the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Chicago mayor once again show voters rejecting both efforts to restrict access to abortion and the polarizing and outdated ‘tough on crime’ messaging. Both issues highlight how most people have personal experiences that shape the way they understand these complex topics.

“The reality is that polarized talking points and efforts to demonize fellow Americans don’t match peoples’ lived experiences. Nearly a fourth of women in America will have an abortion by the age of 45. It’s a safe and common medical procedure that is deeply integrated into people’s individual decisions and maternal and reproductive health.

“There are over two million people incarcerated in the United States, an increase of 500% in the last 40 years, despite how mass incarceration does not increase public safety. I’m glad that the majority of my RI colleagues recognize these realities and I look forward to continued progress this legislative session.”

DANTE BELLINI, chief hooligan at Hooligan Films: “It is no secret that I am unreservedly proud of our attorney general, Peter Neronha. Appearing before House Finance last week and Senate Finance this week, AG Neronha made the case, with both depth and passion, that his office needs more financial support. If you have not seen it, go to Capital TV and watch what I believe is a master class in making the case that his agency has been uniquely in the fight on so many critical issues.

“Neronha lays out the argument with facts, from healthcare to energy, opioids to lead paint, shoreline access to guns; he said that his office will shy away from nothing, put in all the hours, and represent all the people of Rhode Island. Many of the cases the office now fights, previous administrations did not even address.

Neronha makes clear that he is challenging everything. He is not staying quiet or standing still. And all of that is before the more than 15,000 pending cases that his office must work. With only 100 lawyers, it is a herculean feat. Think about this: Delaware, with roughly the same population as R.I., has approximately 250 lawyers and an additional staff of 250. It is outrageous.

“Neronha has asked before and been denied. He has asked the governor to include in his budget the $2 million more that he needs. The governor did not agree. It is beyond my ability to comprehend how any funding body could consider denying the success this office has had, both in human terms and justice. Under Neronha, the office has returned or saved Rhode Island citizens, taxpayers, and ratepayers nearly half a billion dollars in value. The money to offer more support for the AG’s office is there. And this is certainly one place where the return on investment is proven.”

Ian Donnis can be reached at

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