Economy tops local legislators’ priorities for 2014 session

Economy tops local legislators’ priorities for 2014 session


WESTERLY — With the 2014 legislative session now under way, area lawmakers agree that revitalizing the state’s struggling economy should be the General Assembly’s top priority.

“We have to concentrate on job development,” said Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, R-District 38. “There’s no question that the economy is still sluggish in Rhode Island. We’re beginning to see some positive movements, and the unemployment rate is going down, but it’s still unacceptably high. We’re number one or two in the country. At the end of the day, for me, it’s anything that’s going to create jobs and get our economy going in the right direction.”

Rep. Samuel Azzinaro, D-District 37, agreed that legislators should focus on the economy.

“The economy. That’s the number one priority, and it should be the number one priority in Rhode Island and our delegation in Washington,” he said. “We get more people back to work, that will help the economy.”

Azzinaro, who is secretary of the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee, said it was also important for the state to maintain current levels of funding for education.

“We’ve got to make sure our children are getting the best education that they possibly can, and stick with the educational funding formula that was put in place a couple of years ago,” he said.

Algiere, Azzinaro and Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, D-38th District, have promised to work to protect the aquifer that supplies Westerly’s drinking water. Town Council members and people who live near the Cherenzia Companies’ quarry on White Rock Road and the Copar Quarries of Westerly in Bradford have raised concerns about the quarries’ possible effects on the drinking water supply. The town is looking for help from the state to buy the property around the aquifer and preserve it as open space.

Like Algiere and Azzinaro, Kennedy said he was concerned about the economy, especially the state budget.

“There have been projections of deficits, particularly when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts brings full casino gambling on line in the next two years,” he said. “While we’ve had some uptick in budget revenues from the income tax and sales tax, we also have departments and agencies that have already overspent their budget just six months into the new fiscal year. Our challenge will be to address the state budget situation and hopefully to hold the line against calls for new tax increases.”

Kennedy added that he also wants to find ways to boost the state’s employment rate. “We have to develop solutions to attract more businesses to the state while encouraging existing businesses to consider expanding the employment base,” he said. “The new Rhode Island Commerce Agency will be tasked with addressing this matter and hopefully working to build upon existing job creation legislation that we previously passed in the state to attract financial service companies.”

Kennedy said he was planning to reintroduce two bills now, but could introduce more as the session continues.

“The first will ensure that a database is created to assist families in finding and receiving unclaimed life insurance benefits for old policies that were issued before the advent of Social Security numbers,” he said.

“I also plan to reintroduce the DNA identification legislation that I’ve introduced over the last few years that would require the collection of a DNA sample from individuals charged with a felony to ensure that they are not potentially responsible for other crimes.”

Sen. Catherine Cool-Rumsey, D-District 34, also puts the economy and jobs — with an emphasis on job training — at the top of her legislative priority list.

“My top priority and focus continues to be on the economy and job creation, which includes workforce development. We need to work diligently on closing the gap between those looking for work and those in need of skilled employees,” she said. “On a related note, we also need to work on strengthening our education system, making sure our students are prepared for higher education and the modern workforce.”

Cool-Rumsey said she was also concerned about the state’s infrastructure and public transportation. “We have some work to do in ensuring that roads and bridges are maintained and funded, as well as ensuring that transportation solutions support the aging population in our rural communities,” she said.

Rep. Larry Valencia, D-District 39, said he planned to reintroduce legislation that would bolster revenues for the state by raising the tax rate for people in upper income brackets.

“I have one bill that would raise the income tax rate, the marginal rate on individuals above $200,000 and married couples over $250,000. What that means is, right now, the top rate is approximately 6 percent. That means if anyone made a dollar more than $200,000, instead of paying 6 cents on that dollar, they would pay 10 cents. It only affects the amount they made above that $200,000 or $250,000…It would probably generate somewhere in the neighborhood of $120 million to $160 million annually, which would be used to not only balance the budget but could provide us with more funding to give municipal aid to cities and towns,” he said.

Valencia said he would also reintroduce a bill to create a position of inspector general, who would have the authority to investigate every branch of government, including the police.

“There would be no aspect of state government that would be immune from their ability to look at things,” he said, noting that the inspector general in Massachusetts had been instrumental in uncovering waste, fraud and mismanagement associated with the Big Dig project in Boston.

“Any state that has an inspector general brings in much more revenue in terms of savings than it costs to run the office,” he said.

Valencia said he also wanted to consolidate all agriculture under the administrative umbrella of the state Department of Environmental Management.

“Putting everything within DEM, this is going to make Rhode Island agriculture smoother, easier to operate. It’s going to allow towns and cities to operate from a standard set of definitions, and it’s going to make it easier for people to start farms and maintain existing farms,” he said.

Rep. Donna Walsh, D-District 36, said she planned to focus on issues affecting the cities and towns. Topping the list of the list of bills she will introduce is legislation that would give homeowners more time to adjust to higher flood insurance rates.

The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 makes changes to the National Flood Insurance Program that reduce federal flood insurance subsidies and raise premiums to more accurately reflect risk.

“We would like to see the federal government slow down the implementation of this and probably conduct an affordability review and peer review of the new flood map zones,” Walsh said. “So what I’ve done is put legislation in that would cap the amount of flood insurance mortgage lenders could require of homeowners. It would prohibit these institutions from requiring owners to purchase flood insurance in an amount that exceeds the outstanding balance of their mortgage….Flood insurance is going up astronomically, and I think many people are going to be really blindsided by the amount that they’re going to have to pay.”

Walsh said she was also working on a bill that would regulate surface mining operations like quarries.

“I think we need to require that you get a permit from the state, you have to have a clean record, no outstanding violations. You have to meet certain criteria in order to do this. It would also require a reclamation plan,” she said.

Walsh heads the Affordable Housing Act Review Commission, which is examining the state’s 2004 Low and Moderate Income Housing Act. The act requires that the 39 cities and town attain a 10 percent level of affordable housing by the year 2025.

“Now that we have just passed the midway point, this commission faces the important task of looking back at how we have done, what worked and what didn’t and what we need to do to provide housing for all our people,” Walsh wrote in a Dec. 19 letter to The Westerly Sun. “Census data from 2010 shows that Rhode Island residents face the worst housing cost burden in New England.”

The current legislative session began Jan. 7 and is expected to end by June 30.

Cherenzia Companies is The Westerly Sun’s landlord.

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