The Hummel Report: Gina Raimondo Takes the Reins

As she led a procession up the brick walkway toward the south side of the Rhode Island State House, Gina Raimondo was beaming. After all, she had been waiting for this day a long time — some might say for years. And when she finally took the oath as governor the afternoon of Jan 6, Raimondo became the first woman in Rhode Island to do so. The inauguration came after a hectic transition period, and little time to celebrate her November victory.

“You know, the hardest thing about the transition is just the magnitude of the effort,” Raimondo said during a wide-ranging interview with The Hummel Report at her transition office between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Raimondo said the eight weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day have been a governmental baptism-by-fire.

“The budget’s a mess,”  she said. “It’s at least a $200 million shortfall this year — probably more than that. And it’s going to double in the next two years as we lose Twin River revenue. For too long we’ve been avoiding the difficult decisions.”

The governor has a month to propose next year’s budget, but her team has been working on it for weeks. And while Raimondo continues her mantra that only by creating jobs can the state balance its books, she acknowledges some short-term decisions will have be made to get out from under the looming red ink.

Jim Hummel: You said you can’t cut your way out of (the deficit), but don’t you at least have to look at some cuts to bridge that gap?

Gina Raimondo: You absolutely do. In a couple of months I have to present a balanced budget and I have to find $200 million right away. So here’s how I think about it: It’s time to make government more effective. So it’s not just cutting, it’s restructuring and getting rid of programs that don’t work.

The new governor has gone outside of Rhode Island to fill some of her cabinet positions. And her new chief of staff is Steve Neuman, a former top aide to the governor of Maryland.

“We need talent. I need the very best talent I can find. And also it’s time to do things differently. We can’t keep saying, ‘We’re going to do it the way we’ve always done it.’ Look at where we are. The way we’ve always done it is not working. Third-highest unemployment rate in the country. If we don’t innovate, we’re going to perish.’’

Raimondo has had frequent contact with House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed since her election, although each goes into this General Assembly session with different legislative agendas. And they may differ on the future of HealthSourceRI, the state’s version of Obamacare. Mattiello says he’s is not convinced Rhode Island should pour millions of state tax dollars into the program, now in its second year, and should consider handing it back to the federal government.

But Raimondo said, “I think we ought to keep it in Rhode Island. I think every Rhode Islander deserves a right to high-quality, affordable healthcare, but we need to reduce the cost.’’

The governor says she has realistic expectations about how much her administration can get done in the first 100 days and the first year. But she realizes people want to see changes quickly.

“A lot of people in Rhode Island are this close to giving up,” she said. “You probably see it. They’re down. They feel like they’ve been let down over and over again by their leaders. The only way we’re going to convince people to believe that we can get something done is to start to do it. And if they see the Department of Transportation is working, their kids’ schools are getting rebuilt and DCYF has good services, then they’re going to trust that maybe we can actually get something done. It’s making Rhode Island a place where businesses want to be. Streamlined regulations, customer-friendly government, reasonable taxes, budgets that balance, an honest and ethical place to do business, a workforce that’s trained … and a very aggressive governor who is constantly reaching out to businesses saying, ‘I need you to put my people to work. What’s it going to take?'”

Raimondo says she is proud to be Rhode Island’s first female governor. “It’s a big deal. It tells every girl she can be whatever she wants to be.  Work hard because opportunity is there.”

The new governor begins with the optimism that baseball players have at spring training, tempered with the realization that the season — in this case, her first term — will be a marathon and not a sprint.

GR: Wish me luck. It’s a big, big job.

JH: Will you need it?

GR: I will need it. I need luck and prayers and good wishes and faith. Here’s the message to Rhode Island: We are in a mess, there’s no way to sugarcoat that. We’re up to the challenge. It’s a big challenge and we’re going to meet that challenge. Don’t give up; let’s go at it.

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