PROVIDENCE — Despite the wholesale rejection of his first budget by the General Assembly and his failure to expand long-awaited pension reform legislation to cover troubled municipal plans, Gov. Lincoln Chafee says he considers his freshman year at the helm of the Ocean State to be a success.
“We’re making progress,” Chafee told The Times in a wide ranging interview about what he experienced in the past year and what he sees for Rhode Island in the new year ahead. “I was not unprepared for a $295 million deficit, a strong legislature that has pretty much ignored the executive branch for the last 10 or 12 years, a very tough economy. I knew that with gigantic deficits and a dysfunctional Congress, we’re not going to get any national help here.
“I knew what we were in for,” the state’s first Independent governor in modern times noted, “and you always have to expect the unexpected – there are going to be the snow storms, there are going to be the hurricanes.”
There are troubles ahead as well. Chafee expects that in the coming year, his administration will have to wrestle with problems such as the encroachment of Massachusetts casinos on what has become one of the state’s most reliable sources of income – revenue from the slot machines at Twin River and Newport Grand; returning to wrestling with the problems of woefully underfunded pension plans in nearly two-thirds of Rhode Island communities; struggling local hospitals such as Westerly Hospital and Woonsocket’s Landmark Medical Center.
The governor said his administration is on track to keep its pledge to have a municipal pension bill ready on the first day of the new General Assembly session in January.
“The goal is to have the unanimous support from the League of Cities and Towns, despite all the differences of these various pension plans. I’m not naïve about how difficult this is going to be to address the unfunded liabilities of these municipal plans.” He said the legislation will likely be similar to the just-passed state pension reform.
One of the things he is proudest of in his first term, Chafee said, is reversing the trend of annual cuts in state aid to cities and towns — $195 million in the last four years — that have led communities to boost property taxes in recent years. “No wonder East Providence is in trouble; no wonder Woonsocket is in trouble, no wonder Providence is in financial difficulty. These are heavy hits to the cities and towns.
“I ran on being the champion of the property tax payer,” he recalled, “and have worked hard with Mayor (Leo) Fontaine (of Woonsocket), with Mayor (Donald) Grebien (of Pawtucket) and, Mayor (Angel) Tavares (of Providence), all the town managers and administrators to address their concerns.”
Chafee said he also fully funded, albeit on a phased-in basis, the new school aid formula passed by the General Assembly in 2010. “The commitment was demonstrated in the toughest budget year of all that we were going to put money into it.
“You are going to see from this administration a close relationship with the cities and towns,” he pledged.
The governor also boasted of the “cooperative relationship we forged with the Speaker of the House (Gordon Fox), the Senate President (Teresa Paiva Weed), with labor — despite the pension, we worked to be inclusive — and the other general officers, (Lt. Gov.) Elizabeth Roberts, involved with health care, Peter Kilmartin in the attorney general’s office we are working with on hospital issues.
“You don’t turn an aircraft carrier around on a dime,” Chafee said when challenged on the amount of cooperation he was shown by the legislative leaders, “it takes a while to change the relationship between the General Assembly and the governor’s office.”
Looking ahead to what is on his agenda for the coming year, Chafee said, “I am concerned about Landmark and Westerly,” two hospitals facing financial troubles. “I want to take a comprehensive look at health care in Rhode Island. We can not have these dominos falling.”
But he sees hospital facilities, and the new land opening up with the re-routing of Route 195, along with open real estate in Warwick as the state’s best possibilities for economic development in the near term.
Chafee said he was impressed by what he saw on his travels to what he calls the ‘meds and eds’ cities — places that have combined medical centers and educational facilities — Houston, Baltimore and particularly Pittsburgh.
In Pittsburgh, he said, “they gathered 20 hospitals into an economic juggernaut that has transformed the whole economy of that whole blue-collar steel city, with great ramifications for the economy of Pittsburgh. They have 20 hospitals. They don’t have cancer centers competing with each other, they only have the best cancer center. Orthopedics, they have the best, not everyone competing with each other.
“That was leadership,” Chafee asserts. “It was two people with a vision who said we’re going to make the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center a powerful entity in the region and they did it. It took time, hospital by.”
It’s a comprehensive plan, that’s really what we’re lacking here in Rhode Island,” the governor said. “Lifespan and Care New England tried a merger and it didn’t work. I think it is worth reviving those discussions based on what I saw in Pittsburgh.
Chafee hopes to replicate that success in Providence’s new “Knowledge District,” and he sees it already starting. Holding aloft a copy of the Nov. 14 New York Times that highlights the changes in and around the new Alpert Medical School, he said, “we’re poised to take advantage of any kind of economic growth coming out of this nationwide or global recession. Where better to grow your ‘meds and eds’ than next to a sparkling new medical school building and teaching hospitals tens of yards away?
“This reflects well on Rhode Island, pointing to the New York Times story, “this is a national paper — international — they’re reading this in Shanghai, about Providence, Rhode Island, with a color picture.”
Returning once again to a favorite topic, Chafee said the new “Station District” in his hometown of Warwick, where a railroad station connects with TF Green Airport to create a transportation hub, is “a fallow field,” for economic development in the state. “With that project being completed in the depths of the recession, D’Ambra Construction has a huge stretch of real estate on Jefferson Boulevard primed for corporate growth. Leviton has 90 acres of land lying fallow just primed for economic growth. Once things start it’s just going to be a succession of good things happening.”