Chafee budget summit at RIC stresses education as priority

His inauguration now behind him, Gov. Lincoln Chafee is moving forward with his plans for Rhode Island with the knowledge that at least one of his campaign promises was completed before he even took the oath of office.

Chafee selected Rhode Island College to host a budget summit on Dec. 17, where a wide variety of state officials and community and business leaders participated in panel discussions on the state’s economic situation.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee
The then-governor-elect took the same stage in the Nazarian Center’s Sapinsley Hall where he went head-to-head with his gubernatorial opponents in the election’s final debate last October.

“As you know, the budget is the guts of what we do in this state,” Chafee said. He told a crowd of about 200 that education – including increasing support for higher education – is one of his top priorities, along with restoring aid to cities and towns and plugging a budget deficit that “could be as much as $300 million.”

Before the summit’s panels took place, Rosemary Booth Gallogly, acting director of the state Department of Revenue, gave an in-depth PowerPoint analysis of the state’s financial condition, along with Budget Officer Thomas Mullaney.

Gallogly said the state is facing significant budget deficits in years to come, including $295 million for the fiscal year ending in 2012. A large part of that projected deficit is the result of the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) ending next year.

“There’s about $234 million [in ARRA funds] that has helped us this year that won’t be there next year,” Gallogly said. She added that personal income tax revenues continue to decline year after year, and state sales tax revenues have also declined since peaking in 2007.

“In the current year, the good news is we seem to have things under control. The next year is a huge, huge challenge,” she said.

Richard Licht
The public forum’s moderator, Richard Licht, now Chafee’s director of administration, said Gallogly’s knowledge of state government is “encyclopedic.” Gallogly is a 30-year veteran of the budget office.

In the first of the morning’s two panels, John Simmons, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, lead off the discussion with a presentation of how Rhode Island compares to the rest of the nation in terms of state expenditures. He was followed by Elizabeth Roberts, now serving her second term as lieutenant governor, who focused the debate on health care.

“About a third of our budget is spent on health care,” Roberts said. “This is, when I talk to employers… the biggest issue that they talk to me about.”

Crossroads Rhode Island President Anne Nolan, representing human services and advocacy organizations, said that the non-profit world is driven by passion and not for money, but that financial resources are often strained due to a duplication of services to the state’s people in need.

The 30-minute discussion focused heavily on education, with both Robert Flanders Jr., chair of the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education, and Ray DiPasquale, acting commissioner of higher education, engaging with Licht, who himself is a former chair of the Board of Governors for Higher Education.

“Everybody knows one of the great resources our state has is its higher education, both public and private,” Licht said.

Ray DiPasquale
According to DiPasquale, over the last three years, the state’s three public institutions have seen a 40.5 percent decline in funding, but an across-the-board increase in enrollment.

“Over the last four years, we’ve had to become very efficient,” he said, posing the question, “How do we continue to educate and prepare our young people for the future and still be efficient?”

He said the three institutions have worked well together to consolidate programs, all with “$40 million less and 5,000 students more in the system.”

Flanders said that reducing the dropout rate, while a nation-wide problem, should be at the forefront to solving the state’s budget woes.

“Every dropout costs us about $72,000 over the life of that person, whereas any person with a college degree is generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for the state,” Flanders said. “About half of the new jobs coming online in the next decade are going to require some form of higher education degree. We have got to do a better job of keeping our kids in school. The most expensive tuition we pay is the tuition to send kids to the Training School and the ACI.”

DiPasquale said that out of 100 students entering ninth grade in Rhode Island, 73 will graduate, 40 will go on to college and only 21 will earn an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree.

“That’s a startling statistic as we go forward and build our economy,” he said.

The morning’s second panel also touched on education but broadened the discussion to a variety of other issues, including the state’s small business climate, health care, economics, transportation and the fiscal status of cities and towns.

Budget summit panelists discuss issues facing Rhode Island.
Represented were George Nee, R.I. AFL-CIO president; Helena Buonanno Foulkes, executive vice president and CMO at CVS Caremark; Dr. Kimberly McDonough, president of Advanced Pharmacy Concepts; Scott Avedisian, mayor of Warwick; Scott Wolf of Grow Smart R.I.; and Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, associate chair of community relationships in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Women & Infants Hospital.

The entire budget summit was broadcast throughout the state on WELH radio. Licht kept the crowd at the public forum tuned in by moderating both panels briskly and inserting brief moments of levity, buffering an otherwise-somber economic discussion.

In his closing remarks, Chafee again referenced higher education as an important priority for his new administration.

“I did learn a lot,” he said of the summit. “I started out the session here by having a priority towards education; that was reinforced over and over again.”