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Chafee looks to unite the state

January 5, 2011

PROVIDENCE – For the state's economy to improve across the board in the next four years, Governor-elect Lincoln Chafee said in a recent sit-down interview that it will take certainty and unification.

Those two qualities were are the core of his answers to several questions asked, whether he was responding to how to decrease the state's foreclosure rate – the highest in New England – or how to close the nearly $400 million-deep deficit.

What companies want, he explained, is certainty. And if the state can show them its certain about how to move forward, it will help to solve difficulties facing the economy, he said.

“Certainty is a big issue with companies,” he continued, adding that they will be more prone to enter the state if “they know 'this is the deal” in terms of plans to improve the economy. Along those same lines, he said he believes that once companies are certain of the state's future they will bring their business to Rhode Island and, as such, stabilize the economy.

One way Chafee plans on jump-starting the state's financial woes is by proposing a 1 percent increase to the sales tax, which currently stands at 7 percent.

Doing this would help to continue plugging up the holes in the nearly $400 million deficit by about $100 million or so, he said. Previously, the state used federal funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to try to fill the gaps, but that money won't be there in the coming budget seasons.

And once the state's finances are balances, Chafee pledged that he will not go on any kind of spending sprees. “The goal is to keep shaving as revenues increase [along with] being more competitive,” he said.

Chafee also pointed to areas of focus within the state that should be further developed for business use.

“We have all these great assets in the state and now we just have to get out there and market them,” he said.

For example, there are 20 acres that have opened since the moving of Interstate 195 that has heard rumblings of health care-centric business opportunities. There is also what's being dubbed as the “station district” with the recently extended commuter rail to Warwick along with the fence industries on Aquidneck Island.

As far as the southern portion of the state goes, Chafee said that tourism is of course important. Also, he said he will “continue to help cities and towns with their budget problems.”

That is especially a concern for Charlestown, Richmond, and Hopkinton, whose councils have expressed worry associated with the upcoming fiscal years. Of utmost concern is typically the amount of money the towns allocate to the Chariho Regional School District.

As Chafee mentioned, the state previously used the federal stimulus funding to help cover gaps in state aid to the towns for education, for example, or to make up the now gone motor vehicle excise tax payments.

According to numbers previously reported by The Times, the district is expected to see a $3.5 million reduction in state aid to education over the coming 10 years.

When asked if anything could be done for the towns to ease that transition in lessened financial aid, Chafee said it's merely a move to put Chariho on a level playing field with other school districts in the state. The incentives for becoming a regional school district, such as a yearly bonus that was apparently meant as a one-time deal, aren't sustainable, he said.

“There will be some short-term pain as the playing field gets leveled,” Chafee added.

And when discussing how working together can improve the state across the board, the governor-elect gave the example of Chile's success when he was a U.S. senator. The South American country, he said, had the fastest growing economy at one time because the political parties were working together and getting great results.

Doing that here, he explained, would bring equal amounts of success.

Rhode Island has not been united in some time, Chafee, a onetime Republican-turned-Independent, said. People have been pulling in different directions and companies see that, he continued.

“We all know Rhode Island is that best state and it's time to embrace that” together, Chafee said.

Elsewhere in terms of unification, he said that his success as governor depends on his relationship with the General Assembly.

He's ready to create and maintain that relationship even as members of the legislature might change every election season. “I had four council presidents when I was the mayor (of Warwick) for seven years,” Chafee said, adding that he worked well with each of them.

So far, he said he's off to a good start with his appointments of former state senators and representatives who are well respected in the legislature.

He gave the example of selecting Richard Licht, who has been named director of the Department of Administration. Along with being a former lieutenant governor, Licht, a Democrat, served as a state senator from 1975 to 1984.

And although it's not yet finalized, Chafee has offered previous Providence mayor-hopeful Steven M. Constantino the job of secretary of the Office of Health & Human Services. Constantino, also a Democrat, serves as the House of Representatives Finance Chairman.

This appointment is still on hold because the state Ethics Commission is checking if he can move from the legislative to executive branch.

Having this diverse group of directors is one of the first benefits Chafee sees as being the first Independent governor in a very bipartisan-minded state as they have held office or ran in the past under different party tickets.

Chafee also intends to build, or re-build, the state's relationship with the Narragansett Indian Tribe. He said he had met with Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas the day before. And from that meeting, Chafee said his goal is to “somehow not continue battling with the tribe.”

“Where can we find common ground?” the governor-elect asked, adding that he couldn't provide a specific example of what that common ground could lead to in the future.

He went on to say that he doesn't believe the tribe would want a casino on their settlement lands in Charlestown. That is huge issue of concern for residents of the town and neighboring communities, especially with the so-called “Carcieri fix” nearly making its way through Congress.

There's just too much opposition locally along with issues with utilities, Chafee said, for a casino to be realistic there. He did say, though, that he sees casinos coming up as a big topic in the ensuing years of his term as Massachusetts continues to rally for a gaming facility.

The governor-elect also wants to increase the relationship with the state's higher education institutions of the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, and the Community College of Rhode Island. Once the economy improves, he said, the priority will be to better fund these institutions.

Chafee said that those three are far too tuition driven.

“I want to reverse that trend,” he continued, “and get back to [having them be] a true state school.”

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