Rhode Island free tuition proposal off to rocky start

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo has visited schools and stakeholders around the state to pitch her plan for free college tuition. (Photo: Office of Gov. Gina Raimondo)

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s signature initiative this year — a proposal for two years of free tuition at the state’s public colleges — is off to a rocky start.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a fellow Democrat, took to Twitter last month to call it “unsustainable and fiscally irresponsible.” Other lawmakers have also voiced doubts.

Raimondo said last week in an interview it is all “part of the normal give and take” of the legislative process in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. In previous years, similar battles on competing priorities ended in compromise.

But even some supporters of Raimondo’s free tuition concept said other legislators are having a hard time endorsing a program perceived as a giveaway.

“This is truly middle-class relief,” said Rep. Gregg Amore, a Democrat and member of the House Finance Committee that will soon begin vetting the proposal. But “when it was rolled out as free, I think she lost a golden opportunity to sell this for what it really is,” Amore said. “I think the proposal has merit and the messaging stepped all over the merit.”

Raimondo’s program would cover tuition for the full two years at the Community College of Rhode Island or the final two years of a four-year-degree at the University of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College.

Selling the plan

Raimondo has held rallies at high schools around the state since January, building enthusiasm among college-bound seniors and their families. Several mayors and city councils have endorsed it, as has the Providence NAACP and the Democratic president of the state Senate.

“We’ve heard from hundreds and hundreds of families from across Rhode Island,” said Raimondo, adding that she is also “hearing daily from business people telling me this could be a game-changer for Rhode Island’s economy.”

But in the state House of Representatives, which could approve or kill the plan, Raimondo has a more skeptical audience.

“There’s only so much money that we have allocated,” said Rep. James McLaughlin, a Democrat who sits on the finance committee. “It’s a noble thing, a noble gesture, but how are you going to pay for it?”

Another finance committee member, Democratic Rep. John Edwards, said he would look at it with a “keen eye” but his constituents don’t like it.

“She wants to give something away that will only benefit a very small portion of our population,” he said. Edwards said he’s more concerned about hospital funding. Other lawmakers said they would rather improve the K-12 education system.

Is it sustainable?

Raimondo said it’s “absolutely sustainable” and “very affordable,” starting at $10 million a year in a roughly $9 billion budget and rising to $30 million upon full implementation. The state’s poorest students are already eligible for other forms of financial aid, leaving middle-income families the most likely beneficiaries.

Mattiello has set the tone among House Democrats by making their top priority the elimination of car taxes, which are widely unpopular. That has put him at odds with Raimondo, who has advocated for a more modest one-time tax cut and has questioned whether the state can afford to do more.

Raimondo’s free tuition proposal followed national enthusiasm from young voters for the Democratic presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his college-for-all ideas. That’s led Mattiello and other critics to characterize Raimondo’s version as a risky, first-in-the-nation outlier.

But Amore said it’s not much different from what some Republican-led states have already done to make state colleges more affordable.

“Most Rhode Islanders would say, ‘I’m for that,'” Amore said. “This is what state schools should be providing our kids.”

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