With the start of the 2014 session of the General Assembly Tuesday, Warwick legislators identified the economy and jobs as the overriding concern while ticking off a list of pet bills ranging from loosening requirements on medical businesses to seeing that 50 percent of any state surplus goes to reduce city and town debts.
In characteristic fashion, the first day back for the lawmakers was one of renewing acquaintances, resolutions of sympathy on the recent deaths of family and friends and minimal speechmaking. No legislative votes were taken and a major event was the unveiling of a wood life-size statue, which stands outside Senate chambers, of Thomas Wilson Dorr, carved and painted by Joe Avarista. The statue was commissioned by historian Patrick Conley and his wife, Gail.
Conley gave an animated account of Dorr for whom the Dorr Rebellion was named. In 1841 Dorr led the People’s Convention that drafted a new state constitution, extending the right to vote to white non-property owners. Many of those provisions were incorporated in the constitution the following year but only after state militia put down Dorr’s rebellion and Dorr fled the state.
“We return today eager to build upon the progress we have made and address the challenges our state continues to face,” said Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed addressing her colleagues. “There is no doubt in my mind that for each and every one of us the economy is our top priority.”
She said the Senate would continue to focus on workforce development that will include a report on additional steps that can be taken to close the skills gap; invest in education including pre-k and full-day kindergarten; initiatives to strengthen the defense economy; an examination of taxes including estate and corporate taxes and development of a sustainable system for funding road and bridge maintenance.
The Senate also applauded one of their own – William Walaska of Warwick. Walaska, who has been in and out of the hospital since the Senate adjourned last summer, was in attendance. He jauntily displayed a facial mask, which he did not wear. He said he would start chemotherapy treatments shortly.
Speaker of the House Gordon Fox said he was anxious to look at and discuss a number of issues with his colleagues in the House, including sales tax, tolls, pensions and the future of the 38 Studios payments. While he would not provide concrete opinions on any of those issues, he said there would certainly be a lot of discussion.
<*C>Working for the people
@T_Basic:What he would comment on is his hope that all members of the House put aside personal feelings and get back to working for the people.
“You have to stay in play,” said Fox while addressing members of the media. “We keep it to the topic at hand, stay in the game, stay in the conversation.”
Fox made similar comments during his opening address to the House at the start of the session, saying the way the group argues and debates the issues needs to change from the end of last year’s session.
“In a way, we did not end nice in July,” said Fox. “Things cannot be worked out in these chambers if things get personal.”
Although the start of the session was full of pleasantries, many of the state legislators still had their agendas on their minds.
Although she has not decided what bills will be her personal priority, Senator Erin Lynch knows what should be the overall priority.
“Everyone’s priority is the economy; that’s jobs, so that’s going to be priority. It may not seem it, but it’s always been the priority,” said Lynch.
She explained that the process to make change has taken longer than she initially expected when she started, but is hopeful the General Assembly will take steps forward this session.
“I think we’ll have a lot of good bills to make things better and move things forward,” said Lynch.
The economy was forefront in the mind of Rep. Joseph McNamara. McNamara said he would be pushing ways to make it easier for businesses to operate from Rhode Island. Specifically, he believes there’s an opportunity, especially in Warwick, for medical related businesses that would create new jobs and opportunities. He feels the current certificate of need requirements regulated by the Health Department stymie new development and competition in the medical field.
“We have to let the market play out,” he said.
On the education and workforce front, McNamara would like to see incoming CCRI students, 70 percent of whom he says require remediation courses, “embedded” in for-credit courses. He said this would improve student retention and result in better outcomes.
“Remedial courses would be a default setting only,” he said.
Representative K. Joseph Shekarchi is also staying focused on the economy, hoping to help small businesses as well as cities and towns.
Shekarchi said his number one priority is to reintroduce his jobs bill from last session. The bill would give tax credits to small and medium-sized businesses for hiring new employees. The Jobs Incentive Act does currently exist, but only large companies receive the credits. Shekarchi hopes expanding this incentive will encourage companies to hire more well-qualified employees.
Shekarchi’s other pet bill is a new surplus bill he has been planning since last fall. When he learned that the state has a surplus of roughly $97 million with only $93 million allotted for FY2014 budget, Shekarchi came up with a bill that would allot 50 percent of any surplus found in the state’s budget back to cities and towns. Those funds would be restricted to paying municipal debt.
“Representatives [Mia] Ackerman [D-Cumberland, Lincoln] and [Stephen] Casey [D-Woonsocket] have talked to me about co-sponsoring and I haven’t even introduced it yet,” said Shekarchi. “I’m excited about that.”
Overall, Shekarchi believes 38 Studios and possible pension reform to be hot issues for the General Assembly this session.
Warwick Representative Frank Ferri also believes 38 Studios and pension reform will be dominating issues for the Assembly, speaking about his hope for the future of the issue.
“I’m not sure where we’re going to go with pensions, but I hope it is settled amicably,” he said.
Ferri also hopes that the overall goal of the General Assembly remains on the economy and jobs.
“As a unit, working together on good economic legislation, it’s about jobs, getting people back to work,” he said, adding that as a small business owner himself the economy and jobs is always on his mind.
“If people aren’t working and spending money, our economy won’t work.”
@T_Basic:Personally, Ferri plans to tackle payday lending reform. He is especially hopeful to make moves with the issue after hearing Fox speak about his hopes to address the same issue during a radio interview.
“That’s something he is looking to address, so I am hopeful to be able to work with him on that,” said Ferri.
Members of the RI Interfaith Coalition and RI Coalition for the Homeless will be happy to hear about more support for payday lending reform because it is one of the issues the two groups and other supporters called on state legislators to support yesterday during their interfaith march and vigil, which was expected to have over 200 participants.
Karen Jeffreys, associate director of RI Coalition for the Homeless, explained that the event, which was coordinated by the RI Interfaith Coalition, was the faith community’s way of calling on the Assembly to support a number of anti-poverty issues including payday lending reform, family cash assistance, homelessness prevention and more.
According to a press release about yesterday’s march and vigil, the purpose was to raise awareness that all Rhode Islanders are entitled to “a decent, safe and affordable home, adequate food and nutrition, equal access to affordable and quality health care, equal and quality education for all children, and decent work with adequate income.”
“They’re powerful,” said Jeffreys, explaining that participants call out the name of each legislator asking for their support. “It’s the faith community asking legislators to stand with the most vulnerable.”
Jeffreys explained that the Coalition for the Homeless is involved because they support many of the same issues such as increased rental vouchers, Just Cause legislation (which would require landlords to have just cause to evict a tenant) and payday lending reform.
“When someone is constantly trapped in payday lending, their housing can be at risk,” explained Jeffreys.
Warwick Representative Eileen Naughton is continuing her efforts against the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) as a graduation requirement for this session. She plans to re-file her bill to remove the graduation requirement of showing proficiency on the standardized test as soon as possible.
“The data shows that two out of five high schoolers aren’t going to graduate. Now we won’t have the results of October’s test until February. We can’t wait,” said Naughton.
As chair of the Senate Health Committee, Cranston Senator Joshua Miller said those bills going through his committee would remain his priority.
“I put the issues that come to the committee as my things to be on top of,” explained Miller, naming results from the Behavioral Health and Primary Care commission and possible legislation addressing changes to the DCYF policy regarding individuals aging out of the system as particular items on his radar.
Miller is also hoping to re-introduce two pieces of legislation regarding gun safety. The first is an assault weapons ban and the second would address the sale of firearms to minors. He is also looking at the taxing and regulation of marijuana, transparency in hospital fees and a new social bonding project. He explained that social bonding is a financing mechanism for public goods by private investors.
“It gives someone other than the government the ability to have an impact on it,” said Miller.
Representative David Bennett said he does not have any specific bills he is sponsoring yet, but is looking at a number of issues for this upcoming session. For starters, he wants to look at raising the stipend provided for transportation for the disabled so they do not have to pay as much out of pocket. He is also looking into finding a way to monitor buildings that claim to be a “safe house” but are really just tenant houses providing no support to the residents who truly need it.
Bennett explained that this issue is being discussed at the local level, but it also needs to be addressed at the state level. He also hopes to explore raising the minimum wage.
“I’m looking at minimum wage but nothing solid yet,” explained Bennett. “I could ask for a dollar, but if I get 25 to 50 cents, that’s a step.
Overall, Bennett agrees with many of his colleagues that the focus needs to be on economics and the job market. He praised Warwick’s success with increases in tourism and hospitality, the success of the Route 2 area, and the creation of City Centre Warwick.
“Warwick is doing a good job with that, but we’ve still got to look at it on a state level.”