Six local legislators fielded questions from the public during a two-hour forum at the CCRI Newport auditorium Thursday morning. Hosted by executive director John Shea of the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission, the event featured questions submitted beforehand as well as a robust Q&A period.
Senators Lou DiPalma (D-12), Jim Seveney (D-11), and Dawn Euer (D-13), were joined by Representatives Lauren Carson (D-75), Deb Ruggiero (D-74), and Ken Mendonca (R-72). The forum was moderated by Neil Steinberg, president of the RI Foundation.
Issues with affordable housing in Newport County received a lot of attention, with several legislators lamenting escalating prices and tightening supply. “We’re one of the lowest states in the region in terms of investment for affordable housing,” said Euer.
The impact of short-term rental companies like Airbnb came in for particular scrutiny, and not just for the upward price pressure on the rental market.
Jean Napolitano of the Newport City Council complained to the panel that Airbnb sends a single tax check to the city of without providing any breakdowns, making it difficult to identify any possible issues.
Carson, who chairs a tourism study commission, said there was a need to work with municipalities for a “real diagnosis of the problem.” In addition to distribution of taxes, she cited ensuring health and safety and zoning compliance as areas of concern. With a meeting of the commission coming up on April 13, she said she was waiting to hear from the Dept. of Taxation on their recommendations.
Mendonca noted that Portsmouth and Middletown are “highly desirable” and stressed the importance of starter homes for young families, “or we’ll end up a rental community for all properties.” He proposed looking at “the West Side Plan and Tank Farm.” The idea of putting housing on this land — former fuel storage areas on the west side of Aquidneck Island which have been excessed by the Navy — drew a skeptical response from members of Portsmouth’s Tank Farm Development Advisory Committee who were in attendance.
Terri Cortvriend, vice-chair of the committee — and a candidate running against Mendonca for the district 72 seat — told a reporter Mendonca was “misinformed.” “Housing is not part of our redevelopment plan, not part of the town’s PUD, and not part of the West Side Master Plan.”
Cortvriend added, “Funny that he would put low-income housing on the most polluted land in town, and outside his district.”
Issues with transportation in the state were also a hot topic. “You can’t move the economy if you can’t move people,” said Ruggiero.
DiPalma noted that of the $130M RIPTA budget, the vast majority comes from federal funds and the gas tax rather than user fares. He noted that there have been some administrative improvements, particularly in restructuring how RIPTA paid for vehicles. “We were bonding new bus purchases over 20 years, and the buses were only lasting 13,” he said. “We were paying for 7 years after they became paperclips.”
Seveney articulated additional challenges. “We’ve seen a 20 percent drop off in RIPTA ridership since 2014,” he said. He saw many factors to blame: including the smart-city-like principle that “Investments in parking are bad for buses,” as well as competition from Uber and Lyft, and outsourcing $30M in ride provision for the elderly and disabled. “It’s not obvious how they’re going to get themselves back to a position where they cover their own costs.”
The governor’s proposed $250M education building bond had broad support, with a few caveats. Mendonca felt that local communities “need to understand they have a co-share” and might need their own bond initiatives. Ruggiero wanted to ensure that there were adequate maintenance provisions and that the RI League of Cities and Towns was represented. DiPalma spoke up for amendment to the incentive structure, which is weighted against communities with projects already in process.
Among the live audience questions, healthcare came up several times. The budget’s proposed $21M cuts to the BHDDH were slammed by Ruggiero and DiPalma. Legislation to require insurance companies to cover alternative treatment methodologies was applauded by Ruggiero, Euer, Carson, and Mendonca. Seveney talked about the importance of establishing a dedicated funding stream for substance abuse prevention. Single-payer received a mixed reception, with Carson, Ruggiero, and Mendonca all supporting the principle of providing access, but raising questions about feasibility.
An audience question about proposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines got support from everyone except Mendonca.
In a final, “lightning round,” the legislators were asked to name their top priority for the session.
- Euer: “Expanding the renewable energy program,” since it offers “real job impact.”
- Carson: “Ban offshore drilling,” which she argued was “critical given the dismantling of the EPA in last 15 months.”
- Seveney: “Substance abuse,” particularly funding the program.
- Ruggiero: “Renewable energy,” and also the bill that would provide for voluntary extension of care for kids 18-21.
- DiPalma: “The budget.” Particularly as it applies to HHS, DDH, client welfare. Also education, STEM, and cybersecurity.
- Mendonca: “Good Government.” In particular, creating an Inspector General and enforcing Open Meetings laws. Also providing for school safety assessments.