The 2012 Rhode Island General Assembly adjourned at 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday, June 13, 2012. While there were some modest wins for those who support a bold vision for advancing a sound and meaningful prosperity agenda, the session can largely be characterized as a missed opportunity to capitalize on our many assets.
Here is a summary of key outcomes:
State Historic Tax Credit
H-7732, S-2269, S-2313
A range of supporters worked with bill sponsors and the General Assembly leadership during the course of the session to arrive at a consensus bill that could enjoy broad support from many interests. However, as the General Assembly wound down, efforts by historic tax credit bill sponsors and an outpouring of emails and phone calls to the General Assembly leadership from historic tax credit supporters were not enough to overcome the chilling effect of the 38 Studios’ debacle. Grow Smart and other supporters will continue to make a strong case for a new historic tax credit program, building on the extensive efforts of the past year.
Municipal Economic Development Incentive Act
H-7399 / S-2462
This proposal called for amending the existing Property Tax Levy Cap law (RIGL 44-5-2) allowing municipalities to capture a portion of levy growth within locally designated and state-approved “growth centers” (or Main Street districts), provided that the captured funds are reinvested in capital improvements in these districts. Read a description of the proposal HERE. The number of co-sponsors increased from 2 in 2011 to 9 in 2012. Staff worked with Rep. Jay O’Grady (D.-Lincoln, Pawtucket), the lead sponsor in the House, to incorporate provisions that address concerns raised by RIPEC when the 2011 bill was heard by the House Finance Committee. Staff also attended a March 30th meeting arranged by Rep. O’Grady with Division of Municipal Finance Chief Susanne Greschner and Division of Planning Associate Director Kevin Flynn to discuss recommended amendments to ease administrative implementation should the bill gain the support of the General Assembly. While there have been indications that both the Speaker of the House and the House Minority leader believe that the proposal has merit, it failed to be voted out of committee.
Amending existing MED Zone law (44-18-30.C)
H-7453 / S-2633
This existing law is intended to assist municipal officials of financially distressed communities in revitalizing deteriorated or blighted areas. The law allows qualified retailers in designated MED (Municipal Economic Development) Zones to charge ½ of the existing sales and use tax rate on most items provided they are located in “newly constructed” buildings – with all remaining funds collected going to the municipality for capital improvements within the MED Zone. The incentive applies only to financially distressed communities as defined by § 45-13-12(b) and only among those with a population below 50,000. This limits the application of the bill for now to only 3 communities—Central Falls, West Warwick and Woonsocket. To date, no municipality has succeeded in implementing the tax incentive, although two have attempted to do so in support of big box development proposals. Grow Smart prepared language to amend the statute allowing all qualified retailers to participate, including those in existing or rehabbed building space and to lift the 50,000+ population restriction which would enable Providence and Pawtucket to participate. The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing at which Grow Smart submitted written testimony on April 3, 2012. The bill failed to be voted out of committee.
Transit Investment Act of 2012
In 2011 and 2012 Grow Smart, in coordination with the Coalition for Transportation Choices, developed a responsible and sustainable funding plan for the Department of Transportation and RIPTA. Parts of the plan were enacted by the General Assembly in 2011 as the “Transportation Investment and Debt Reduction Act of 2011.” The enacted law created a new Transportation Trust Fund capitalized by modest, new surcharges for driver’s licenses and auto registrations beginning in FY2014. The sole purpose for the new revenue is to take the place of costly future borrowing. RIDOT has routinely issued bonds up to $80 million biennially in order to raise the required state match for Federal Highway Funding. This element of the law will save Rhode Island tens of millions of dollars in future debt servicing. However, the General Assembly has repeatedly ignored the long-term needs of mass transit and excluded RIPTA from this new funding system. RIPTA has improved its efficiency in the past two years but continues to struggle with long-term structural budget deficits due to its over-reliance on declining state gas tax revenues. At the request of the General Assembly, RIPTA also developed a Five-Year Strategic Plan for improving mass transit in Rhode Island, but lacks the resources to fully implement the plan which could enable some Rhode Island households to save up to $10k in annual transportation costs.
The principal provision of H-7581 was to restore RIPTA as a partial beneficiary of the newly created transportation trust fund. The proposal began with the Transportation Investment and Debt Reduction Act of 2011, as enacted, and then made certain changes, as follows:
- Inserted language, deleted last year, referencing RIPTA.
- Accelerated the phase-in of the new license and registration fees. Instead of a three-year phase-in beginning a year from now, the new fees were to be imposed in full beginning in FY2013.
- Redirected automobile license and registration fees from the general fund into the transportation trust fund phased in at 20% each year for five years.
- Reallocated the proceeds of the transportation trust fund, with 35% to RIPTA and 65% to RIDOT.
The Public Transit Investment Act would have been a major step forward in creating a more comprehensive and sustainable transportation funding system, but these provisions failed to get incorporated into the State Budget. Faced with a well-known and predictable $8 million operating deficit for FY2013, RIPTA may completely run out of funds by March, 2012 unless the legislature makes an emergency supplemental appropriation after reconvening in January, 2013.
Complete Streets Act
H-7352 / S-2131
This law, supported by RIDOT, now requires RIDOT to consider “Complete Streets” design concepts for all transportation construction and improvement projects and implement them whenever practical. These concepts promote the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and the disabled by including sidewalks, paved shoulders, lane striping, bicycle lanes, share the road signage, “road diets,” roundabouts, crosswalks, pedestrian control signalization, bus pull outs, curb cuts, raised crosswalks and ramps and traffic calming measures. The law requires RIDOT to produce a report within two years detailing its compliance with the law and to consult with transportation, land-use and environmental officials during the project development process.
Petroleum Savings Independence Advisory Commission
H-7261 / S-2186
This law will create the 17-member Petroleum Savings & Independence Advisory Commission. The Commission is charged with creating a plan for reducing Rhode Island’s total petroleum consumption that equals the maximum economically achievable savings. The targets may not provide less than a thirty percent (30%) overall reduction in petroleum consumption from 2007 levels by 2030 and a fifty percent (50%) overall reduction from 2007 levels by 2050; and will, among other things:
- Promote and incentivize transportation alternatives to personal vehicle use, including investing in sustainable funding for public transportation.
- Coordinate land use and transportation planning to encourage growth in areas accessible by walking, biking, and public transportation.
Vulnerable Road Users Act
H-7463 / S-2214
The Coalition for Transportation Choices (CTC), which Grow Smart co-chairs, endorsed this bill filed at the request of the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition by State Sen. Susan Sosnowski and State Rep. Teresa Tanzi. Vulnerable road users include pedestrians, bicyclists, emergency responders, highway workers, wheelchair users, skateborders, or a person riding on or driving an animal. Under this bill, if a driver is found guilty of failing to exercise due care and kills or injures a vulnerable road user they would receive additional penalties on top of those included in applicable criminal or civil statutes. Those additional penalties include: completing a traffic safety training session, community service, license suspension, and fines. The Senate version was heard in April in the Judiciary Committee and held; there was no action on this bill in the House.
State Budget – Transportation
Other transportation items of interest in the State Budget about which Grow Smart did not take a position include:
- The transfer of the Sakonnet River Bridge to the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority, paving the way for tolling which will relieve RIDOT of the responsibility and cost of maintaining the bridge.
- The transfer of $20 million from a Rhode Island Capital Fund (RICAP) to RIDOT to replace future borrowing and saving future debt service obligations.
Agriculture and Open Space
Agriculture and Seafood Act
H-7701 / S-2611
The Governor signed into law the Rhode Island Agriculture and Seafood Act on RI Ag Day at the State House. The bill, which was a high priority for the Governor and RIDEM, is considered a major move forward for agricultural and seafood interests. The bill creates a restricted receipt account into which funds can be placed to support small grants and technical assistance to farmers and fisherman and also creates an Inter-Agency Food and Nutrition Policy Advisory Council that includes RIDOH, RIDEM, and RIDOA. Grow Smart testified in support of both bills when they were heard in committee.
Under the budget adopted by the General Assembly, a $20 million “Environmental Management” bond will be placed on the November ballot as Question 4 for voter approval. The Environmental Management bond includes:
State Farmland Protection Program (ALPC) $4.5 million
Local Open Space Grants $2.5 million
State Land Acquisition Open Space $2.5 million
Local Recreation Grants $5.5 million
Historic/Passive Parks $1.0 million
Narragansett Bay Watershed Restoration $4.0 million
The bond question approved by the General Assembly is $5 million less than Governor Chafee’s original $25 million proposal because the General Assembly moved the $5 million in State Park development funding out of the bond and into current programs. Grow Smart testified in support of the Governor’s original proposal.
Other Housing initiatives passed as part of the State Budget approval include:
The budget supports $800,000 for the Thresholds program which helps provide homes for individuals with serious and persistent mental illness and disabilities.
The budget also calls for the Office of the Attorney General to utilize $4 million of the $8.6 million in funds the Office will receive from the National Mortgage Servicers Settlement to work with Rhode Island Housing on the development and implementation of a foreclosure assistance program.
Neighborhood Opportunities Program
The budget requires Rhode Island Housing to continue some funding for the Neighborhood Opportunities Program (NOP) without providing compensating support for other Rhode Island Housing programs that may need to be cut to meet the agency’s NOP obligations.