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4/1/2012

The Joint Economic Development Committee (JEDC) was reconstituted this legislative session to promote and encourage the preservation, expansion, and sound development of new and existing industry, business, commerce, agriculture, tourism and recreational facilities in the state. We have met on the progress of many topics of importance to the growth of jobs in the state, including monitoring regulatory reform initiatives which the General Assembly has passed in recent years and workforce development initiatives.  Recently, the JEDC met to hear witnesses speak to potential growth and employment opportunities for RI companies through product exports abroad. 


Testifying at a recent hearing of the JEDC, the CEO of a local company remarked that his customers in Japan view the “Made in the USA” label as a sign of quality. Made in America means something again, and that is great to hear.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of manufacturing in America are premature.  Exports represent an important indicator of this sector’s success, and we have been pleased to learn during the committee’s hearings that the export market is strong, there is potential for additional growth, and that growth in exports translates into growth in jobs at home.

Exports are strong, representing 31 percent of the total economic growth over the past 22 years, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis reports. In Rhode Island, exports grew by 53 percent over the past two years, from $1.9 billion in 2009 to $2.3 billion in 2011. What’s more, the return on investment from a state perspective is huge, with $40 in increased exports generated for each dollar invested in trade programs, according to the John H. Chafee Center for International Business at Bryant University (The Chafee Center works with small businesses to provide guidance in entering foreign markets and exporting.). 

Exports are a critical and growing part of our economy, and it is vital that we continue to work together to cultivate ideas and build upon these successes. Particularly striking was a discussion we had regarding “in-sourcing,” or, bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. [and RI] from overseas.  At our recent committee hearing, we heard from a number of Rhode Island-based companies that manufacture products in RI and successfully sell their products abroad.  For example, renowned jewelry makers, Alex and Ani, recently gained entry into the largest department store group in Europe, and also have footholds in Japan and Israel. Another RI company named Hope Global manufactures many high-grade textile products, including high-quality shoelaces for Red Wing Boots.  Its laces are shipped to countries such as Brazil, Korea, Japan and even China!  RI-based Mearthane Products Group has grown its manufacturing team to meet demand for polyurethane products, including submarine gaskets, printer rollers and luggage wheels sent to end-product manufacturers across the globe.  By expanding RI's product exports abroad, we can increase the number of good-paying jobs for state residents here at home!

RI companies interested in expanding their business abroad are encouraged to contact the Chafee Center for a free consultation to any Rhode Island (Phone: 401-232-6407 or E-mail: chafeecenter@bryant.edu).  

(Sen. James Sheehan and Rep. Donna Walsh co-chair the Joint Committee on Economic Development. Senator Sheehan is the Democratic Senator from District 36, Narragansett, North Kingstown; Representative Walsh is the Democratic Representative from District 36, Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly.)​
By Sen. James C. Sheehan and Rep. Donna M. Walsh

Exports are a critical and growing part of our economy, and it is vital that we continue to work to cultivate ideas and build on successes. In Rhode Island, exports grew by 53 percent over the past two years, from $1.9 billion in 2009 to $2.3 billion in 2011. That translates into the growth of jobs. By expanding Rhode Island's product exports abroad, we can increase the number of good-paying jobs for state residents.

  
4/2/2012

Businesses large and small in Rhode Island are worried.   Not only has the recession knocked the stuffing out of them, the truth is that the slowdown in economic activity is persisting here much longer and harder than in neighboring states.  Our employers have had fewer customers coming in the door and when they do come, they have been spending less.   Each owner or manager has had to look through every expenditure and operation and find efficiencies.  Too many are surviving, but not thriving.


Each year about this time they get the quote for their health insurance coverage and each year it worries them more.   Ominously, this year I have heard several managers worry that they will have to lay off workers because their insurance costs are climbing too steeply.   With increases of 15% to 22% they simply can’t squeeze the additional cash out of their budget anymore.  

This is bad news for an unemployment rate that is persistently in the 10-11% range.   It is disastrous news for folks struggling to find a new job and pay their mortgage.   We are going in the wrong direction.  Our employers need some relief and they need it now.  

Rhode Island health insurance has the dubious distinction of containing the largest number of mandates in the country.  That’s right; we’re Number 1.   But this is the wrong list to be first on.  We have 70.  The national average is 43.   Obviously, to insure the health and well-being of our citizens, core services are indispensible.  There is a basic package of medical services and treatments that must be provided to keep us well and heal us.   However, the legislature has gone far beyond that basic package and added coverages that, while nice, are not necessarily essential.   When benefits were added to the list, we heard the argument that they only added a little bit to every premium.  However, each one adds cost.  While most add 1% or less, invitro fertilization alone adds 3-5% to our health insurance premiums.  Unfortunately, as we well know, pennies become dollars, and dollars grow into serious cash.   And now those premiums are affecting the health of business and government budgets.  They are causing layoffs and cuts in service.

We understand that each mandate has developed a constituency; people who use it and like to have the free services.  But the question has to be asked, is it ‘nice’ to have or vital to our citizens’ health? We can’t strangle our job market with ‘nice’ any longer.  We no longer have that choice. 

With the imposition of the Affordable Care Act it is even more critical that we act to slim down our list of mandates to an essential package.   First, the ACA removes all spending limits that might currently be placed on a mandate.   Conceivably, a patient could opt to indefinitely repeat an optional treatment like smoking cessation or invitro fertilization treatments, regardless of success or failure.   Of even more concern is that in 2014 the federal government is expected to release a federal package.   Any mandates that we have in excess of the federal list will be the financial responsibility of our state. With a list that has 27 more than the average, what’s your guess that we will have extra?  Those benefits will not be eligible for federal subsidies.  Taxes would explode to cover the costs. 

Many think that the Supreme Court will overturn the Affordable Care Act.   We can’t count on that and even if they do, with our job climate presently in the basement, we need to get serious about making it easier for companies to come here, to grow here and to thrive here. 
An easy, short term answer to soaring healthcare costs is to reduce the number of mandates.  That’s why we introduced a bill to create a commission that would devise a package of essential health benefits.   Let’s cut the fluff, construct a core of vital services and go from number 1 to average.   In this case middle of the pack is where we want to be.   Our existing businesses will have a breather.  It will help each and every one of us by cutting our personal healthcare premium, as well.   Reducing our mandates from number one to the national average could reduce our premiums by 10 to 15%.   

That’s a huge weight off each of us and off of our economy.  Companies looking to relocate will take notice. 

(Patricia L. Morgan is the Republican State Representative from District 26, West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick.)​
By Rep. Patricia L. Morgan

Businesses large and small are worried. Too many are surviving, but not thriving. East year about this time they get the quote from their health insurance coverage and each year it worries them more. With increases of 15 percent to 22 percent, they simply can't squeeze the additional cash out of their budget anymore. An easy, short term answer to soaring healthcare costs is to reduce the number of mandates.

  
5/1/2012

In light of last year’s release from prison of murderer Michael Woodmansee, it was clear that Rhode Island’s system of awarding time off to prisoners for good behavior was too generous to people who had committed very serious crimes.


After learning last year that Woodmansee would be released after serving just 28 years of a 50-year sentence, 40 to serve, for the heinous murder of 5-year-old Jason Foreman in 1975 (fortunately, he later agreed to remain in voluntary institutional confinement), I filed legislation on behalf of the attorney general that would have amended the “good time” law to prevent those convicted of crimes of violence from qualifying for it. But the issue proved too complicated to reach consensus on so quickly, and instead I filed another bill, which passed, asking the state Criminal Justice Oversight Commission (CJOC) to study the issue and recommend reforms to the General Assembly.

The commission’s report suggested that the General Assembly work to balance the need to encourage prisoners to follow the rules and participate in rehabilitative programs with the rights of the public to be protected from dangerous criminals. A delicate balance, indeed.

Accordingly, I worked over the past year in conjunction with members of the CJOC to draft a bill to ban those convicted of the most serious offenses – murder, attempted murder, first-degree sexual assault, kidnapping of a minor and first- or second-degree child molestation – from earning time off their sentences unless they actively participate in their own rehabilitation. 

Under the current system, merely existing in prison without incident earns a prisoner significant time off his or her sentence, as much as 10 days a month. That blanket policy was too generous and often resulted in a miscarriage of justice. When victims and their families are told the person who committed the crime against them will be locked away for a long time, they should have some reasonable assurance that they will not be let out as much as one-third earlier simply for not committing any new offenses while in prison. 

Under my legislation, which passed the General Assembly with broad support, going forward the only way a serious offender (as described above) could earn time off his or her sentence would be by actively participating in rehabilitative programs, such as substance abuse or educational programs that teach useful life or career skills. Such programs deliver as much good for society as they do for inmates; by offering offenders opportunities to acquire “soft” skills they may otherwise lack, or career skills that will give them employment options when they are released, such programs reduce the probability they will turn again to crime. I firmly believe it is in society’s best interest to reasonably encourage inmates who are going to be released at some point to take advantage of those programs, since they better enable offenders to lead productive lives once released – and remember, the inmates this law will affect will all be released back into our communities at the end of their sentences. 

What I believe to be reasonable is to entice prisoners to pursue correctional programs that directly correspond to becoming a useful citizen upon release, better prepared to engage with our world in a productive manner. Their time spent in the custody of our Department of Corrections can help do this. What is not reasonable is the status quo: a system in which a prisoner serving time for a heinous crime can do absolutely nothing to rehabilitate himself or herself, and still be disproportionately rewarded for their “good behavior” with a significant sentence reduction. 

For the families whose lives have been torn apart by violent acts perpetrated against their loved ones, I am grateful for the courage they showed through this long and awful process. In particular, I want to acknowledge the strength, perseverance and grace of the Foremans, the Shermans and the Wilmots who relentlessly channeled their pain and suffering into momentum for needed reform to a flawed system so inmates will no longer be rewarded with early release for doing nothing at all. It was their tireless efforts that rallied the support and kept the pressure on the General Assembly to pass this bill. Though it will not do a thing to change the sentences in their cases, they continued to fight for future victims and families they may never know. I hope this brief moment of victory will help transform their suffering into a legacy of which they can all be proud. 

(Rep. Teresa Tanzi represents District 34 in South Kingstown and Narragansett. The first-term Democrat is the sponsor of the “good time” bill, which passed the General Assembly May 30.)​
By Rep. Teresa Tanzi

In light of last year's release from prison of murderer Michael Woodmansee, it was clear that Rhode Island's system of awarding time off to prisoners for good behavior was too generous to people who had committed very serious crimes. Under legislation I introduced, the only way a serious offender could earn time off his or her sentence would be by actively participating in rehabilitative programs, such as substance abuse or educational programs that teach useful life or career skills.

  
9/1/2012

There is not one simple action that can be taken to improve Rhode Island’s economy, some magical financial panacea or a better business climate silver bullet. 


There is not one all-encompassing law or executive order that could be enacted that would ensure economic growth, or the creation of new jobs.

Turning Rhode Island’s economy around, erasing the state’s rating as a bad place to do business, finding innovative methods to attract job creators to the Ocean State is going to take time. 

Thanks to actions taken by the State Senate in recent years, Rhode Island is already making the concerted effort and taking the steps necessary to restore prosperity to our state.

Begun as a Senate initiative several years ago, the “Making it Easy to do Business in Rhode Island” effort has already led to reforms to overhaul the income tax, cut red tape and improve access to capital and workforce development. The prime directive of that legislative effort and other bills that have been passed and enacted is to have government work cooperatively with the business community to help them thrive and, in turn, create good jobs for Rhode Islanders who want and need them.

In keeping with that goal, several important bills became law this year that, in conjunction with past actions, will continue to address the needs of business, make Rhode Island more competitive and pave the way for economic growth and job creation.

The state budget that was enacted this year includes funds for the purchase and operation of a web-accessible software system to be used by the state and municipalities, offering a uniform building plan review, permit management and inspection system, all designed to increase the local permitting for small businesses.

Revisions were made to the state fire code, making it more flexible and less costly, helping to reduce the burdens on small businesses that existed under the previous code while still keeping public safety paramount. The newly revised code will, for instance, allow for alternative and less costly means of compliance, less expensive wiring methods and an increased focus on separation within properties. The new law also directs the Fire Safety Code Board to examine added regulatory flexibility for small businesses, including increasing square footage before triggering some of the more expensive code requirements, and to leave in place the exemption provisions for existing apartment buildings, places of worship, funeral homes, marinas and the marine trade industry, restaurants and non-residential barns, as appropriate.

Also approved this year was legislation authorizing the Quonset Development Corporation to issue $7.5 million in bonds for dredging at the Port of Davisville. The dredging will help the port accommodate all modern shipping vessels. By issuing state bonds for the project, as opposed to the use of federal funds, the project can be accomplished more quickly and will preserve a key economic advantage for the port by avoiding a federal Harbor Maintenance Tax. The bond will be repaid by operating revenues of the QDC and companies that utilize the port and the piers for maritime businesses and will not involve any taxpayer money. The Port of Davisville is currently the eighth largest auto importer in North America, receiving more than 125 car ships containing more than 135,000 vehicles per year. The business at the port produces $119 million annually in total output, while employing 1,105 people with personal earnings of $42.6 million and generating $9 million in state and local tax revenues annual. Dredging at the port will help to raise those numbers and expand the growth of other maritime industries at or near the port.

Among the other new laws enacted this year are those that will provide for speedier building permits by ensuring that lack of curb-cut permits will not be cause for a building official to delay examination of a building permit application; updating the Regulatory Fairness Act to remove areas of the law where there had been conflict and providing less costly and less intrusive alternative to business regulations; protecting current agricultural businesses and increase future farming in coastal areas by eliminating certain requirements relative to the Coastal Resources Management Council; boosting agriculture and seafood industries by directing the Department of Environmental Management to establish a program to provide small grants and technical assistance.

Each of these various pieces – taken as a whole – are making it easier and less costly for businesses to come to Rhode Island and for those here to grow and prosper. And as businesses expand, that translates into more jobs available for state residents who, through workforce development commitments adopted by our educational institutions, can receive the training they need for good paying, high quality jobs of the future. 

Eliminating red tape and improving access to capital and workforce development are good answers to our economic doldrums and good first steps in the right direction, but more needs to be done.

As a result of several economic forums held and hosted by the Senate and during the course of hearings on legislation that has already been enacted, we heard other suggestions aimed at turning around the state’s economy. Among them – make the state’s corporate tax more competitive; establish an economic and business institute at URI to provide unbiased information for new legislation and new laws; establish clear metrics to evaluate state government operations. 

We hope to pursue those and others in the next legislative session, including a serious discussion of whether the state, or the quasi-public Economic Development Corporation, should be in the money-lending business. That could be part of a larger discussion as to whether the duties of the EDC should, instead, be incorporated into a new Department of Commerce, within the executive department.

Falling off a cliff, financially speaking, does not take much time. Climbing back to the top does. With the actions already taken and other issues that will be addressed in the coming year, Rhode Islanders should feel assured that the Senate is fully committed to growing Rhode Island’s economy by making the state a good place to do business, where residents can receive proper training for good paying jobs.

-30-

(William A. Walaska is the Democratic State Senator from District 30, Warwick; David E. Bates is the Republican State Senator from District 32, Barrington, Bristol).​
By Sen. William A. Walaska and Sen. David E. Bates

There is not one simple action that can be taken to improve Rhode Island's economy, some magical financial panacea or a better business climate silver bullet. Yet thanks to actions taken by the State Senate in recent years, Rhode Island is already making the concerted effort and taking the steps necessary to restore prosperity to our state.

  
9/2/2012

Have you ever had trouble getting public information from your government?  You shouldn't, but it has at times been a problem here in Rhode Island.


Legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor took effect on September 1, making significant improvements to the Access to Public Records Act (more commonly known as the open records law), will fix that.

Based on legislation we sponsored in the State Senate and House of Representatives, the APRA changes that are now in effect are expected to make public records easier to obtain.  This will make more transparent the actions of all public bodies in the state, from the local level to the state. The executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition has said the changes to the law could make Rhode Island one of the most open governments in New England.

We fought for these improvements to the law because we believe that government does not and should not exist to keep secrets from the public.  Instead it should facilitate the public’s knowledge and understanding about the functions of government. Good governments provide their citizens with as much accurate and easily obtainable information as possible. We believe our changes will make it easier for the public to seek and receive information and make more information that is pertinent to the public readily available.

Among the provisions of the new and improved APRA:

Prior to September 1, all documents identifiable to an individual were not public.  The new law will apply a balancing test by providing that all records of this nature would be public unless disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.  This is identical to the balancing test in the Federal Freedom of Information Act.

An arrest record must now be provided within 48 hours of a request (72 hours on weekends and holidays), together with basic information pertaining to the arrest of an adult. This provision applies to arrests made five days before a request for records. The basic information to be provided includes such items as the name, date of birth, gender and race of the arrested adult; the charge or charges and the date and time of the arrest.

Various records that were not previously public now will be, including municipal pension records that are not part of the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (MERS), records of payments received by an employee as a result of termination or otherwise leaving employment and employment contracts of public employees.

Public bodies will be required to designate a public records officer. Those who will handle public records requests must receive training and orientation concerning the act and certify compliance to this requirement to the Attorney General.

A public body cannot, as a condition of fulfilling a public records request, require a person seeking public records to give a reason for the request or to provide personally identifiable information about him or herself.

All copying and search and retrieval fees will be waived if a public body fails to comply with a request in a timely manner.

The civil fine for a knowing or willful violation of these provisions will be increased from $1,000 to $2,000.

A $1,000 fine will be imposed against a public body or official found to have recklessly violated the provisions.  Until now, there has been no fine for a reckless violation.

When a public body seeks an additional 20 business days to respond to a record request (beyond the initial 10 business days), it must set forth a specific reason why additional time is necessary. Until now, a public body could extend the time to respond up to an additional 20 business days “for good cause” without clearly elaborating the cause.

A court may now award reasonable attorney fees and costs to a plaintiff if the court determines that the public body acted in bad faith. (A judgment in the plaintiff’s favor is not needed.)

The executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, in a recent news story, said the amendments now incorporated in the law will leave Rhode Island “better off and there will be more transparency in Rhode Island government.” Assistant RI Attorney General Michael W. Field, head of the Open Government Unit in the AG’s office, said that, under the new law, “there’s going to be greater accountability from start to finish.”

We are proud to have been involved in enacting these important changes to the law.  We have written this article because it is vital that citizens know their rights and exercise those rights to hold public officials accountable. More transparency can only yield greater efficiency and accountability to the citizens of our state.

(James C. Sheehan is the Democratic State Senator in District 36, Narragansett and North Kingstown. Michael J. Marcello is the Democratic State Representative in District 41, Scituate and Cranston.)​
By Sen. James C. Sheehan and Rep. Michael J. Marcello

Have you ever had trouble getting public information from your government? You shouldn't, but it has at times been a problem here in Rhode Island. Legislation pased by the General Assembly and signed by the governor took effect on September 1, making significant improvements to the Access to Public Records Act (more commonly known as the open records law) will fix that.

  
10/1/2012

More than $1.73 billion of state revenue was given up through tax expenditures in 2009, according to the 2012 Tax Expenditures Report published this summer by the Office of Revenue Analysis, all without regular review to determine the benefit to the state.


Each year, lawmakers agonize over state spending on programs and administration within our limited means to balance the budget, but because tax expenditures represent money that we never actually receive, we don’t get to consider whether those nearly $2 billion in expenditures are actually benefiting Rhode Islanders.

The term “tax expenditure” encompasses many forms of tax breaks, including credits, deductions, exemptions, preferential rates and others. While some have obvious value (like the sales tax exemptions for food and most clothing, which help make those necessities more affordable) most are never evaluated by the state to see whether the investment is paying dividends for the state’s economy or its citizens.

A report issued by the Department of Revenue’s Office of Revenue Analysis in August attempted to estimate the cost of each of the 235 tax expenditure programs in Rhode Island, although in 80 cases, the state could not calculate any cost, stating “no reliable data exists from which to derive an estimate.” That information and lack thereof should be of great concern to citizens and state leaders because it represents a huge sum of money that the state is spending through the tax code without the appropriate level of scrutiny.

This week I attended a conference held in Providence by the Federation of Tax Administrators, which reinforced my sense of urgency as I learned more states are moving toward better oversight of tax expenditure programs in today’s tough financial times. Some are using spending caps on certain segments, and sunsets to prevent never-ending subsidies; but the movement overall is toward adding sunlight and transparency to silent spending through the tax code.

For the past two years I have introduced legislation with strong bipartisan support requiring any new tax preference to include a statement about what it is supposed to accomplish, ways to measure outcomes, and expiration dates that would provide the General Assembly with an opportunity to positively reaffirm its effectiveness on a systematic basis.

I have also submitted and will continue to introduce legislation creating a finance sub-committee to review all existing tax expenditures and make recommendations over time as to whether to maintain, strengthen or repeal the 235 preferences that currently exist. 

My goal isn’t to eliminate tax credits and exemptions, but to refine them to perform as effectively as possible for the benefit of Rhode Islanders and the state’s economy. 

Many of these expenditures were written decades ago and are in desperate need of review. No company would write a business plan then not change it for a decade and expect to stay competitive in today’s marketplace. Why would we expect our tax code to be any less nimble in times of rapid changes in the business landscape? It’s actually a disservice to businesses that we do not respond more systematically and comprehensively to the changing markets by updating our tax incentives more thoroughly.

Rhode Islanders are rightfully upset about a poorly vetted $75 million loan guarantee for 38 Studios, but let that be the impetus to help us create an economic development plan that is transparent, accountable and data-driven. When we’re deep in a public debate about how Rhode Island should pursue economic development, shouldn’t we be carefully evaluating each program that is supposed to be an incentive for business growth to ensure it is up-to date and primed to help create jobs and rebuild our economy? 

When the state is constantly cutting programs to balance the budget, it’s senseless to ignore one-third of our budget. If we are able to find efficiencies on tax expenditures, we might be able to fund other priorities, such as making significant investments in higher education, improving our crumbling infrastructure, expanding public transit, and perhaps even lowering the corporate income tax rate. Tax expenditures do important work in strengthening our economy, but Rhode Island needs to keep ours current to ensure that they provide the best return for our $1.7 billion investment.

(Rep. Teresa Tanzi is a Democrat who represents District 34 in Wakefield, Peace Dale and Narragansett.)​
By Rep. Teresa Tanzi

More than $1.73 billion of state revenue was given up through tax expenditures in 2009. Many of these expenditures were written decades ago and are in desperate need of review. I have and will continue to propose creating a finance sub-committee to review all existing tax expenditures and make recommendations over time as to whether to maintain, strengthen or repeal the 235 preferences that currently exist.

  
2/1/2013

Rhode Island’s coastal resources rank among its greatest treasures. We are named the “Ocean State” for good reason, as our coast line has shaped our history and culture, and is vital to our state’s economy.


I have introduced House Bills 5378 and 5356 to improve and streamline the state’s primary agency responsible for protecting this precious asset, the Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC). 

Under H 5378, the membership of the CRMC would be reduced from 16 members to 12. I have designed H 5378 to meet the requirements of the voter-mandated Separation of Powers amendment to the state Constitution, but more importantly, to ensure that the majority of the members of the CRMC are representatives of coastal communities, large and small. Four of the members must be elected or appointed officials from coastal municipalities. 

My legislation also calls for seven members drawn from the general public, at least four of whom must reside in Rhode Island coastal communities.
These members would be appointed by Governor, subject to confirmation by the Senate.

To maintain an active role for the General Assembly in the management of our coastal resources, I have also introduced House Bill 5356, which would create a Joint Committee on Coastal Resources comprised of eight members – four Representatives and four Senators. This Joint Committee substitutes for the legislative appointees who have served on the CRMC but may no longer do so because of the separation of powers.

This committee would be empowered to conduct oversight of the state agencies charged with coastal management and environmental protection, including the CRMC.

These changes are necessary not only to comply with the requirements under separation of powers, but to also enhance the CRMC’s ability to respond to the challenges of the future. I want to provide our able CRMC director Grover Fugate and his staff with the kind of leadership that will make the CRMC more effective and efficient.

In the coming years, we must be prepared to address problems that are largely out of our control, such as more frequent and severe storms and rising sea levels. There are hard decisions facing the CRMC such as what we must do to protect and preserve natural and cultural features, including historic sites, barrier beaches, coastal ponds, wetlands and fishing grounds. The CRMC must also maintain a balance between conservation and development, and between conflicting private and public interests. 

We will need the CRMC to work in coordination with DEM, our coastal communities and federal agencies. I believe the changes I am proposing through these two bills will help the CRMC perform its difficult, but essential, mission.

(Representative Walsh represents House District 36 which covers all of Charlestown and Block Island as well as parts of Westerly and South Kingstown.)​
By Rep. Donna M. Walsh

Rhode Island's coastal resources rank among its greatest treasures. We are named the "Ocean State" for good reason, as our coastline has shaped our history and culture, and is vital to our state's economy. I have introduced legislation to improve and streamline the state's primary agency responsible for protecting this precious asset, the Coastal Resources Management Council.

  
3/1/2013

When I introduced legislation to eliminate the Rhode Island sales tax, I indicated that I had one goal in mind – to start a serious conversation.


Our sales tax is killing small businesses, especially those in border communities. How can Rhode Island continue to compete at 7 percent, with Massachusetts already lower than us and considering reducing its sales tax even farther? How can Rhode Island restaurants compete at 8 percent? They can’t. We need to find a way to fix this, and a serious discussion of our sales tax is a discussion we need to have, now, before more small stores close their doors.

Apparently, I have accomplished the goal of getting a discussion started. In a recent article in GoLocalProv, a number of organizations and individuals have weighed in. The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity has offered a positive view of my proposal, while others, such as URI economist Dr. Leonard Lardaro and URI business administration professor Ed Mazze, have found fault with the idea, expressing their concerns about how the state could make up the lost revenue. But even Dr. Lardaro said in that article that this is a conversation worth pursuing.

All of this proves one point – that there are individuals and organizations with opinions about the Rhode Island sales tax who are interested in sharing them. To date, they have not been given a forum to share those ideas and calls for a serious study of the issue have been little more than solitary voices that have been easily ignored.

We cannot ignore the fact that Rhode Island businesses, especially in border communities, are losing customers to Massachusetts. I am one of the small business owners getting hammered because, at least in terms of sales tax, I cannot compete with my nearby Massachusetts competitors. I am down 20 percent in business over the past two years, and it doesn’t matter if we have low prices at my liquor store or not. People just don’t want to pay a sales tax when they can drive a few miles to Massachusetts where there is no sales tax on liquor.

Will Rhode Island eliminate its sales tax? Likely not. Should Rhode Island have a serious discussion about where we stand and where we should or could be? Absolutely. Should we continue to ignore the issue and hope for the best, or should we finally have a comprehensive discussion on the matter? 

In my opinion, doing nothing is doing a disservice to the taxpaying citizens of our state and to the small businesses that are suffering.

(Jan P. Malik is the Democratic State Representative from District 67, Barrington, Warren.)​
By Rep. Jan P. Malik

When I introduced legislation to eliminate the Rhode Island sales tax, I indicated that I had one goal in mind -- to start a serious conversation. Will Rhode Island eliminate the sales tax? Likely not. Should Rhode Island have a serious discussion about where we stand and where we should or could be? Absolutely. Doing nothing is doing a disservice to the taxpaying citizens of our state and to the small businesses that are suffering.

  
6/1/2013

When I introduced legislation to eliminate the Rhode Island sales tax, I indicated that I had one goal in mind – to start a serious conversation.


Our sales tax is killing small businesses, especially those in border communities. How can Rhode Island continue to compete at 7 percent, with Massachusetts already lower than us and considering reducing its sales tax even farther? How can Rhode Island restaurants compete at 8 percent? They can’t. We need to find a way to fix this, and a serious discussion of our sales tax is a discussion we need to have, now, before more small stores close their doors.

Apparently, I have accomplished the goal of getting a discussion started. In a recent article in GoLocalProv, a number of organizations and individuals have weighed in. The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity has offered a positive view of my proposal, while others, such as URI economist Dr. Leonard Lardaro and URI business administration professor Ed Mazze, have found fault with the idea, expressing their concerns about how the state could make up the lost revenue. But even Dr. Lardaro said in that article that this is a conversation worth pursuing.

All of this proves one point – that there are individuals and organizations with opinions about the Rhode Island sales tax who are interested in sharing them. To date, they have not been given a forum to share those ideas and calls for a serious study of the issue have been little more than solitary voices that have been easily ignored.

We cannot ignore the fact that Rhode Island businesses, especially in border communities, are losing customers to Massachusetts. I am one of the small business owners getting hammered because, at least in terms of sales tax, I cannot compete with my nearby Massachusetts competitors. I am down 20 percent in business over the past two years, and it doesn’t matter if we have low prices at my liquor store or not. People just don’t want to pay a sales tax when they can drive a few miles to Massachusetts where there is no sales tax on liquor.

Will Rhode Island eliminate its sales tax? Likely not. Should Rhode Island have a serious discussion about where we stand and where we should or could be? Absolutely. Should we continue to ignore the issue and hope for the best, or should we finally have a comprehensive discussion on the matter? 

In my opinion, doing nothing is doing a disservice to the taxpaying citizens of our state and to the small businesses that are suffering.

(Jan P. Malik is the Democratic State Representative from District 67, Barrington, Warren.)​
By Rep. Jan P. Malik

In January the Senate and RIPEC released a joing report, called "Moving the Needle." This report took an unflinching look at where we need to improve, such as the poor quality of our roads and bridges and the state's regulatory climate. In March, a package of 27 bills was submitted based on the recommendations in the report. The legislation addresses issues in the categories examined in the report, including commerce, workforce, education, health, energy, codes and regulations and tax reform. The comprehensive approach we have taken recognizes that varied initiatives will combine to improve our economic competitiveness.

  
7/1/2013

We have been proud to work together to create a vibrant economic environment in Rhode Island and to encourage job creation by business. Changes we have made in recent years included overhauling the income tax, establishing the new Office of Regulatory Reform, and addressing workforce development.


With the economy still stagnant and too many Rhode Islanders unemployed, we came into the 2013 session with a renewed sense of urgency to build upon these recent reforms and improve economic development in Rhode Island.

Our approach was multi-faceted and responsive to the needs of the business community, from addressing codes and regulations, to health care and energy costs. Both legislative chambers focused throughout the session on economic development as the top priority. We worked together with the Governor’s administration, academia, the non-profit sector, and private industry. The Senate legislation stemmed from a report on “Moving the Needle” and improving Rhode Island’s business climate, produced together with the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council. The House leadership introduced a separate package of economic development legislation. In the end, 31 separate economic development proposals were approved by the General Assembly and sent to the Governor for his consideration, including those which were incorporated into the budget.

We reformed our state’s basic approach to economic development, requiring a long-term, strategic plan to be developed every four years upon the election of the Governor. Such a consensus-based plan, as is required in Massachusetts, ensures that everyone involved in economic development is working toward the same vision.

We reformed the Economic Development Corporation, instituting new transparency, performance and accountability standards and rebranding the agency as the Commerce Corporation.  We established a new Executive Office of Commerce, to be headed by a Secretary of Commerce, to become the state’s lead agency for economic development.   A Council of Economic Advisors comprised of members from the public and private sectors was created to publish economic data and advise the Governor, General Assembly, and Secretary of Commerce on economic matters.

Within this framework, new initiatives will be set in place to address many factors related to economic development and job creation in Rhode Island. This framework will be visionary and comprehensive, rather than reactive.

The historic tax credit program has proven effective at creating jobs while also improving neighborhoods. Legislation has been enacted to breathe new life into this program which had been phased out, while instituting important safeguards. At the same time, new reporting requirements have been passed for all tax incentives so that their effectiveness can be better evaluated. 

A statewide arts district has also been created to help Rhode Island become a “State of the Arts” by providing a sales tax exemption on local works of art.

Legislation was passed to allow bi-weekly pay for all companies that pay an average of more than 200 percent of minimum wage. This legislation, strongly supported by the business community because it saves them the administrative expense of issuing weekly paychecks, also provides a mechanism for any company, including those whose average payroll is less than 200 percent of the minimum wage, to apply to pay their employees on a  bi-weekly basis.

In recognition of the important role that taxes play in any businesses decision making process, changes in the tax code advocated for by the business community were made to allow for accelerated depreciation on the value of new equipment purchased by businesses. Instead of the depreciation being spread over several years, it can be aligned with federal standards that allow much more of the depreciation in the first year.

Workforce development was addressed in several important ways, including enactment of the new “Back to Work Rhode Island” program to allow unemployed workers to receive job training at companies looking to hire while still collecting unemployment benefits. Also enacted was the “Enhanced Job Match” program establishing an easy-to-use, web-based program to efficiently identify and address skills gaps among job seekers.

We also adopted an initiative to give a boost to small businesses in our state’s burgeoning science and technology sector.  This new program will assist bioscience companies in applying for federal funds targeting research and innovation, and then the state will match some or all of those funds once awarded.
 
In addition, we continued to address legislation to reduce bureaucratic red tape. We established a Code Consistency Council to make recommendations regarding inconsistencies and conflicts in the fire, building and elevator codes; created a Municipal Advisory Council to Statewide Planning to assist in development of and participation in electronic permitting; and established a task force to explore a single, statewide standard through the Department of Environmental Regulation related to septic systems and wetlands setbacks.

Major legislation was passed to address health care costs, one of the biggest financial strains many businesses face, as well as legislation aimed at keeping energy costs in check.

As in any legislative session, major bills were passed to address many areas of concern, from public safety to education, and from quality of life to the environment. However, the overarching focus this year in both the Senate and the House was on economic development, and much was accomplished to improve the business climate, reduce red tape, bolster the skills of the workforce, and otherwise establish a more sensible and unified approach. We remain committed to continuing to work together with our public and private-sector partners to help foster a positive climate for job creation in Rhode Island.

(M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D – Dist. 13, Newport, Jamestown) is President of the Rhode Island Senate. Gordon D. Fox (D – Dist. 4, Providence) is Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives.)​
By M. Teresa Paiva Weed and Gordon D. Fox

We have been proud to work together to create a vibrant economic environment in Rhode Island and to encourage job creation by business. Changes we have made in recent years included overhauling the income tax, establishing the new Office of Regulatory Reform and addressing workforce development. With the economy still stagnent and too many Rhode Islanders unemployed, we came into the 2013 session with a renewed sense of urgency to build upon these recent reforms and improve economic development in Rhode Island.

  
7/2/2013

In recent days, the Providence Journal has published an editorial and printed an op-ed piece castigating the General Assembly for passing legislation that would allow the Town of Smithfield to bill Bryant University for the actual cost of police, fire and rescue service to the campus.


We, the sponsors of those bills in the Senate and House of Representatives, obviously and strenuously disagree with the opinion of the Journal editorial board and Mr. Michael E. Fisher, author of the op-ed article that appeared on July 10.

Truth be told, we also had to stifle some laughter over a number of the claims made in Mr. Fisher’s article – specifically that Bryant has been “engaging in productive discussions” with the town. Is it a “productive” discussion when the Smithfield Town Council – twice – invites the president of the university to discuss the matter and – twice –he fails to appear? Does the university truly “seek compromise” when, rather than having a frank and honest discussion with the town, it instead writes letters to the governor urging him to veto the bill, threatens court action or submits an article attacking the General Assembly’s “ham-handed maneuver,” calling the legislation “an attempt to shake down the university?”
      
For many years, Smithfield legislators have worked with Smithfield town officials to reach an understanding with Bryant about paying some fair amount to the community, in lieu of taxes, to acknowledge that, while it is a non-taxable institution, it is also a resident of this town and receives services from this town that are paid for with tax dollars. In all the years that the talking has gone on – although the talks have been one-sided since Bryant officials will not come to the table – every other higher education institution in this state has crafted a payment agreement with its home community. These institutions – Brown University and Providence College among them – are making payments that acknowledge, simply, that they owe something for the municipal services from which they benefit.
      
Some say it isn’t fair to compare Bryant to the schools in Providence because the campus configurations are different and because the financial challenges facing Providence are greater than those of Smithfield. Yet Roger Williams University in Bristol – more similar to Bryant than to the Providence institutions --  has a memorandum of agreement to pay its host community $150,000 yearly and an additional $100,000 over a five-year period to purchase a rescue vehicle. In addition, RWU provides four full and eight $10,000 scholarships to Bristol residents, tuition remission for town employees (including police and fire) and $25,000 for the 4th of July parade.
      
Mr. Fisher wrote that “Bryant is a powerful economic engine for Smithfield, providing jobs, attracting visitors and stimulating the local economy.” So too are Brown, RISD and PC powerful economic engines for the city of Providence, perhaps providing more stimulation to the Providence economy than does Bryant for Smithfield. Yet those institutions understand their value to the community does not come without a cost to the community.

We also would like to remind readers that about $110,000 of state money has been allocated to Bryant University to fund such programs as the Small Business Development Center and the John H. Chafee Center for International Business.
      
This is not about Bryant’s ability to afford a payment to the community. Some feel that an institution that can afford a high-paid State House lobbyist can afford to help Smithfield. We readily acknowledge that Bryant provides a scholarship to a graduating Smithfield High School student, and sponsors the town’s Fourth of July celebration and has proposed providing laptops to support Smithfield schools. 
      
Yet as gracious as all that may be, the university could arbitrarily decide to stop doing that at any time. And still, the town’s police, fire and rescue runs to the campus will continue because the town feels a moral and humane duty to provide these services to every property owner, every resident of the community. 
      
We have the utmost respect for Bryant and know that Smithfield is pleased to have the school as a resident. But it is not equitable that a property owner exempt from paying what would be about $2 million yearly in property taxes should at the same time receive services that are paid for by all the other residents of the town, both homeowners and businesses. 
      
Two final points:  
      
The legislation as approved by the General Assembly and recently signed into law by the governor does not change the tax-exempt status of the university, despite claims to the contrary.
      
The original legislation had set a date of July 1 of this year for Smithfield to begin the billing to the university. That was changed to March 1 of next year, in an attempt to offer the university even more time to “engage in productive discussions” and “seek compromise.” The university did neither, whether as a matter of arrogance or stubbornness. 
          

      
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(Stephen Archambault is the State Senator from District 22, which includes Smithfield, Lincoln and North Providence. Thomas Winfield is the State Representative from District 53, which covers Smithfield and Glocester. Gregory Costantino is the State Representative from District 44, which includes Smithfield, Lincoln and Johnston.)​
By Sen. Stephen R. Archambault, Rep. Thomas Winfield and Rep. Gregory J. Costantino

We have the utmost respect for Bryant University and know that the Town of Smithfield is pleased to have the school as a resident. But it is not equitable that a property owner exempt from paying what would be about $2 million yearly in property taxes should at the same time receive services that are paid for by all the other residents of the town, both homeowners and businesses. That is why we sponsored legislation (which has become law) that will require the school to reimbuse the town for the actual cost of police, fire and rescue services to the campus.

  
7/3/2013

Rhode Island is not alone in acknowledging its debt to our nation’s military veterans. Rhode Island citizens, like citizens around the nation, appreciate the service they have given, the sacrifices they have made. 


But actions speak louder than words, or parades. Yes, we cherish our veterans and those currently serving in the military and we relish the public events that pay them the honor they deserve. But our debt to them is much greater and our desire to help them return to “normal” society requires action that is much more specific and concrete.

For Rhode Island veterans – those already here and those who will be returning after their tours of duty – the General Assembly this session passed several important pieces of legislation that have all been enacted into law. These new laws are designed to assist veterans with their reintegration into society, increase their access to educational opportunities and help them obtain essential medical and human service benefits.

With the introduction of a package of veterans’ bills at the beginning of this legislative session, we made a commitment to do more, as a state, to provide support for the many military personnel and veterans, their families and their businesses. With passage and enactment of those bills, the General Assembly is keeping its promise to provide veterans with the help they need and to recognize the unique asset they are to our state and the state’s economy.

The new laws resulted from bills introduced in both legislative chambers (the bills in the Senate were part of a package to “Pave the Rhode Back Home” and resulted from a study and report on current and proposed services for veterans).

Among the new laws:

Veterans’ Services Strategic Plan: Creates a 13-member Veterans’ Services Strategic Plan advisory committee that will be responsible for developing, maintaining and annually updating a five-year plan that includes goals and measurable outcomes to ensure that all departments of government deliver comprehensive services and support for veterans and their families.

The advisory committee would be composed of representatives of the Division of Veterans’ Affairs; Department of Human Services; Division of Planning; Board of Education; Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals; Department of Health; Division of Elderly Affairs; Department of Business Regulation; Office of the Attorney General; Department of Labor and Training; Economic Development Corporation; Department of Education, and Office of the Secretary of State.

The VSSP would be required to be developed with input and guidance from the veterans’ community itself, through the creation of a veterans’ committee comprised of no fewer than five veterans representing diverse interests and viewpoints. 

Educational Assistance: Calls for the establishment of veteran-friendly educational programs in order to allow service personnel returning from a combat tour to achieve educational attainment in an accelerated manner. The programs would be established to acknowledge a student’s military training and coursework. 

Pocket Guide of Services: Directs the Division of Veterans’ Affairs to produce a comprehensive “Pocket Guide of Veterans’ Services” along with an online resource application of this information.

Service Member/Military Spouse Licensure: Makes it easier to military service members and their spouses to obtain certifications and licenses to perform regulated professional services. It directs examining and licensing boards to accept education, training or service completed by an individual applicant as a member of the military toward qualifications to receive the license or certification.

Military Service Credits: Requires that state-run public higher education institutions adopt a policy and promulgate regulations to award educational credits to veterans enrolled in their institution for courses that were part of the student’s military training.

Support for the Homeless: Adds as a member of the Interagency Council on Homelessness an ex-officio member from the Providence Veterans Administration Medical Center who specializes in health care for homeless veterans. It would also add to the permanent advisory council members of the veteran community including housing providers and a current or former homeless veteran.

In addition to the legislation that has been enacted, the State Budget for this year also includes $300,000 for operational support of the Veteran’s Court within the District Court. The funds will support a clinical supervisor, outreach coordinator, case manager and administrative assistant. The court, which was established in 2011, is designed to direct veterans with trauma-related disorders into support and treatment programs and to provide offenders with rehabilitative alternatives to incarceration.

There is no doubt in our minds that we – as a government, as a state, as a people – owe an extraordinary debt to those who have served in our nation’s military and defended the freedom and rights  we all enjoy. We cannot do enough to welcome our veterans home and to recognize the unique asset that Rhode Island’s veterans are to the state’s economy. But we believe the legislation that has now become law is a very good step in that direction.
      
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(Walter S. Felag Jr. is the Democratic State Senator from District 10, Warren, Bristol, Tiverton, and is the Chair of the Senate Committee on Special Legislation and Veterans’ Affairs. Raymond E. Gallison Jr. is the Democratic State Representative from District 69, Bristol, Portsmouth, and is Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.)​
By Sen. Walter S. Felag Jr. and Rep. Raymond E. Gallison Jr.

Rhode Island is not alone in acknowledging its debt to our nation's military veterans. Rhode Island citizens, like citizens around the nation, appreciate the service they have given, the sacrifices they have made. But actions speak louder than words and the General Assembly has acted this session to pass several important pieces of legislation, that have all been enacted into law. These new laws are designed to assist veterans with their reintegration into society, increase their access to educational opportunities and help them obtain essential medical and human service benefits.

  
9/1/2013

My first session in the Rhode Island State Senate is over and the question I am often asked by family and friends, “So, is it what you expected?” 


In early 2012, having just started a new job, being a foster parent of a 2-year-old and with a husband just starting a new business, I had no shortage of changes and challenges in my life already.

But I had attended a recent event featuring Rhode Island women in politics and I had listened to elected women at the national level who were talking about the need for more women to become involved in our political process. I decided to come off the sidelines to apply my skills and experience to help affect change in Rhode Island. 
      
Outside of a day of freshman orientation, there isn’t a formal training on how to be a state senator. For the most part, it is all on-the-job training. Luckily Senate leadership and staff are always helpful and supportive. I am also very fortunate to share my district with Representatives Donna Walsh and Larry Valencia. They have been very supportive, showing me the ropes and working together to support legislation to benefit our towns. 

Although the session starts out slow, for a freshman it picks up speed pretty quickly. Before you know it, you are trying to figure out how to be in three places at once so you can testify on your bill before one committee, attend your own committee’s meeting and try to catch up with a colleague to discuss an issue.
 
I understand why people get frustrated that problems aren’t solved faster or decisions don’t meet their expectations, but I can confirm the people in the legislature spend a lot of time and energy trying to get it right for Rhode Island. 

I am surprised when I hear that people don’t realize Rhode Island has a part-time General Assembly. The session begins in January and ends in June (or sometimes July, as it did this year), meeting three days a week starting at 4 p.m. The salary for a state senator is $14,639, so, like most of my colleagues, I also have a full-time day job. It takes dedication and hard work to juggle and hopefully balance a professional, family and political life. Obviously people who choose to run for office take this schedule and salary into consideration, and these factors tend to limit who can run and serve. I think it is unfortunate members of the legislature may not have the opportunity to dedicate full-time attention to full-time issues.

Although freshmen are forewarned the legislative chambers get hot in June, you can’t imagine just how HOT it can get and they aren’t just talking about the discussions!  The building is beautiful, but it’s old and there is no central air! It’s not exaggeration to say it felt like we were working in a pressure cooker.

I was assigned to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and the Environment and Agriculture Committee. On the HHS Committee, I look forward to continuing our work to ensure all Rhode Islanders have affordable access to quality health care. I also have a personal interest in ensuring that children in state care are provided a safe, healthy living environment. Having fostered before adopting our daughter, I am passionate about making sure Rhode Island gets it right for all children who, through no fault of their own, are in state care. 

My district is made up of five rural towns, so it was also important to me that I was a member of the Environment and Agriculture Committee. One of the most important concerns I’ve heard from constituents is their desire to maintain the rural character of their town while improving the local economy. It is a balancing act and residents, employers, environmentalists, builders and political leaders need to continue working together in order to find solutions. 

As a member of the Senate, it was exciting to witness our democratic process in motion. I appreciate those who took time out of their day to come to the State House to testify at committee hearings or demonstrate in the rotunda. 

Anyone can attend a committee hearing to provide testimony, listen or just show their support or objection to a bill being heard. People can now sign up on the General Assembly website to receive email updates on a bill’s status. It is so important for people to attend hearings, email or phone their legislator to share their knowledge, expertise and experience on issues. These testimonies often provide information that may result in changes to the bill or lead to a recommendation that the bill be held for further study.

Besides legislative activity the State House often echoes with the sound of community or lobbying groups who set up displays to share information or demonstrate for their cause or interests. These events are great opportunities for legislators to learn more about the issues and concerns of all communities. 

The Senate session is also an opportunity to recognize the achievements of local constituents or communities. I was proud to introduce the Exeter-West Greenwich state champion wrestling team, the Chariho Technical School winners of the culinary competition, Wood River Health Services and Exeter residents who were honored with a county music award. 

Of course, two of the most memorable bills during my first session were marriage equality and the proposed gun legislation. Although I didn’t campaign on the issue, I supported marriage equality and many of my constituents let me know that my support was important to them. This bill was 20 years in the making. After seeing people wait hours to testify and share their personal stories in support or opposition, it was exciting to see it finally become law. I am honored to have been part of this achievement in our state’s history.

The legislation to reduce gun violence was also memorable, not only because of the amount of passion it generated, but because in the process of hearing from many of my constituents I was able to learn more about the impact some of the proposed laws would have on responsible gun owners. Before enacting new laws, we need to evaluate how effective our current laws are at preventing gun violence. Solutions need to be fact-driven to ensure we solve the problem and not penalize responsible gun owners. I was happy to sponsor legislation that will set up a task force to evaluate the intersection of mental health and gun laws.

Although I can’t say I knew what to expect as a state senator, I can say I am not disappointed! Serving is a challenge, but I enjoy it, and I am honored to represent Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond and West Greenwich in the Senate. During the next few months I look forward to being out in my district and holding town hall meetings to hear from my constituents so that when the Senate returns to session in January I can effectively represent their needs.

(Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey represents District 34 in Exeter, Charlestown. Hopkinton, Richmond and West Greenwich.)​
By Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey

My first session in the Rhode Island State Senate is over and the question I am often asked by family and friends is "So, is it what you expected?" I understand why people get frustrated that problems aren't solved faster or decisions don't meet their expectations, but I can confirm the people in the legislature spend a lot of time and energy trying to get it right for Rhode Island.

  
9/2/2013

Streetlights may not sound exciting, but the Municipal Streetlight Investment Act, which I championed this legislative session and is now law in Rhode Island, can save our cities and towns about $3 million a year. 


Legislation like this isn’t a one-person show, I’m grateful for the collaboration from so many key players. The research was developed with a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation and included a great team with Jeff Broadhead from Washington County Regional Planning Council, environmental attorney Seth Handy, researcher Dan Carrigg and Commissioner Marion Gold from the Office of Energy Resources. Thanks to Senate and House leadership for their support. 

Currently, streetlights in Rhode Island are owned by the utility company, which for the most part is National Grid. The utility charges cities and towns a standard rate approved by the Public Utilities Commission. 

Rhode Island will be the first in the nation with a utility tariff that offers street lighting controls as an option to ALL municipal customers. This allows more efficient street lighting because now cities and towns can control the fixtures to use energy-efficient lights like LEDs. LEDs are also bright white (not that “dirty yellow” of sodium lights) so bicycles and people are shown clearly. 

This legislation is groundbreaking for two reasons: 

First, we intentionally set the purchase price for buying streetlights from the utility. Simply put, it is what Grid originally paid for the streetlights, minus depreciation. The City of Cambridge sued the state of Massachusetts in order to determine the fair value of a “used” streetlight. 

Second, this law establishes “solid state control,” meaning that a city or town could use LED lights for energy efficiency (much like a dimmer on your light switch at home where you lower the output and use less electricity). Currently, street light power usage is calculated by number of hours the street lights are on over the course of a month. It’s standard and often why cities and towns shut off streetlights to save money. 

When I proposed the legislation, National Grid was supportive of it. This new tariff is a high priority of Grid’s and they are providing industry leadership in applying street lighting and controls to cities and towns. 

We are the first state in the nation where the utility must work with the Office of Energy Resources to develop the new rate schedule (intentionally written into the law). Why is that important?  It means that National Grid must be transparent and not develop a tariff behind closed doors with last-minute submissions to the PUC that the public cannot evaluate beforehand. All of us can see a draft of the tariff after it is submitted to the PUC that is expected sometime around Sept. 16. The PUC will have two months to review it, and a decision is expected by Thanksgiving. 

This is enabling legislation, which means a city or town decides whether it is beneficial to own and maintain its streetlights. In Massachusetts, at least 70 municipalities have purchased their streetlights at a savings between 15 and 70 percent of their streetlight expenses.  Several Rhode Island communities have expressed interest including Westerly, Warwick, Cranston, South Kingstown and 

Charlestown and are speaking with PRISM (Partnership Rhode Island Streetlight Maintenance). Jeff Broadhead of Washington County Planning Council is the lead on this and can be reached at (401) 792-9900.  

(Rep. Deborah Ruggiero serves District 74, Jamestown and Middletown)​
By Rep. Deborah Ruggiero

Streetlights may not sound exciting, but the Municipal Streetlight Investment Act, which I championed this legislative session and is now law in Rhode Island, can save our cities and towns about $3 million a year.

  
9/3/2013

As the leaves begin to turn their brilliant autumn colors, many Rhode Islanders thoughts will turn to the annual arts festivals that complement the visual splendor of the season. The Pawtucket Arts Festival is underway, a three-week extravaganza in a city which has enjoyed economic growth in part fueled by the creative sector. Communities from North Scituate to Wakefield will host festivals before the final leaves fall for the season.


The General Assembly continues to recognize and prioritize the critical impact that small businesses possess as powerful economic engines in building culturally vibrant communities for future generations. Within Rhode Island’s small business community is the rich and diverse creative sector that encompasses nationally distinguished organizations as well as hidden gems with over 3,000 arts-related businesses that employ more than 13,000 individuals statewide. From galleries to acclaimed performing arts establishments, the creative sector continues to grow and flourish in the Ocean State.

This past February, we worked together with Governor Lincoln Chafee to prioritize arts as part of the state’s economic focus. Alongside our partners at Fidelity Investments, the Rhode Island Foundation and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, we launched the inaugural “Rhode Island Arts Charrette” with over100 stakeholders representing the arts community, government and businesses at the Smithfield campus of Fidelity Investments. This charrette, or stakeholder planning process, was critical in the development of strategies to further the growth of the Rhode Island arts sector to enhance economic development in the state. Artists and arts organizations contributed to a shared vision to distinguish Rhode Island as “The State of the Arts.” 

In the 2013 legislative session, the General Assembly took several important steps to implement ideas discussed during the Arts Charrette. 

One of the most significant actions we took was the expansion of the statewide sales tax exemption to the purchase and sale of original works of art. As of December 1, this unique incentive will help to set Rhode Island apart as a “State of the Arts.”

Since 1996, the state has established local arts districts to provide tax incentives for artists in nine targeted communities around Rhode Island. The statewide tax incentive enacted this year exempts from sales tax all original, one of a kind, limited production creative works of art that were produced in Rhode Island.

We also this year established the “Made in Rhode Island Manufacturing Collaborative.” This collaborative will provide a locally designed “Made in Rhode Island” logo to appear on locally produced goods and services and bolster efforts to increase consumer demand for locally made products. “Made in Rhode Island” will be promoted as a brand.

Another new law will provide Rhode Island museums that are fortunate to benefit from the generosity of individuals and organizations a legal process to follow when long-term items or collections that were donated are no longer needed for display.  This new process, very important within the museum community, will allow museums the ability to exhibit, conserve, transfer or dispose of items without risk of liability.

The General Assembly passed a resolution to establish the Rhode Island State of the Arts Planning Task Force, under the direction of the Governor, which will work to convene stakeholders to develop a comprehensive strategic plan and to identify specific action steps that can be taken to attract, retain, support, expand and market the arts and associated creative industries in Rhode Island.

Legislation was also enacted to offer critical tax relief for the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School, to assist with continued economic growth and prosperity. 

We are all collective partners in these efforts – the Senate and House, Governor Chafee’s administration, the non-profit sector, and the business community. With all of us working together, our vision for Rhode Island to become “the state of the arts” will become a reality.

(M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D – Dist. 13, Newport, Jamestown) is President of the Rhode Island Senate. Gordon D. Fox (D – Dist. 4, Providence) is Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives.)​
By President M. Teresa Paiva Weed and Speaker Gordon D. Fox

The General Assembly continues to recognize the critical impact that small buinsesses possess as powerful economic engines in building culturally vibrant communities for future generations. Within the small business community is the rich and diverse creative sector that encompasses nationally distinguished organizations as well as hidden gens with over 3,000 arts-related businesses that employ more than 13,000 individuals statewide. From galleries to acclaimed performing arts establishments, the creative sector continues to grow and flourish in the Ocean State.

  
9/4/2013

Many have called equal educational opportunities for all students the top civil rights issue of our time. It may also be the top economic issue of our time.


At recent Senate economic summits, the economists who offered their various positions were clear and unified about one topic – we need an educated workforce in Rhode Island, to draw industry and jobs. What is lost in all the academic rhetoric that is being slung around is that while we all have the same objective in sight – a quality education for all children – there are different methods for how to get there. No one has a monopoly on the methods and ideas needed to accomplish this objective.

That is why I am troubled by the entrenched attitude of Commissioner Deborah Gist and dismayed by the actions of Chairwoman Eva Marie Mancuso and the Board of Higher Education regarding high-stakes testing. I join my community in rejecting the use of the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) as a graduation requirement. Simply stated, it was not designed for that purpose. Why, then, are we using it?

What happens to African-American males after grade 3? Where is the commitment to pre-school, after school and summer programs for students? I recently was confronted about a program for at-risk students being cut because other more affluent parents wanted algebra for their children in grade 7. We need both, not one at the expense of the other. Someone from my generation pointed out that a “C” or better was the standard for passing in school, not the current practice of socially promoting students with a “D” or worse. Will schools be re-segregated by class (not just race) through the use of vouchers? Will charter schools drain vital resources from public schools?

A number of opinion pieces have recently been published about NECAP and high-stakes testing. The one that made the most sense to me appeared in the Providence Journal on March 28 (“Rhetoric and research on NECAP,” by Bruce Marlowe). The debate, wrote Marlowe, must be more than “political slogans about what makes good schools.” “We hear quite a lot,” he wrote, “about ‘raising the bar,’ ‘narrowing the gap,’ ‘getting tough,’ but virtually nothing about research, which in the case of high-stakes testing is unequivocal: Every major organization of experts condemns the use of high-stakes exams,” including such prestigious scientific bodies as the National Research Council, the American Education Research Association and the American Psychological Association.

Citing research, Marlowe expressed concern with a single test being used to give diplomas, thereby narrowing the breadth and depth of instruction. He pointed to the harm that could be done to students with disabilities or English-language learners and to instructional time on test preparation. 
    Marlowe raised a valid question: What do students stand to lose if they are denied a diploma on the basis of a single exam? We already know how poverty impacts violence and incarceration rates.

Simply stated, NECAP was not designed as a graduation testing tool and should not be used as the sole criteria as such. I hope that gaining federal funds alone is not the motivating factor. I hope that Chairwoman Mancuso and others who testified before a Senate committee at confirmation hearings remember their responses to questions about high-stakes testing – that multiple measures should be used.

Taking an entrenched position, as Commission Gist is doing, is hindering progress. Chairwoman Mancuso and the board need to exercise more leadership in this area, since healthy debate should be welcomed on this important issue.

We need to move beyond the rhetoric, use research in our decision making, have collaboration between industry and educational leaders, and keep an open mind. We need to listen to all stakeholders if we truly want to produce an educated workforce that is needed to move our economy forward. 

-30-

(Harold M. Metts is the Democratic State Senator from District 6, Providence. A former educator and vice principal in the Providence school system, he is the Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Education and a member of the Senate Committee on Judiciary.)
By Sen. Harold M. Metts

Many have called equal educational opportunities for all students the top civil rights issue of our time. It may also be the top economic issue of our time. At recent Senate economic summits, the economists who offered their various positions were clear and unified about one topic - we need an educated workforce in Rhode Island, to draw industry and jobs. What has been lost in the recent academic rhetoric is that there are different methods for how to reach that objective. No one has a monopoly on the methods and ideas to get there.​

  
9/5/2013

Regulatory reform isn’t the sexiest topic in state government right now, but for small business owners it’s everything. I know this, many of my colleagues in the Legislature know this, and it is my belief that Rhode Island is coming close to achieving tangible progress in streamlining our regulatory processes.


Last year, the General Assembly passed a bill I sponsored that required appropriate state agencies to review 25 percent of its regulations each year for four years until all existing regulations have been evaluated for any adverse impacts on small businesses. The state’s goal is to eradicate extraneous regulations and archaic hurdles which serve as unnecessary hindrances to small business owners. Because of the diligence of Director of Regulatory Reform Leslie Taito and the governor’s office, we have been moving at lightning speed to accomplish this task. 

Last month, the Office of Regulatory Reform (ORR) released the “Period 1 Regulatory Look Back Report.” The office’s findings are a direct result of months of legwork, which included thoroughly combing through a portion of the state’s 1,600 business regulations across almost two dozen departments, soliciting economic impact statements for those regulations and highlighting any potential shortcomings. The House Committee on Small Business also held meetings to solicit opinions from the business community. Embedded in this report are 10 key recommendations that could change the face of Rhode Island’s approach to attracting businesses. I will address many of these points at the Small Business Association of New England’s (SBANE) “Your Voice For Small Business” presentation from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 9 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick. However, there are a few I’d like to share here: 

* Map the regulatory environment: The state should provide an up-to-date map of state government organization so small business owners aren’t lost as to where to find information about how to start a business, how to expand their businesses or simply how to stay in compliance with state guidelines.

* Reduce the number of statutory exemptions: More than 20 percent of reviewed regulations across 22 regulatory entities were exempt from the reform process due to either separation of powers considerations or the law’s the definition of “small business.” The lack of clarity in the definition of “small business” poses a consistent challenge, and it’s one ORR recommends we tackle in the future.

* Improve accessibility to regulations: Small businesses reported needing outside professional help in order to navigate the 26,240 pages of regulation. The report aptly points out that those documents are the equivalent of 10.1 copies of War and Peace. To worsen matters, each regulatory entity utilizes a different template for writing regulations. The bottom line: We need to make this process more uniform.

* Rejoin separated regulation: Breaking down one regulation into separate regulations in the past has resulted in confusion about how to comply with basic guidelines. This must be rectified.

* Reform the audit, inspection and enforcement process: These practices have as much impact on small business as regulatory policy and need to be reviewed alongside regulatory reform.

* Promote lawmaker and small business participation in reform: Lawmakers need to be involved in this process just as much as members of the business community need provide feedback. We are only in the first stage of recommendations – there needs to be more dialogue. I would even go one step further to suggest a presentation to the General Assembly on these ORR findings and recommendations so we can put a spotlight on these issues and deliberate them effectively in future sessions.

* Support improved cost-benefit analysis: The state is always concerned with data quality, and we want to strive to ensure these entities can accurately quantify basic regulatory statistics.

* Push regulatory reform efforts beyond current performance levels: Of the 179 regulations identified by entities and ORR as having a small business impact, 26 were offered for amendment and repeal. We can do better. As we move forward with rigorous review, ORR will challenge our departments to find more areas of reform. A large part of our economic environment is dependent upon how quickly this state can turn around and streamline these processes for small businesses. 

Some of these are simple fixes. Others may take more time, and I would ask Rhode Islanders to continue to be patient with us as we during this period of reform. Rhode Island is predominantly a state of small businesses, and thus there are an overwhelming number of stakeholders involved. This is something we need to keep in mind as we compare ourselves to other states and search for alternative policies. I am not afraid to lead the charge against these challenges, but I cannot do it without the continued help of those who share this vision for change. Only then will we become a small business-friendly state.

(Representative Serpa is the Democratic State Representative from District 27, West Warwick, Coventry, Warwcik, and is chairwoman of the House Committee on Small Business and a member of the Small Business Association of New England.)​
By Rep. Patricia A. Serpa

Regulatory reform isn't the sexiest topic in state government right now, but for small business owners it's everything. It is my belief that Rhode Island is coming close to achieving tangible progress in streamlining our regulatory processes.

  
10/1/2013

The General Assembly has worked to build a shared vision for improving the Rhode Island economy and creating jobs. An important part of that effort is removing time consuming, expensive red tape and regulations that prevent existing businesses from growing, and may discourage potential employers from opening in our beautiful state.


As a result of these efforts, we have many examples here in Rhode Island of programs that have succeeded in reducing red tape with terrific results, and we do not have to look far to find them. Consider, for example, the economic engine that has emerged at the Quonset Business Park. Steven King, managing director of the Quonset Development Corporation (QDC), has joined with various state agencies to develop an innovative site-readiness program that could serve as a model for effective economic development.

The premise of the site-readiness plan is simple: Today at Quonset, only 288 acres (out of a total of 3,207 acres) remains available for development. For this land, on about three dozen parcels, the QDC has completed all the engineering that a developer would have to conduct as part of "due diligence" in order to get a project underway. Further, the QDC has secured all the baseline permits from various state agencies that a new business would be required to secure.

Critical to the success of the program is the cooperation of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) in pre-permitting the parcels to meet environmental requirements. Instead of being an obstacle to business, under the leadership of director Janet Coit the DEM has provided a balanced approach to environmental protection and economic development.

The QDC worked closely with building and zoning experts to pre-engineer the parcels to anticipate likely uses for a variety of industries. As a result, a due diligence package exists for each parcel that includes a complete review of the property, including vital environmental information.

This program is making it much easier for existing businesses to expand at Quonset and for entrepreneurs to discover what a welcoming climate exists for businesses there. The site-readiness program provides business owners with a streamlined and expedited permitting process, practical tools they need to save them time and money.

This is indeed a model initiative that has a demonstrated track record of success.

As a result of the new process, pad-ready sites have already been quickly occupied by new business, and dozens more parcels within Quonset Business Park are ready for development by future tenants. It is a program that capitalizes on the public and private investments that have been made at Quonset, which is now home to over 175 companies and more than 9,500 full and part-time jobs.

There is much to learn in terms of economic development from the site-readiness program. Demand for space at Quonset is high, and has been for several years. The site-readiness program has served as a catalyst to build on existing momentum. It took a very good thing and made it better. That momentum has seen some 3,500 new jobs created at Quonset since 2005, along with $317 million in private investment. Since 1980, combined state and federal investment in the facility tops $650 million. This includes $7.5 million in financing the General Assembly recently authorized to dredge the port's berths and pier, maintaining over 1,100 direct and indirect port-related jobs. Clearly, our efforts at Quonset are paying off on every front.

The Senate and House analyzed ways to maximize the economic potential of Rhode Island's ports. The Legislative Port Commission, chaired by Sen. William Walaska (D-Warwick) and Rep. Deborah Ruggiero issued a final report, which can be found at www.rilin.state.ri.us/Pages/Reports.aspx. The document describes the continued potential for significant business growth and job creation at the Quonset Business Park.

In recent months, more businesses have located and expanded at Quonset, which has emerged as a leading engine of job creation here in Rhode Island. And as the national and local economies begin to turn in the right direction, Quonset is positioned at the forefront of that curve. We stand ready to find more ways to help more companies grow and succeed in Rhode Island. The site-readiness program at Quonset reminds us that it can be done.

(M. Teresa Paiva Weed is President of the Rhode Island Senate. Gordon Fox is Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives.)​
By Sen. M. Teresa Paiva Weed and Rep. Gordon D. Fox

The General Assembly has worked to build a shared vision for improving the Rhode Island economy and creating jobs. An important part of that effort is removing time-consuming, expensive red tape and regulations that prevent existing businesses from growing, and may discourage potential employers from opening in our beautiful state. As an example of success, consider the economic engine that has emerged at the Quonset Business Park.

  
11/1/2013

As we approach the first anniversary of the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in our neighboring state, our hearts go out to the families of the victims of this unthinkable event. 

As a result of that tragedy, I introduced legislation in the House to create a Task Force on Behavioral Health and Firearms Safety. This Joint House and Senate Task Force, which I co-chair along with my colleague Senator Catherine Cool Rumsey, has been meeting regularly during the General Assembly’s off-session.

This 20-person Task Force is very inclusive, consisting of members from the police, Attorney General’s Office, the Mental Health Advocate, substance abuse agencies, as well as three gun owners from the Rhode Island Sportsmen’s Club. Our collective charge is to review current mental health laws and recommend a comprehensive approach to behavioral health and gun safety. 

There’s a delicate balance between gun ownership, public safety and mental health.  Currently, Rhode Island DOES report both local and national criminal backgrounds to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Rhode Island is one of 10 states (Massachusetts is another) that does not submit mental health information to the federal NICS System. 

The focus of this Task Force, as defined by Rhode Island law, is to review different states’ approaches of compliance to NICS; propose recommendations and policy (legislation) on how Rhode Island would comply; and make recommendations for a Relief from Disqualifiers Board so that if someone is denied access they have legal recourse.
So, why does Rhode Island not provide mental health information? What are other states’ best practices? How do we balance public safety with individual rights with respect to those with a mental disability? 

According to public testimony from Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals Department, Rhode Island has a pretty solid mental health law that goes beyond the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).  Current mental law, drafted in 1975, prohibits disclosure of mental health records unless a person or guardian relinquishes that right, and no person admitted or certified to any facility shall be deprived of any constitutional or civil rights.  

Let’s be clear: a mental health diagnosis is not a predictor of violence. There are people with a mental disability who are NOT dangerous just as there are people without a mental disability who are VERY dangerous. 

We don’t want any “unintended consequences” of discouraging someone from seeking mental health treatment for fear of having to relinquish their right to gun ownership.   That could be a veteran returning from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder or a first responder, like a police officer, who suffers mental trauma from having witnessed a horrific scene.   At least one if not more police officers who responded to Sandy Hook Elementary are on mental disability and seeking treatment after seeing 5- and 6-year-old children murdered in their classroom.   

It’s more than tightening gun control; it’s augmenting programs to help the mentally ill.  Rhode Island is a leader in gun laws, ranked eighth in the nation, even requiring background checks at gun shows. 

Whether you’re in the NRA or the PTA, no one wants innocent people killed.

Since 2007, we’ve seen over 26 mass shootings in this country. Tragedies like these shootings raise public consciousness.  We need to look at the person and not the gun as we work to prevent these horrible tragedies from ever happening again.

(Deborah Ruggiero is the Democratic State Representative from District 74, Jamestown, Middletown.)
     

By Rep. Deborah Ruggiero

The 20-member Task Force on Behavioral Health and Firearm Safety, which I co-chair, has been meeting regularly during the General Assembly's off-session. Our collective charge is to review current mental health laws and recommend a comprehensive approach to vehavioral health and gun safety. There is a delicate balance between gun ownership, public safety and mental health.​

  
11/2/2013

 

While there were other important actions taken during the 2013 session of the General Assembly, economic development was and remains the central focus of the legislature. Making our state more competitive, making it easier to do business here, creating jobs for Rhode Islanders and ensuring that our educational system prepares the next generation for those jobs are goals that we are moving toward and that will continue to dominate the agenda when the General Assembly returns in January, 2014.

During the challenging and turbulent economic times our state has faced the past few years, my top priority as a legislator has been finding ways to promote a healthy and vibrant economy. Through several initiatives of my own and working closing with Senate leaders and leaders in the business community, we developed a package of more than two dozen economic development bills which were enacted during the 2013 session. Called “Moving the Needle,” the multi-faceted legislation was geared toward reforming the state’s disjointed approach to economic development, boosting the skills of the workforce, improving educational attainment, and addressing infrastructure, taxation, regulatory burdens and business cost drivers such as health care and energy.

Of most essential importance, I believe, was a piece of legislation that I crafted and championed and which was a centerpiece of the “Moving the Needle” package – legislation that calls for a long-overdue overhaul of the Economic Development Corporation, the state’s main economic agency. The legislation, now law, makes statutory changes to increase transparency and promote a more customer-centric agency. Enactment of this legislation will create the kind of agency that is essential for a better future -- one that focuses on improving our state’s business climate and that meets our state’s goal of increased planning and performance in job creation, innovation, entrepreneurship and global business.

The legislation sets out several specific guidelines for the agency, among them that board members must adopt a mission statement that states purposes and goals of the corporation, identifies stakeholders and their reasonable expectations, and lists measurements for performance and achievement of goals. In addition, the board will be required to establish quantifiable performance measurements for all programs of the corporation and its subsidiaries. The new entity will also be required to adopt regulations establishing financing guidelines, including risk assessment, for all loans and guarantees awarded by the corporation and document how each loan or guarantee has met the guidelines. It will also be required to submit a yearly report to Senate and House Finance Committees on each loan and loan guarantee, and the corporation will be subject to a performance audit every three years conducted by the Bureau of Audits.

Other parts of the “Moving the Needle” package will work hand-in-hand with the EDC overhaul to vastly improve Rhode Island’s chances of attracting new businesses to the state, of helping businesses here grow and prosper. One such measure creates the Executive Office of Commerce, to be headed by a new secretary of commerce and to ensure that commerce is consistently promoted throughout the state. Another measure creates the Council of Economic Advisors, comprised of members from the public and private sectors who will collect and publish economic data and advise the governor, General Assembly and Secretary of Commerce on economic matters. Finally, another measure focuses on long-term economic vision and planning, requiring each newly-elected or re-elected governor to convene a stakeholder group to develop, then revisit and revise, a long-term economic plan for the state.

Rarely is a downturn in the economy followed by a meteoric upsurge. Time is an essential element of long-term, sustained growth, especially in the case of Rhode Island and its woeful national business competitiveness rankings. But with the enactment of the various “Moving the Needle” bills during the last session, Rhode Island has positioned itself to see real growth in the years ahead. The structure we have put into place will attract new business to Rhode Island; it will make it easier, and less of a bureaucratic headache, to do business in Rhode Island; it will help train a workforce for the jobs of the future.

(James C. Sheehan is the Democratic State Senator from District 36, Narragansett, North Kingstown, and chair of the Senate Committee on Government Oversight.)

By Sen. James C. Sheehan

Time is an essential element of long-term, sustained growth, especially in the case of Rhode Isalnd and its low national business competitiveness rankings. But with the enactment of the various "Moving the Needle" bills during the last legislative session, Rhode Island has positioned itself to see real growth in the years ahead. ​

  
1/1/2014

Rhode Island’s economy has been a bloodied battleground these last few years. In that time, the General Assembly has been working to attack every facet of our economic troubles in various ways. I took office primarily to join this fight against unemployment after seeing the poor and vulnerable people of Woonsocket and Cumberland suffer at the hands of a monstrous depression. 

Since then, I have been pushing this state to lower its cigarette and gas taxes, not in order to stay competitive but in order to be competitive. It’s looking like the choices of our neighbors are going to bode well for our economic goals. 

Let’s start with Massachusetts. The Bay State raised its excise cigarette taxes this year from $2.51 to $3.51 per pack, costing Rhode Islanders 1 cent more per pack if they choose to cross the border into Massachusetts to purchase cigarettes. I know it may seem like 1 cent will not make a difference in the choice between Rhode Island and Massachusetts. But those who usually cross the border are no longer receiving the bargain they once were. According to the Dec. 9, 2013 article in The Providence Journal titled: “R.I. benefits from big hike in Mass. cigarette tax,” our state saw $2.7 million more in cigarette tax revenue between the months of August and October than was expected. 

In Connecticut, our neighbors are paying more for gasoline. The state’s gross receipts tax (also known as the gas tax) has increased by 4 cents per gallon. Additionally, its diesel tax has increased by 3.5 cents per gallon. In April of this year, the American Petroleum Institute (API) released a report that would place Connecticut’s state gas taxes among the highest in the entire nation after the increase. This is because while the state’s flat gasoline tax is 25 cents per gallon, Connecticut also collects an additional gasoline tax at the wholesale level. 

Where does that leave Rhode Island? Our state currently charges 32 cents per gallon for gasoline tax, and Rhode Island’s cigarette tax has been $3.50 per pack since June 30, 2012 when the state raised it by 4 cents. I’ve said this before, but the person who buys cigarettes in, say, Woonsocket, is also likely to spend money on a bottle of water, a coffee, a lottery ticket or maybe even a gallon of milk. I still believe that those who argue that lowering the state’s cigarette or gasoline tax would result in a loss of state revenues are short-sighted. We must be able to attract business in the long-term. Yes, we need short-term relief in many areas of our economy. The bigger picture, however, is equally important.

In the business world, we sometimes have to spend money in order to make money. That’s what needs to happen here. Regardless of the General Assembly’s decision next year regarding those taxes, Rhode Island is officially in the game. I think that’s worth noting when we’re talking about our general economic health. There are glimmers of hope and reason here, and I understand it’s difficult to see them when we are surrounded by so much negativity and uncertainty. I don’t blame the media or the constituents or the government – it is what it is. We are still fighting a battle, and with that will come long periods of frustration, trial-and-error, collaborations and the weight of our problems continually sagging down on our spirits. This is not to say that this tax news is anywhere close to the good news we want to hear about jobs and economic activity. But can we just take a moment to note how we’ve been able to take one step up the ladder? Life is a series of little movements, and we must pause to appreciate whatever progress we make.

By Rep. Robert D. Phillips

Rhode Island's economy has been a bloodied battleground these last few years. In that time, the General Assembly has been working to attack every facet of our economic troubles in various ways. I took office primarily to join this fight against unemployment after seeing the poor and vulnerable people of Woonsocket and Cumberland suffer at the hands of a monstrous depression.​

  
1/6/2014

In the fall of 2011, the General Assembly came together for an unprecedented special session and overwhelmingly enacted major reforms to the state’s pension fund.

An enormous amount of time, energy and expertise was involved in the many months that led up to the passage of the Rhode Island Retirement Security Act.  The goal of our bold action was to stabilize the state’s pension fund in order to preserve its solvency and protect against exorbitant increases in taxpayer contributions. 

The legislation we enacted truly balanced the costs and risks between employees and the state and it protected the fiscal integrity of the retirement system, the state and our municipalities.

Given the passage of a little more than two year’s time, I am more proud than ever of the men and women in the General Assembly for taking such action. There is no question that without this legislation, some cities and towns in Rhode Island may have gone bankrupt. Need we look any further than Detroit? A federal judge recently allowed the pensions of 23,000 retirees and 9,000 workers to be significantly cut during bankruptcy proceedings. 

It broke my heart when so many retirees in the City of Central Falls had their modest pension checks slashed in half.  We could not stand by and risk seeing retirees in other Rhode Island communities – and eventually the whole state – perhaps suffer the same fate. 

We were proud to work with General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Governor Lincoln Chafee to preserve and protect our pension fund.  At the end of the day, we all felt that it was better to temporarily suspend a retiree cost-of-living-adjustment now than to cut pensions later.

Rhode Island was one of the first states in the nation to take such decisive action, but others are now addressing critical pension issues as well.  Earlier this month, the Illinois Legislature approved a plan to eliminate a $100 billion pension shortfall by making deep cuts in retirement benefits, which we were able to largely avoid in Rhode Island.

A few critics have been tying the return of the cost-of-living-adjustments to investment fees, and that is a separate issue that only serves to diminish the actions that were taken and is not fair to any public employee or retiree who is depending on a pension check. 

Lost in the swirl about investments are some very important facts.  The pension reform immediately reduced the unfunded liability by about $3 billion. It will save Rhode Island taxpayers about $4 billion over the next two decades, and it saved cities and towns about $100 million alone in the last fiscal year. As three examples, Providence saved $13 million, Cranston saved $11 million and Warwick nearly $9 million, all in the first year. 

Very significantly, the enactment of reform enabled the state to dramatically reduce the taxpayer cost for the retirement system in our annual state budget.  In the current fiscal year, the budget savings from general revenues and local sources amounted to more than $250 million.  With the retirement costs now under control, we were able to invest in local schools, roads and bridges, as well as initiating workforce training programs.  We were able to hold the line on taxes and even eliminate the sales tax on certain items, while reinstituting the historic tax program. 

Addressing the pension liability staved off a crushing financial burden in the coming years for state and local taxpayers. Savings in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget that the General Assembly will soon begin debating are estimated at $275 million.  We are still grappling with a slow-moving economy, and without the action we took, the strain on the state budget would have been enormous.  Employee layoffs and cutbacks in services that people have come to expect would have been inevitable.

It’s time for the critics to stop the political rhetoric.  The reforms we enacted strengthened Rhode Island’s system to make sure that the retirement benefits that have been earned are there when people need them the most. This legislation has truly placed our state pension system on a secure path to fiscal health. 
      
(Rep. Gordon D. Fox is a Democrat representing District 4 in Providence and was the House sponsor of the pension reform legislation)
 


     

By Speaker of the House Gordon D. Fox

In the fall of 2011, the General Assemby came together for an unprecedented special session and overwhelmingly enacted major refor5ms to the state's pension fund. The legislation we enacted truly balanced the costs and risks between employees and the state and it protected the fiscal integrity of the retirement system, the state and our municipalities.

  
2/6/2014

For the last few years, there has been some serious debate over Rhode Island’s sales tax. It’s a tough decision – do we stay at 7 percent or do we lower it a little to stay competitive with the border states? Some people think we should just eliminate it all together. In order to really get a good grasp on how we should attack the issue, I think we have to think about why people really cross the border. Is it to save on sales tax, even if there is only a 75-cent difference? Or is it about convenience? These are fair questions to ask ourselves.

 

Here is what I believe: people who are trying to save money do go where they can get the best price, especially when we’re talking about big ticket items. That means factoring in taxes, the cost of gas to get to the store and base prices. Someone might not think about these things when buying a pack of gum. But in our mission to be problem solvers, we have to wonder what causes a person to go to a drugstore in Massachusetts or Connecticut in the first place.

 

That’s where rebranding could come in handy. I have introduced a bill to lower the sales tax to a reasonable 6.25 percent – on par with our neighbor, Massachusetts – and use a portion of the revenue from the sales tax to repair and maintain the most essential elements of our state’s infrastructure: highways and roads. This isn’t just about passing some sort of reform to help our taxpayers save money. If this legislation is enacted, it has the ability to change the image of our state. Essentially, we’re putting a “Welcome” sign on our front lawn. I think we need to drive the point home that we are willing to stay competitive, adapt to an ever-changing economy and rebuild the areas that are in such dire need of a stronger foundation. If we can change the mindset of the consumers in our own state, we can absolutely change the perception of Rhode Island from the outside. We just need to make a few bold moves while keeping in mind the economic realities we face. With no issue taking priority over fixing our economy, I think it is finally time to answer the sales tax question.

 

The second part of my bill ensures that the first $25 million we make from the portion of the tax that comes from internet sales go toward the Rhode Island highway maintenance account. This piece of the legislation is contingent upon the United States Congress passing the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would grant individual states the authority to compel online retailers to collect sales tax like local retailers.

 

We are losing massive amounts of federal dollars for infrastructure each year because our leaders on the national stage are making really tough decisions that affect our economic health in Rhode Island. It may seem very basic to some, but taking care of our roads plays a huge role in our image as a tourist destination, a business-friendly state and, in general, a place where people want to live, work and go to school. If we want to be all of those things, attracting business is key. We need to fix our roads so that commerce can flow without inhibition.

 

Once we come to a point of pre-recession stability, then we can talk about moving some of that money over to our much-needed social services and other important budget items. But most importantly, it is vital to the survival of this state to re-invest in the two things that provide our foundation for everything: business and infrastructure.


Rep. Mia A. Ackerman

For the last few years, there has been some serious debate over Rhode Island’s sales tax. It’s a tough decision – do we stay at 7 percent or do we lower it a little to stay competitive with the border states? Some people think we should just eliminate it all together. In order to really get a good grasp on how we should attack the issue, I think we have to think about why people really cross the border. Is it to save on sales tax, even if there is only a 75-cent difference? Or is it about convenience? These are fair questions to ask ourselves.

  
2/7/2014

I was heartbroken to see so many people waiting in line to file applications for subsidized housing this past year. We’re approaching a tough time for baby boomers, who due to the constraints of a poor economy and a dozen other factors are having trouble competing for jobs in a tech-savvy world.

 

The consequences of such a high demand for subsidized housing include a growing number of homeless people on our streets. A lot of different community groups and government entities have attempted to tackle the homelessness problem in various ways. It is my belief that ending chronic homelessness begins with a plan, based on a permanent foundation. What I’ve learned is that we cannot simply snap our fingers and say, “OK, job training is what we need,” or “Let’s implement higher wages!” There is no quick fix here. However, more affordable housing lays the foundation needed for people who have lost their way to get back on track. It is time we stop putting a Band-Aid on the homelessness problem. We are perpetuating the issue by denying the one thing our most vulnerable population needs to get back on their feet: shelter, a permanent place to call home.

 

This is why I’m proposing a $60 million bond on the ballot this year to construct more permanent affordable housing. It is not only a necessary step in eliminating homelessness in Rhode Island – it’s the proper way to nurture growth in our workforce. Employment starts with a happy and healthy home.

 

People who are without homes already face many challenges. Some come from broken homes, others have been unlucky in their jobs and still others have gone through deaths, divorce, war and a number of unfortunate trials in their lives. More permanent affordable housing would provide a stable place for many of these people to foster positive change in their lives. Aside from being a sign of basic human decency, lending a helping hand to the homeless will have positive effects on our economy and general livability. What’s good for them will be good for us, and there’s plenty of proof of that, too.

 

With a quick glance at the statistics, it is clear Rhode Island faces considerable challenges. In 2012, the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless pointed out that we had 4,868 men and women – 1,277 of whom were children – who lost their homes due to lack of income or high cost of housing. Perhaps more alarming is the fact that in 2010, the Rhode Island Housing Resources Commission released a report showing our state had the highest poverty and rent burden rates in New England. Almost 42 percent of all Rhode Island households were paying more than 30 percent of their total income for housing in 2010. Almost half of all renters in the state fall into that category.

 

Imagine working 94 hours per week, 52 weeks per year to afford the average two-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island? According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), that’s what a resident working a minimum wage job has to do to get by.

 

A 2003 study conducted by University of Pennsylvania professor Dennis Culhane stated that providing affordable housing saved New York City more than $16,000 per housing unit per year. The savings were due to a reduction in city-financed emergency medical care and criminal justice proceedings. This includes arrests, court hearings and jail time.

 

There is evidence that homeless alcoholics placed into supportive permanent affordable housing show declines in alcohol abuse. It is also well-documented that children who live in permanent homes do much better in school. Sometimes the concept of chronic homelessness seems like it will always exist. With that attitude, we will get nowhere in our quest to better the lives of Rhode Islanders. I’m asking you to keep this in mind as you consider the ballot questions this year.

 

Making Rhode Island more “livable” requires a number of investments and a commitment from our citizens. If this permanent affordable housing bond receives the gracious support of the voters, I hope to propose another investment – one that involves a partnership between both public and private entities. My desire is to create at least one “green” affordable housing complex with zero net energy use. I think it is in the best interest of the taxpayers and the groups that work tirelessly to help the homeless if we can make building permanent affordable housing easier and less expensive to maintain.


Sen. Juan M. Pichardo

I was heartbroken to see so many people waiting in line to file applications for subsidized housing this past year. We’re approaching a tough time for baby boomers, who due to the constraints of a poor economy and a dozen other factors are having trouble competing for jobs in a tech-savvy world. The consequences of such a high demand for subsidized housing include a growing number of homeless people on our streets. A lot of different community groups and government entities have attempted to tackle the homelessness problem in various ways. It is my belief that ending chronic homelessness begins with a plan, based on a permanent foundation.

  
2/10/2014
Marijuana policy reform is a hot topic these days in Rhode Island and across the country. Over the last three years, we’ve been discussing the issue with constituents, colleagues, opinion leaders and activists on both sides of the issue. Our conversations have led us to two points of agreement:
 o    Our current marijuana policy has failed. For instance, studies indicate an increase in youth marijuana use and that it is easy for them to get it.
 o    Most Rhode Islanders are ready for change.
 
A survey conducted last month by Public Policy Polling reinforced our conclusions, finding that a solid majority of Rhode Island voters support taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol, allowing adults over the age of 21 to use it. These results are right in line with several national polls that indicate a rapidly growing majority of Americans agree it is time to make marijuana legal.
 
 
Marijuana prohibition has been a failure of tragic proportions. It has failed to prevent use or abuse. It has been a distraction for law enforcement officials who should be focusing elsewhere. Marijuana prohibition has resulted in criminal records for thousands of otherwise law-abiding adults and limited the ability of too many of our young people to access financial aid for higher education. Insidiously, this prohibition has forced marijuana sales into an underground market where more dangerous products such as heroin and cocaine are also offered. Ironically, prohibition ensures that the state has no control over the product. Criminals fight over the profits and our state and municipalities forego millions of dollars of tax revenue.
 
It is for these reasons that we support regulating and taxing marijuana as we regulate and tax alcohol, and approaching marijuana as a public health matter rather than a criminal justice problem. We can mandate that marijuana be properly tested and labeled so that consumers know what they are getting. We can restrict sales to minors and ensure that those who sell marijuana are asking for proof of age. We can collect tens of millions of dollars in much-needed tax revenue and foster the creation of new businesses and jobs in an emerging industry.
 
Importantly, we can redirect our drug prevention and treatment resources toward addressing the abuse of more harmful drugs such as methamphetamine, heroin and prescription narcotics. We can urge teens to stay away from marijuana until their brains are fully developed.
 
Those who wish to maintain our current prohibition laws often claim marijuana is a “gateway drug” that will inevitably lead to the use of other drugs, but studies suggest otherwise. According to a 1999 study commissioned by the White House and performed by the Institute of Medicine, marijuana “does not appear to be a gateway drug to the extent that it is the cause or even that it is the most significant predictor of serious drug abuse.”
 
Marijuana’s illegal status creates the gateway. By forcing marijuana consumers into the underground market, we dramatically increase the possibility that they will be exposed to more dangerous substances. Separating marijuana from the illicit drug markets while reducing exposure to more addictive and dangerous substances cannot help but reduce any gateway effect associated with marijuana use. Customers buying a bottle of wine for dinner are not, after all, offered heroin.
 
Regulating marijuana will take the product out of the hands of criminal enterprises and place it behind counters of legitimate businesses that safely and responsibly sell marijuana - and marijuana only - to adults 21 and older.
 
Under marijuana prohibition, illicit profits are used to fund violent gangs, illegal gun markets, human trafficking, and other violent trades. Regulating marijuana will allow us to redirect marijuana sales revenue away from the violent criminal market and toward a meaningful solution. A large portion of tax revenue derived from wholesale transactions will fund programs preventing and treating the abuse of alcohol and other substances. According to federal government data, nearly 2.5 percent of Rhode Islanders needed treatment for hard drugs in 2012 but did not receive it. The recent spike in drug overdose deaths is a stark reminder of the need for treatment and education.
 
Most people recognize that marijuana prohibition’s days are numbered. The question is now “when should we end it?” not “should we?” Like most Rhode Islanders, we believe now is the time and regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol is the answer.
 
Rep. Edith H. Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence), chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Providence), chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, are the sponsors of legislation to regulate and tax marijuana in Rhode Island.
Rep. Edith H. Ajello and Sen. Joshua Miller
Marijuana policy reform is a hot topic these days in Rhode Island and across the country. Over the last three years, we’ve been discussing the issue with constituents, colleagues, opinion leaders and activists on both sides of the issue. Our conversations have led us to two points of agreement:
 o    Our current marijuana policy has failed. For instance, studies indicate an increase in youth marijuana use and that it is easy for them to get it.
 o    Most Rhode Islanders are ready for change.
 
  
4/10/2014

On Tuesday, I went to the White House where I met President Obama and many extraordinary women who have spent decades advocating for equality.  Together, we marked Equal Pay Day, the day to which women have to work in 2014 in order to catch up to what men earned in 2013, by watching the president sign two executive actions designed to remove barriers to equal pay.

Equal pay for equal work is not only a matter of fairness, it’s a matter of rebuilding our economy. What do you get when 52 percent of the population is paid unfairly? You get an economy where 52 percent of the population has diminished buying power. That’s as lousy for business as it is for families. And for women-headed households, particularly single-parent households, the effects are pronounced. We know in Rhode Island women make up the majority of minimum wage workers and are the majority of parents living in poverty.

While the president’s steps this week are important, they won’t solve the problem on their own.

In Rhode Island and nationwide, policymakers must shift our focus to what’s good for the middle class. It’s a strategy that does work: A thriving middle class is widely recognized as one of the key drivers of the prosperity the United States enjoyed in the years after World War II.

Instead of talking about merely creating jobs, we must demand that jobs pay a living and equitable wage, create pathways to success, and recognize the complexity of balancing a career while managing a family. We need economy-boosting jobs, not economy-busting ones.

When I championed Temporary Caregiver Insurance, our state’s new paid family leave insurance, I did so because when a person has to take unpaid leave to care for a family member, that family’s financial security is at risk. Just a few weeks of paid time off means a husband doesn’t need to make the difficult decision between caring for his wife struggling with cancer or paying for groceries. Instead, workers will be able to continue paying bills and putting food on their tables, which in turn helps support our local economy. As of this week, nearly 1,000 Rhode Islanders have used Temporary Caregiver Insurance, including the mother I met recently who had just returned to work after the birth of her baby. Now her husband is home with their daughter for his four weeks of paid leave. That time spent caring for and bonding with their new baby, without forgoing a paycheck, strengthens that family and our state.

When I pushed for the expansion of child care subsidies for people in job training programs, I did so because unemployed people with children are among those who most need to use our job training programs to get ahead. We had set up a system that just didn’t work for parents who are jobless, underemployed or already struggling to pay their bills, and in need of a pathway to a new career. When we talk about rebuilding the economy, we must create programs that work for everyone.

When people work hard, they should be able to get ahead; that’s our American Dream. But unless we demand fair pay for that work, and create a work environment that recognizes that people who go to work still have families and obligations outside of the workplace, it will increasingly become nothing but a dream for most people. We must embrace a strategy that puts people first, strengthens the middle class, and recognizes that businesses will succeed when middle-class families have a little extra in their budgets. 

This week, I am joining with state legislators from around the country for a week of action with the theme “Real Prosperity Across America.” By shifting our state’s and nation’s focus to expanding and strengthening the middle class, we can create a Rhode Island – and a country – where we all can work and succeed.

Sen. Gayle Goldin is a Democrat who represents District 3 in Providence. 

Sen. Gayle Goldin

In Rhode Island and nationwide, policymakers must shift our focus to what’s good for the middle class. Instead of talking about merely creating jobs, we must demand that jobs pay a living and equitable wage, create pathways to success, and recognize the complexity of balancing a career while managing a family. We need economy-boosting jobs, not economy-busting ones.

  
4/15/2014

 
 
 
 
Legislation offers incentives for companies to hire
 
By James C. Sheehan and K. Joseph Shekarchi
 
 
In keeping with the initiatives of the past two years in the Rhode Island legislature – to make Rhode Island a better place to do business, to eliminate redundant red tape, to focus educational efforts on workforce development – we think it is incumbent on us to find ways to help all kinds and sizes of business. We need to be creative and bold in bringing new and large firms to our state, certainly, but we need to be equally creative and bold in encouraging and nurturing the businesses that are here, so they can grow and prosper. Small and mid-size businesses are the backbone of our state job economy and helping them is imperative for the state’s economic health.
Having the highest unemployment rates in the nation is not a mark of distinction, it is shame and a challenge we must address and resolve. Being ranked as one of the least business-friendly states in the nation is another black eye that needs to be treated and cured.
Tax incentives as an inducement to businesses to locate or expand here can be an effective tool as we try to fix our business image and put people back to work. One only needs to look to nearby New York State, which has established 10-year tax free zones to try to draw businesses to the Empire State.

To encourage business growth, and to try to reduce our unemployment rate, we have introduced legislation that could be an enormous job creator in Rhode Island. The “Rhode Island New Qualified Jobs Incentive Act” would make tax incentives available to companies that hire new “qualified” full-time employees who work a minimum of 30 hours per week, with a salary that is at least 250 percent of the state’s hourly minimum wage.

Under the legislation, large companies would be eligible for a .25 percent tax incentive off their net income tax for every 50 new hires while smaller companies, which are typically partnerships or family businesses, would receive a .25 percent incentive off their personal income tax for every 10 new hires, provided that the rate reduction is no larger than 6 percent for the applicable business income tax rate and no larger than 3 percent for the applicable personal income tax rate. Those are savings that these companies can re-invest in themselves to help them grow even more.
            And because accountability and transparency are important in relation to any tax incentives provided by the state, the legislation includes requirements for companies to provide annual employment reports to the Division of Taxation and for the Division of Taxation to provide annual reports to the General Assembly.
            An important aspect of the legislation is that it ties the incentive to “qualified” jobs. This will help guarantee that Rhode Island businesses that benefit from hiring are putting Rhode Islanders to work in good-paying, sustainable jobs, not just minimum wage positions. The intent of offering an incentive is to see the creation of the kinds of jobs that are good for the worker but that also will enhance the companies and help them continue to grow and be productive.
            We realize that proposing a tax reduction of any kind results in less revenue coming into the state, but we think we need to weigh the potential good that would come from an action such as this. We remember an old saying about business – sometimes you have to spend money to make money. Finding a way to provide a boost for businesses through a tax incentive will be good for those companies, good for Rhode Islanders seeking jobs and will have long-term benefits for the state.
 
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(James C. Sheehan is the Democratic State Senator from District 36, Narragansett and North Kingstown, and the Chair of the Senate Committee on Government Oversight. K. Joseph Shekarchi is the Democratic State Representative from District 23, Warwick, and Chair of the House Committee on Labor.)
 

Sen. James C. Sheehan and Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi

To encourage business growth, and to try to reduce our unemployment rate, we have introduced legislation that could be an enormous job creator in Rhode Island. The “Rhode Island New Qualified Jobs Incentive Act” would make tax incentives available to companies that hire new “qualified” full-time employees who work a minimum of 30 hours per week, with a salary that is at least 250 percent of the state’s hourly minimum wage.

  
4/22/2014

With an all-out push for policies and strategies that attract new business to Rhode Island, it doesn’t make sense that the state would want to welcome new firms here by handing them an annual tax bill.

Under existing tax structure, all Rhode Island businesses face a minimum $500 per year business corporations (franchise) tax. This year, I have introduced legislation that would suspend the imposition of the annual franchise tax of $500 for a period of three years from the date a business incorporates with the Secretary of State.
           
The legislation is intended to help small, start-up businesses in our state, the kind that we have been trying to attract through the various reforms and initiatives that have been enacted into law the past few years. If we are putting out the welcome mat to new companies, the last thing those firms need is to find a bill tucked under it, charging them $500 just so they can open their doors and stay open every year. That’s money a new company could better use to build their business.
           
I realize that proposing a tax reduction of any kind results in less revenue coming into the state, but I think we need to weigh the potential good that would come from an action such as this. Finding a way to provide a boost to new, small, start-up businesses has greater long-term benefits for the state, I believe, than a $500 tax payment. If we can help companies locate here and grow here, we can help provide more jobs for more Rhode Islanders and both of those actions will mean an improvement in our state’s economic picture, overall. I think my legislation is a reasonable step to making Rhode Island more business-friendly, and I believe there is strong support for such action throughout the legislature.
           
Reducing the cost for small businesses to operate and eliminating fiscal impediments for individuals considering opening a business here should be our goal.
 
 
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(James C. Sheehan is the Democratic State Senator from District 36, Narragansett, North Kingstown. He is a chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Oversight, co-chair of the General Assembly’s Joint Economic Development Committee and secretary of the Senate Committee on Health & Human Resources.)

 

Sen. James C. Sheehan
Under existing tax structure, all Rhode Island businesses face a minimum $500 per year business corporations (franchise) tax. This year, I have introduced legislation that would suspend the imposition of the annual franchise tax of $500 for a period of three years from the date a business incorporates with the Secretary of State. The legislation is intended to help small, start-up businesses in our state, the kind that we have been trying to attract through the various reforms and initiatives that have been enacted into law the past few years.

  
6/6/2014

Last week, Walmart CEO, Doug McMillon told Business Insider that he’s an “associate,” just like the retail workers in Walmart stores. Mr. McMillon, however, makes nearly $10 million a year, while 30,000 of his “associates” make the minimum wage.

Many people recognize that the wide – and widening – wage gap in the United States is a detrimental economic trend that harms the vast majority of Americans. But as a country that has long revered the entrepreneurial spirit and the notion that those who build a successful enterprise deserve to reap its rewards, perhaps some feel there is little we can do to prevent wealth concentration among those at the top of private industry.
 
One element that contributes to the concentration of wealth in this country is the inordinately high compensation packages that many companies pay their executives. While the success of those firms often relies on paying disproportionately lower wages to the masses who create, sell or otherwise promote the corporation’s products or services, those at the top can pull down tens of millions in a single year, hundreds of times the salary of the vast majority of their employees.
 

According to a 2013 Economic Policy Institute study of the top 350 U.S. firms, CEO pay grew more than 876 percent between 1978 and 2011, more than twice the growth of the stock market and significantly faster than the growth of typical private sector workers. The ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay widened accordingly. In 1978 it was 29-to-1, by 1995, it had grown to 122-to-1, and it peaked at an astonishing 383-to-1 in 2000.
 

Low wages are not just a business matter. This extreme wage inequality often comes at a cost to the taxpayer, too. Many workers at the bottom of the pay scale are forced to rely on numerous social services – food assistance, subsidized child-care, rent and energy assistance, health care and more – to make ends meet, despite being employed full-time.
 

To put the taxpayer cost into perspective, a recent report estimates that low-wage earners at a single Wal-Mart Supercenter in Wisconsin cost taxpayers $900,000 to $1.75 million in public assistance provided to their employees per year. The question we as taxpayers need to ask ourselves is “Why should our tax dollars subsidize economic inequality?”

 
I have proposed one course of action in the form of legislation (2014-S 2796) that would give preference in state contracts to companies whose executives are paid salaries that do not exceed 32 times the salary of their lowest-paid full-time employee. As an example, for a company to have a preference in contracting with our state, if the CEO made $1.6 million, its lowest earners would need to make at least $50,000.
 
This legislation doesn’t stop companies from paying their CEOs whatever salary they want, nor does it even prevent those companies from bidding on and winning state contracts.  It simply gives a preference to companies that do their part in reducing their employees’ need for taxpayer subsidies. I believe it would also lead to more efficient and effective pricing and services from companies that are truly interested in serving the public interest instead of soaking the taxpayers.
 
Fairer wage ratios and bringing up wages of those struggling at the bottom will also return to the middle class some of the buying power it had in the middle of the 20th century – a plus for those very companies that have products to sell to them.
 

Our state speaks with our money; saying we would prefer, when possible, to do business with companies that are not contributing to the proliferation of economic inequality is the right way to use taxpayer money.

 
The hidden cost to the taxpayer as a result of wage inequality has been growing for decades; it will take many actions to change course. Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010, which instituted a new level of transparency on executive pay. The Rhode Island Senate bill S2796 implements a simple preference to help promote income security and economic justice for all Rhode Islanders.
 

Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey is a Democrat who represents District 34 in Exeter, Charlestown, Richmond, Hopkinton and West Greenwich. Her bill (2014-S 2796) passed the Senate on June 5 and will now go to the House of Representatives.

Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey

One element that contributes to the concentration of wealth in this country is the inordinately high compensation packages that many companies pay their executives. While the success of those firms often relies on paying disproportionately lower wages to the masses who create, sell or otherwise promote the corporation’s products or services, those at the top can pull down tens of millions in a single year, hundreds of times the salary of the vast majority of their employees.

 
Low wages are not just a business matter. This extreme wage inequality often comes at a cost to the taxpayer, too. Many workers at the bottom of the pay scale are forced to rely on numerous social services – food assistance, subsidized child-care, rent and energy assistance, health care and more – to make ends meet, despite being employed full-time.

  
6/20/2014

The House of Representatives last week adopted a state budget which promotes economic development and encourages companies to invest and grow in Rhode Island. Two key measures include a lowered corporate tax rate and a reduced estate tax burden.  We listened to our business and community leaders who urged us to do more to grow jobs and the economy. After years of economic stagnation, we sent a bold message that Rhode Island is a state that is finally “open for business.”

With such a great emphasis being placed on improving our state’s economic climate, we also had to make an extremely difficult but necessary budget decision. We included $12.3 million that is due to bond holders for the repayment of the moral obligation bonds in the 38 Studios debacle.  As distasteful and maddening as that payment is, our state must not reverse the economic momentum we will achieve with many of our budgetary investments.
When I met with leading executives at Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s in New York last month, they made it abundantly clear that a failure to make this payment would trigger a default and result in a substantial multi-notch downgrade of our state’s credit rating. That means it will cost the state more to make much needed capital investments now and in the foreseeable future.  The state budget includes asking voters this fall to approve $248 million in general obligation bonds for significant renovations and new construction projects involving transportation hubs, the University of Rhode Island’s engineering school, pollution abatement and many others.  Failing to pay the 38 Studios obligations will likely cause  the cost for these projects and all of other investments underway in the state and our municipalities to skyrocket – an impact potentially far greater than the nearly $90 million owed in the next decade as a result of the 38 Studios mess.
The bond rating companies also informed me that they view moral obligation bonds as just a slight step below general obligation ones, and that their reaction to a default would be the same.  Even putting the bond payment in an escrow account and not making a scheduled payment would be considered the same as a default.
I am aware that some Rhode Islanders believe we should call Wall Street’s bluff.  But no state has reneged on a bond payment since Arkansas during the Great Depression. I would not want Rhode Island to be known as the first state in nearly 80 years to default on an obligation.  What kind of message is that sending to businesses we want to attract to our state? That is not the kind of history I want to make.
I did not come to this conclusion without careful consideration.  In addition to making the trip to New York, I read the state-commissioned analysis and I talked with dozens of experts in Rhode Island who offered me similar viewpoints.  Many of them also testified before our House Finance and Oversight committees, including top officials at CVS Caremark, Amica Insurance, the Greater Providence and the Northern Rhode Island chambers of commerce, the RI League of Cities and Towns, and the RI Public Expenditure Council.
Len Lardaro, the well-respected URI economist, told our committee that failure to pay the bond would be the equivalent of taping a piece of paper on Rhode Island’s back and saying “Kick Me!”
Perhaps just as importantly, a default would severely limit any opportunity to collect damages from the responsible parties in the active lawsuit by the state.  With this payment, we keep alive the very real opportunity to reclaim a good share of the lost money without suffering the financial and reputational damages of a default.
I certainly understand the anger of Rhode Islanders about the colossal failure of 38 Studios, and I share that outrage. When I voted in 2010 for the creation of a $125 million job creation loan guaranty program for the Economic Development Corporation, I – and nearly all of my colleagues – had no idea that $75 million would be utilized by one video game company.
But the public needs to separate these emotions from the decision on the fiscal responsibility the state has to meet our obligations, no matter how distasteful.
To date, I have declined to issue subpoena power to our House Oversight Committee, but I reserve the right to do so in the future.  I am reluctant at present because there are investigations being conducted by the Attorney General’s Office and the State Police, as well as depositions being taken in a civil lawsuit, with testimony hopefully being unsealed in the near future. 
Subpoena power will be an ineffective tool to learn anything more while these actions are taking place. At a minimum, subpoenas will require extensive Superior Court litigation and thousands of dollars of legal fees which will probably produce testimony where witnesses will plead their Fifth Amendment rights and provide us with no further testimony.
 
It is not in the public interest to raise unrealistic expectations that issuing subpoenas is somehow a magic bullet that would be more effective than a State Police or Attorney General’s investigation. I have great confidence in the integrity, professionalism and thoroughness of the State Police, and I believe that such investigations should be conducted by the experts.
 
In the meantime, while we await the results of these potential criminal and civil actions, I am confident that the bond repayment is the responsible approach to take. We have to get Rhode Island out of its economic malaise, and our business-focused budget puts us on a positive path to prosperity. We can’t reverse our course and renege on an obligation that could jeopardize economic growth for decades to come.

 

Nicholas A. Mattiello is the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  He is a Democrat from Cranston. 
Speaker of the House Nicholas A. Mattiello

The House of Representatives last week adopted a state budget which promotes economic development and encourages companies to invest and grow in Rhode Island.With such a great emphasis being placed on improving our state’s economic climate, we also had to make an extremely difficult but necessary budget decision. We included $12.3 million that is due to bond holders for the repayment of the moral obligation bonds in the 38 Studios debacle.  As distasteful and maddening as that payment is, our state must not reverse the economic momentum we will achieve with many of our budgetary investments.

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