- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

WOONSOCKET, R.I. (AP) - Gov. Gina Raimondo said she’s optimistic she and legislative leaders are on the same page as they make compromises before lawmakers finalize the state budget.

The Democrat visited a Woonsocket preschool Wednesday to urge legislative leaders to approve her budget plan, which includes $5.2 million for early learning.

Raimondo told reporters negotiations on next year’s roughly $9 billion budget are going well but declined to name any specific compromises being made.

“We’re just beginning to come out of a very weak economy,” she said. “We need to invest in our schools, in housing, in education. We have the money. Let’s make smart investments.”

House leaders are scheduled to release a final budget proposal as early as this week. Better-than-expected state revenue estimates revealed in May have given lawmakers more money to work with to close the budget gap.

Senate Finance Chairman Daniel Da Ponte, an East Providence Democrat, told the Providence Journal the thorniest items being negotiated include changes to the school-aid formula, Raimondo’s proposed medical marijuana fees and her economic development initiatives.

Raimondo proposed in February an annual $350 fee on each marijuana plant that caregivers and cultivators grow through the state’s medical marijuana program and a $150 annual fee for patients who grow their own plants.

Raimondo’s office as of Wednesday still was in “active discussions with the General Assembly on a host of legislative and budget priorities, including the medical marijuana fee schedule,” said Sophie O’Connell, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

Raimondo’s visit to the Woonsocket Head Start Child Development Association highlighted one budget priority that doesn’t appear to face opposition. The proposed $5.2 million to pay for free preschool programs in low-income communities is $1.2 million more than what’s currently offered. Raimondo said it’s a minor investment that pays off as children grow up.

Mary Varr, executive director of the Woonsocket Head Start program, said she’s been talking with lawmakers for years about “how this affects the workforce and economy in the state, the return on investment. It works. We see the difference.”

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