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R.I. lawmakers begin difficult 2014 session

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island lawmakers kicked off their work for 2014 Tuesday, beginning a session that’s likely to be dominated by debate over bridge tolls, 38 Studios, pensions and a $100 million budget deficit.

It’s expected to be a difficult, potentially contentious session as lawmakers grapple with complex, politically charged problems that avoided easy resolution last year. Elections in the fall will only make the situation more volatile.

House Speaker Gordon Fox acknowledged the challenges in his introductory remarks to the House, calling for civility.

Last year’s session ended with the trading of insults on the House floor following bitter clashes over 38 Studios and an unpopular toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

“In many ways we did not end nice; it got personal,” Fox said of the 2013 session, before vowing to work to make this year’s session a productive one.

The state’s economy continues to be the most pressing challenge, and several lawmakers said they’ll propose legislation to boost workforce development, strengthen education or restructure taxes to boost the state’s competitiveness. The state is tied with Nevada with the nation’s worst unemployment rate — 9 percent.

“We’ve got to focus this year on the economy — jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly. “We can’t get distracted. We’ve got to put people to work.”

Workforce training is emerging as this year’s top economic development strategy, with Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and others saying it’s a cost-effective, practical way to boost employment.

Rep. Joe McNamara, D-Warwick, said the state needs to make workforce training programs more flexible, while also making them more relevant to a high-tech economy.

“We need to better align higher education, community college education with the skills that industries need,” McNamara said. “Education can be a huge asset in moving the economy.”

Lawmakers must also find ways to bridge an estimated $100 million budget deficit. With tax increases probably off the table, that means more spending cuts — unless new fiscal estimates in the spring show an uptick in revenue.

Two of the most contentious debates will be continued from last session — 38 Studios’ debt payments and the toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

Several lawmakers last year unsuccessfully pushed to default on the debt the state owes for its failed $75 million investment in former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s video game company. Lawmakers ultimately approved a $2.5 million payment — but this year lawmakers will vote on setting aside $12.5 million.

Lawmakers also grudgingly approved a 10-cent toll on the new Sakonnet River Bridge, after initially voting to block the Turnpike and Bridge Authority’s plans for imposing a 75-cent toll. Unless lawmakers from the East Bay can find an alternative way of paying for bridge maintenance, it’s likely the toll will increase this spring, despite concerns that it poses a burden on commuters, tourists and businesses.

Ultimately, pensions may prove to be the session’s most difficult subject. Lawmakers approved a landmark overhaul to the state’s public pension system in 2011 that suspended pension increases and raised retirement ages. A legal challenge from unions and public retirees is now in mediation. Any potential settlement would require legislative approval — and potentially cost tens of millions of dollars or more.

The session typically runs through the spring.

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