- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Gov. Gina Raimondo, promising a fight to improve the state’s public schools and its long-struggling business and jobs climate, unveiled an $8.96 billion spending plan that would increase education funding and expand initiatives to draw high-skilled jobs.

The Democratic governor released the proposal to lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly on Tuesday evening and delivered a State of the State address outlining her priorities. The plan would close an estimated $49.5 million budget shortfall in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

A rising jobs rate, improving economic climate and paring down of health costs helped reduce the deficit from the $190 million projected when Raimondo took office just over a year ago, but she acknowledged Rhode Island still has a long way to go before catching up to neighbors such as Massachusetts, which boasts a high-tech economy and some of the nation’s best public schools.

“I know that Rhode Islanders are frustrated,” she said after describing meeting in a grocery store a resident who told her he had work but not enough to make ends meet.

Raimondo is a former venture capitalist and state treasurer. Her proposals would infuse new spending on business development tools she has touted as a way of catching up to states that have used incentives to foster advanced industries.

To grow high-wage jobs, “we need to skate where the puck will be,” Raimondo said. “We need to put ourselves in the position to be successful.”

Among her budget proposals is a $5 million expansion of research and innovation business tax credits. She also hopes to attract more businesses by cutting by $30 million the unemployment insurance taxes they must pay to the state.

She tied her job creation priorities to improving the state’s lagging education system. She called on lawmakers, who will debate the state budget over the coming months, to help her pump more money into K-12 schools, freeze tuition hikes at public colleges and close the achievement gap that has left many low-income and non-white students behind. She also repeated recently announced initiatives to let all high school students take the SAT for free and to expand the state’s contribution to the earned income tax credit for low-income families.

The state’s Democratic legislative leaders - House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed - said they were pleased by Raimondo’s speech, including her emphasis on tackling the state’s opioid abuse crisis.

Raimondo has set aside $4 million to combat the drug overdose crisis. Of that, $2.6 million would support medication-assisted treatment at the Department of Corrections. Her guests at the speech, in the chamber of the House of Representatives, included parents who lost their two adult sons to overdose deaths.

Mattiello and Paiva Weed said they were fully behind Raimondo’s revised proposal to finance a 10-year plan to repair deteriorating bridges by tolling large commercial trucks. Raimondo called on lawmakers to end the “politics of procrastination” and get to work on the plan, which was blocked by lawmakers last year.

Republican House Deputy Minority Leader Patricia Morgan said she welcomed Raimondo’s comments about improving the education system but was disturbed about her push to place several general obligation bonds on the November ballot to pay for construction of schools, piers and other projects. The bridge repair plan already depends on borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars, and this would add to that debt, Morgan said.

“She wants to put more than a half-billion dollars’ worth of debt on the shoulders of Rhode Islanders,” Morgan said. “I think that’s irresponsible.”

Raimondo’s plan includes several revenue-raising measures but no broad-based tax hikes. Medical marijuana cultivators would have to pay annual fees for each plant they grow, and the cigarette tax would rise to $4 per pack from $3.75.

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