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RI figures offer outlook for 2012

December 31, 2011
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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—It was a year of change -- and challenges -- in Rhode Island. A new governor took office; the capital city of Providence got a new mayor. The General Assembly passed legislation legalizing civil unions for gay couples and approved an overhaul of the state's underfunded pension system. The unemployment rate dropped from 11.3 in January to 10.5 in December, but economic woes persisted: A state receiver in Central Falls filed for bankruptcy on the city's behalf, and a budget commission took over in East Providence.

Four state lawmakers faced criminal charges -- including sexual assault and pocketing proceeds from a life insurance policy on a friend's dead daughter. In North Providence, the police chief was accused of stealing money from the purse of a former stripper.

But now it's time to look ahead. The Associated Press asked figures from all walks of life in the state to answer the question: "What do you think will be the top story in Rhode Island in 2012?"

Here are their answers.

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Laurie White, president, Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce

The big story in 2012 will be the long-awaited economic recovery in Rhode Island. We see many forces coming together and suddenly synching. Students, young people and mid-career workers will continue building their own knowledge economy-type companies using the power of ideas. A critical mass will suddenly burst on the scene and job opportunities will become more evident. Because of our diverse population, Rhode Island will attract lots of attention as the place to be for relevant and personalized new product development. This magic tableau just might convince an "idea" company like Google to heavily invest in Rhode Island. Now that would be a big story! We're going to work on it.

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Lincoln Chafee, Rhode Island governor

In 2012, Rhode Island will further establish itself as a center of excellence in the "meds and eds" - the job-creating medical, research and educational fields. Rhode Island is perfectly positioned for growth in the "meds and eds." We have world-class hospitals and universities, including the new $45 million Brown Medical School facility. We have 20 acres of valuable land opened up in the heart of Providence's Knowledge District. We have exciting startups gaining acclaim for innovation and excellence. And state and local officials, as well as business and labor leaders, are committed to working together to get our economy moving.

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Jim Ryczek, executive director, Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless

Rhode Island will take its first steps to end homelessness in the Ocean State. The General Assembly will pass a budget that includes a dedicated fund for affordable housing in Rhode Island. Housing advocates have long pushed state lawmakers to adopt this proven public policy shared by 41 other states across the nation. It also puts Rhode Island on a path to becoming a housing state, not a shelter state. In effect, our state will put affordable housing on par with other critical public policy investments like education, infrastructure, and job development. After all, to achieve economic security poor Rhode Islanders need a stable home first.

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State Rep. Doreen Costa, R-North Kingstown

The first story that comes to my mind is President Obama. Can the country survive four more years of his out-of-control spending?

Then there are local stories that might pique some interest. The 1st Congressional District. Will (Democratic U.S. Rep) David Cicilline be successful? Will the new maps that were drawn help Congressman Cicilline?

Casinos in Rhode Island? This seems to come up time and time again. I feel as if we have to beat Massachusetts to the punch but why start over. Expand Twin River and Newport Grand. ... That will give us a jump start instead of trying to find other locations.

You can't help but add pension reform to the mix. Cities and towns have a difficult task come 2012.

Then there is voter ID. I was happy to co-sponsor this legislation (which will require voters to show identification). It will be interesting to see how this plays at the polls this election year.

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Mark Simmons, Occupy Providence activist

This is a tough one to answer. Being a member of Occupy Providence since the beginning, and being aware of the struggles of the bottom 99 percent, I think the big story in Rhode Island will be if the state can help those who most need it. Will we continue to allow our elected officials to marginalize our voices to the extent that we no longer feel we can participate in our own futures? I want to feel that the common struggle we all face is one that we can overcome together as a community.

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Angel Taveras, Providence mayor

Rhode Island's cities continue to get whiplashed by fiscal storms; Providence leads the way forward, finishing the job of pension reform and having tax-exempt institutions share in the sacrifice to put the capital city on firm financial ground.

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JoAnne Leppanen, executive director, Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition

The interest in medical marijuana will grow as more patient and physicians understand its value in helping patients endure otherwise difficult treatments, manage pain, and prolong life. Impatience with public officials will grow as the patient community becomes more self-reliant while demanding that federal officials and Governor Chaffee respond to the needs of the very sick. Expect an outcry against any attempt by pharmaceutical companies to take over and charge patients for medicine that many can grow for themselves.

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Robert B. Mann, defense attorney

The state will continue to address its pension hangover, with the emphasis shifting to municipalities. The leadership -- Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Treasurer Gina Raimondo and others -- will be aided by several strong mayors. Like the statewide battle, there will be no easy solutions, but also like the statewide approach, there will be some measure of success. For the second year in a row Rhode Island garners some national recognition for addressing its fiscal woes. The appearance of moving in a positive economic direction begins to bring at least some modest relief to the unemployment and housing numbers. (If the state really wants to save money, cut the prison population by half or two-thirds, but I am a defense lawyer, so maybe I am biased.)

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Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., former Providence mayor and WPRO-AM talk-radio host

Unfunded liabilities. Receiverships. Pensions at risk. 2011's story lines will continue to play out in 2012 as more and more municipalities fight to survive. In 2012, we'll see the latest chapter written in this ongoing saga, which makes "War and Peace" read like a romance novel. The spotlight will shift from courtrooms and balance sheets to the political arena. In the 1st Congressional District, will Republicans snatch defeat from the jaws of victory after a bruising primary fight between (John) Loughlin and (Brendan) Doherty? Or, will the state's fiscal crisis and the nation's "throw the bums out" fervor claim 24 percent-approval freshman Rep. David Cicilline?

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