During a lunchtime conversation with reporters Tuesday, Governor Gina Raimondo offered fresh details on the state's pursuit of General Electric, touted what she cited as a positive series of steps on economic development, and called on Rhode Islanders to be more receptive to different ways of pursuing government initiatives.
On the latter element, Raimondo said she has no regrets about how the Rhode Island College Foundation is being used to pay the $210,000 salary for the state's first chief innovation officer, Richard Culatta, and how the URI Foundation was slated to pay the tab for an aide and her to travel to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week. The trip was canceled due to an impending snow storm.
"Unfortunately, there's a suspicion of things that are different" in Rhode Island, Raimondo said. ".... We have to take a step back and over-explain things" to discourage people from "immediately going to the small and losing sight of the big."
Raimondo touted Culatta, a former US Department of Education official, as the kind of talent individual who is strong demand. She said creating his office as chief innovation officer at RIC, rather than within state government, offers a multitude of opportunities to the college and its students. Considering that, she said, "I can't understand why we immediately go to the negative."
Some lawmakers believe that an official answering to the governor should be funded through the state budget process. State Sen. Paul Jabour (D-Providence) is backing a bill that would make Culatta's post subject to Senate confirmation.
At the same time, Raimondo said she doesn't regret skipping the chance to network with heads of state and hundreds of business executives in Davos due to what turned out to be an routine snow storm in Rhode Island. While she might have acted differently if she knew the snowfall total in advance, the governor said severe winter weather last year convinced her of the need for her to be in the state in case of a repeat. "It matters if the boss is in the room," she said.
Raimondo spoke in the cafeteria of the state Department of Administration building with reporters from the Providence Journal, WPRI.com. WJAR-TV (Channel 10), The Associated Press, and Rhode Island Public Radio. The meeting was arranged by the governor's communication office, in what may be an ongoing forum for the governor to discuss issues.
With a salad from the DOA cafeteria at her side, Raimondo opened the conversation by saying she was feeling "quite optimistic" about the economy.
She pointed to how more than 8,000 jobs were created in Rhode Island in 2015 -- more than in any year since 2000; how the state remains in talks with General Electric about bringing some jobs to the state; and how the state Commerce Corporation approved on Monday almost $500,000 in new innovation vouchers.
"I think we should feel good about were we are," Raimondo said. "I do feel we're making clear measurable progress."
The governor later conceded Rhode Island still faces an image problem for a series of reasons, ranging from the state's small size to a perception that it has high taxes.
But Raimondo pointed to the state's "very aggressive pitch" to General Electric as a sign that Rhode Island can punch above its weight. GE recently announced plans to move its corporate headquarters from Connecticut to Boston, although the company called RI a finalist and talks continue aimed at bringing some jobs here, the governor said. "We are still very much in talks with them," she said, with more telephone calls planned this week.
In terms of GE's corporate relocation, "I don't think anyone thought we'd be in the final three," Raimondo said.
The governor, a Yale Law School graduate, said she initiated the state's pursuit by contacting Douglas Warner, a fellow Yale board member who also serves on GE's board. That led to multiple phone conversations with GE's CFO, and ultimately to conversation with GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt. Raimondo said she told him, "Just let us compete."
During dozens of phone calls and meetings, she said, she hammered a message that Rhode Island is a good place to do business, in part since taxes have generally been lowered over the last 20 years and other costs have been stabilized due to changes in the state pension and the state's Medicaid program. Raimondo declined to specify a dollar figure, but said the state's offer was "in the same neighborhood" of roughly $140 million in incentives granted to GE by Massachusetts and the City of Boston.
As part of the pitch, the state Commerce Corporation produced a booklet, entitled, "The RI Proposition: Opportunities and Advantages in the Ocean State." It cites the creation of a more predictable business climate; "An emerging Hub for Tech, Engineering & Design"; an optimal location in the Northeast corridor; "World-Class Quality of Life;" and other assets.
Raimondo said she was joined by Senator Jack Reed, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, the presidents of Brown and RISD, and a handful of local CEOs in pitching GE execs during a dinner at Bacaro, the Providence restaurant, on a night when it was closed.
While the outcome was not what the state hoped for, "I am just pounding away at it," Raimondo said, on trying to attract new jobs. The first part, she said, is the hardest part when it comes to sparking fresh economic development."
On the positive side, Raimondo pointed to the signing of a purchase and sale agreement for Wexford & Science Technology to move ahead with its planned life-sciences park on former I-195 land, and how the state is backing a tax break for the construction of a new hotel on the site of the Fogarty Building in Providence.
"I called Counci President [Luis] Aponte, absolutely," Raimondo said, in terms of efforts by her administration to get the City Council to approve a tax stabilization agreement.
The governor was generally voluble in her meeting with reporters, although she was tight lipped when it came to her truck toll proposal. She said she hopes a revamped version will emerge later this week, although she declined to provide details.
Raimondo is slated to deliver her second budget next Tuesday.
As she has before, Raimondo argued that merely cutting taxes is not enough to spark economic development. While it's important to improve the state's business climate, she said, Rhode Island needs to use economic incentives since other states do likewise.
The governor said she's working with Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor to develop an implementation plan for recommendations from the Brookings Institution report delivered last week.
This post has been updated.