Rhode Island capitol

The Rhode Island State House in Providence.

(The Center Square) – A popular sandwich spread was used in an analogy as the head of a Rhode Island organization shared his vision for spending $1.065 billion in federal funds allocated to the state through the American Rescue Plan Act. 

“We do not subscribe to spreading peanut butter with this money,” Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, said as he unveiled a series of concentrated, big-picture proposals for using the funds at a Senate Committee on Finance meeting.

The Rhode Island Foundation was tapped to provide recommendations on the state’s share of ARPA funds, independent of dollars allocated to local cities and towns and resources designated for education.

The list of recommendations, which fall in six buckets, are part of a plan, “Make it Happen: Investing in Rhode Island’s Future.”

State Sen. Ryan Pearson, D-Cumberland, who chairs the committee, said the foundation’s input into the use of ARPA funds is part of “a broader, more strategic conversation.”

Housing could be one of the largest projects if the foundation’s recommendations come to fruition. A recommended $405 million has been pinpointed for a range of issues within the broad category, including commitments to providing residents in need with 5,150 units of affordable housing. The goal, Steinberg said, is to eradicate homelessness in the state.

Funding toward behavioral health also was included on the list, to the tune of $255 million, toward such issues as opioid overdose prevention and mental health resources. The organization also is recommending lawmakers consider $205 million in funding for workforce development.

Rounding out the list are $100 million toward small business assistance, $50 million set aside in a specific trust to benefit targeted neighborhoods and $50 million toward programs and services that would provide immediate relief to statewide residents.

In his presentation to senators, Steinberg said he believed the state should tackle several big issues, rather than provide funding for multiple small projects.

“These are long-term investments, and that’s key,” Steinberg said. “We wanted to make sure (the recommendations) are equitable and achievable.”

The list of recommendations, Steinberg said, came to fruition after a robust public input process. More than 400 specific ideas were submitted through an online platform.

A 15-person steering committee whose membership Steinberg described as “smart, creative, long-term thinkers” played a pivotal role in assembling the framework recommendations.

“This is the result of six months of rigorous work that we undertook,” Steinberg said.

At first blush, members on the Senate committee spoke favorably of the proposal at the recent meeting.

“I really appreciate the equity lens when it comes to these recommendations,” state Sen. Sandra Cano, D-Pawtucket, said. “Food insecurity is real, and it is real today.”

State Sen. Walter Felag Jr., D-Bristol, did question if the housing component could result in an influx of new people moving into the state, solely in search of affordable housing.

“I’m very concerned with how we implement this,” Felag said, pointing out he would prefer the funds go to current state residents in need.

In response, Steinberg said, “We know where the areas of need are. This is a little state.”

Further deliberation on the foundation’s recommendations will occur before final decisions are made. Rhode Island has until the end of 2024 to appropriate the funds and until the end of 2026 to spend them.