McKee Says New Normal Could be ‘Far Better’
At a Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce event that ironically resembled pre-pandemic gatherings, Gov. Dan McKee rebuffed the idea of returning to normalcy, stating instead that the post-pandemic world could be “far better.”
His comments came in a room of unmasked guests at the Wayfinder Hotel on March 10. McKee, who was on hand to offer local business and municipal leaders a look into his fiscal plans and public policy priorities this session, said he was recently struck by comments from Brown University’s Dr. Ashish Jha about not returning to the status quo.
“Think about that,” said McKee. “[After] the Great Depression, we never went back to the way we were. After a world war, we never went back. We’re not going to go back to where we were, but where we can be can be far better than where we were. That’s the point and that’s what I think could happen with help from chambers of commerce, municipal leaders and nonprofits. This all can happen in the state of Rhode Island.”
As McKee gears up for a congested 2022 gubernatorial race, facing a number of Democratic challengers for the top seat in the state, he has been visiting municipalities and touting plans for recovery as the pandemic seemingly wanes and recommended guidelines from the CDC, such as indoor masking policies become less restrictive. The governor told the gathered representatives of local establishments, municipal government and nonprofit organizations that COVID-19 is not as deadly as it once was.
“This is a preventable and treatable disease,” he said. “This is where we are right now. A year ago, it was different. The majority of the people who were in the hospital [due to COVID] died. We went to the funerals . . . We’re at this pivotal point. We also benefit economically as we recover from it.”
The governor said he hopes to use the state’s COVID response to help make Rhode Island the top state in the nation for business by Easter, and he highlighted recent studies that found Rhode Island was already among the top five states in that category.
“When was the last time we weren’t the last ones in and the first ones out [when it comes to business]?” McKee asked.
Moving to his proposed fiscal year 2023 budget, he said the state will enjoy the largest surplus it’s ever had at $600 million. “But what are we going to do with that surplus? We’re going to invest it back in in areas that we have been reluctant to,” he said.
Those investments will include unprecedented contributions to state pensions, various infrastructure projects, and the establishment of municipal education offices, along with an emphasis on higher education access and job training.
“COVID has been … I don’t even know how to describe it,” he said. “There’s a shortage on trying to get people back to work and we can’t really understand why at the moment, but we have to continue to try. Part of it is in job training and making investments and then filling those jobs with people who are trained.”
McKee fielded questions from the audience, including one regarding local housing and the lack of attainable and affordable properties. The governor pointed to the $250 million proposed in his budget that would go toward the issue via the construction and renovation of affordable homes, repurposing of existing and defunct properties into living spaces, workforce housing support and grant program creation.
“I’ll manage what I get,” McKee said, alluding to the General Assembly’s pending vote on his proposal. “But I think what we proposed in the budget was very significant.”
McKee ended by noting that his office was utilizing technology to gather input on issues affecting Rhode Islanders on a mass-scale, hosting virtual community conversations and creating a working document to guide the state in areas such as education, public health and economic recovery. The document can be viewed at ri2030.com.
After the event, Dist. 12 Senator Lou DiPalma said he shared the governor’s optimism.
“I am extremely hopeful Rhode Island, and specifically Newport County and Aquidneck Island will come back stronger than before,” said DiPalma. “Critical to this comeback will be securing the appropriate workforce to fill the future expected, and especially the current, vacancies exist across many industries: defense to hospitality and everything in between.”