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.)