RI Foundation: Use federal COVID aid to build homes, not to fix Superman Building

Patrick Anderson The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Islanders had plenty of ideas — more than 400, in fact — on how the state should spend its $1-billion American Rescue Plan windfall.

They ranged from writing every resident a $600 check to investing in nuclear reactors to renovating the "Superman" building.

But after six months of studying and compiling ideas, policy experts convened by the Rhode Island Foundation recommended seizing the opportunity to build thousands of new homes, repair the state's troubled mental health-care system and turbocharge worker training, among other things.

On Tuesday the Foundation released a 47-page "Make It Happen" report that would find a home for $1.065 billion of the $1.13 billion in mostly unrestricted aid sitting in state bank accounts. 

The driving force behind the recommendations was to make investments that would help those hurt most by COVID and bring "transformative change." They stayed away from areas — such as infrastructure, climate change and education — that are receiving or could soon receive large, direct infusions of federal cash. 

"Many of things we are recommending — all of the things — predated COVID. COVID made everything worse," Rhode Island Foundation CEO Neil Steinberg told reporters. "And it made it particularly worse for people in the underrepresented communities. We wanted these to be sustainable recommendations. We wanted them to have impact."

Along with housing, health care and worker training, the report recommends new spending on small-business assistance, a blast of emergency assistance to nonprofits serving the neediest residents and bolstering the state's financial oversight capability for dealing with the unprecedented geyser of federal cash that arrived with COVID-19.

The foundation teamed up with the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council and left-leaning Economic Progress Institute to put the recommendations together.

They now go over to state elected leaders, who were all briefed on the ideas Monday and have previously expressed support for many of the goals.