- Associated Press - Sunday, January 24, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo is tapping college endowments to advance her policy agenda without taxpayers having to foot the bill, but the unconventional practice is raising the ire of some alumni, donors and lawmakers.

The Democratic governor persuaded the Rhode Island College Foundation to create a new state innovation office and hire a $210,000-a-year chief innovation officer who will also serve in Raimondo’s cabinet. The University of Rhode Island Foundation also this month agreed to cover the estimated $7,000 cost of her trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

But some university donors balked after learning about the planned Davos trip, causing the endowment’s board to rescind the offer. Raimondo canceled the trip Wednesday because of the weekend’s expected snowstorm.

A former venture capitalist and state treasurer who became governor just over a year ago, Raimondo has characterized her funding partnerships with colleges and other institutions as outside-of-the-box thinking.

“We can’t just keep doing things the same way and I don’t think we can just go to the taxpayer. We’ve got to get creative,” she said Friday, adding that Rhode Islanders “can’t want things to be better and not be willing to do things differently.”

But the maneuvers are increasingly bothering lawmakers who believe she is going over their heads.

“The one thing that doesn’t look good is that if you take money from the foundation it’s not subject to public record. There’s a transparency issue there,” said state Sen. Paul Jabour, a Providence Democrat who also sits on the board of the University of Rhode Island Foundation. “It’s a slippery slope and a bad precedent.”

Jabour was taken aback when he learned several days before the planned Davos trip that the foundation he helps oversee was paying the tab. Because it was less than $10,000, the foundation’s director was able to approve it without consulting the board.

Jabour and other board members, donors and alumni of the public university flooded the foundation with complaints, forcing it to reverse the offer. Agreeing to Raimondo’s “well-intended request” to pay for the trip was a mistake and “inconsistent with donor intent,” said Lorne Adrain, chairman of the board.

Raimondo got the idea from the University of Connecticut Foundation, which in 2012 spent about $3,700 to send Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy to the Davos conference and an additional $16,000 to send him to China. Both trips sought to raise the public research university’s global profile and were deemed to be a success, said UConn Foundation spokesman Derek Slap.

Raimondo said she canceled the Davos trip solely because her priority was the safety of Rhode Islanders ahead of an expected storm, not because of the money controversy. She is using her campaign account to pay back whatever costs were already incurred.

And she continues to defend the use of the Rhode Island College Foundation to house a new state Office of Innovation at the college’s campus. The $29 million foundation will pay an annual $210,000 salary and additional benefits to employ the state’s first chief innovation officer, Richard Culatta, a former senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan whose new mission will be to open up Rhode Island government and foster innovation.

Some at Rhode Island College are proud to host the new state office designed as a policy think tank.

“I think it potentially could be wonderful for the college,” said Jeffrey Blais, a professor at its school of management who is a non-voting member of the foundation board. “We think it has the potential to involve our faculty and students.”

Some lawmakers, however, are unhappy that Raimondo created a cabinet-level position without the General Assembly’s approval.

“I don’t think the position warrants a package of almost $300,000,” said Jabour, who introduced a bill Thursday that would make the job subject to Senate confirmation. “I would suggest they tear up the employment contract with the Rhode Island College Foundation. I’m not sure it’s legal.”

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