Eight Newport County legislators, at an Aquidneck Island Planning Commission forum on Thursday, chimed in on two of the hottest topics at the State House: the car tax and RI Promise, Gov. Gina Raimondo’s college tuition proposal. In general, they were cautious about the feasibility of car tax reduction, and expressed qualified support for reducing student debt.
Sen. Jim Seveney (D-11) supports cutting the car tax, as long as cities and towns were held harmless. He expressed concern that it could potentially impact important programs like RI Promise, which he supported. Rep. Deb Ruggiero (D-74) questioned where the $215M that currently goes to cities and towns would come from. Rep. Ken Mendonca (R-72) acknowledged it as a highly regressive tax, but worried that the structural deficit projected in FY18 would make relief difficult. Sen. Walter Felag (D-10) questioned the time frame, noting that although the RI budget is typically described as $9B, earmarked programs mean that the discretionary spend is closer to $3.8B, and suggested that relief might be more realistic over a five-year period.
Rep. Lauren Carson (D-75) noted that her constituents find the car tax “the most hated in Rhode Island,” and predicted that something would happen. Sen. Lou DiPalma (D-12) argued that priorities are what get funded, and things become possible when they are prioritized. He stressed that any change should not happen until 2019 to prevent the logistical nightmare of tax refunds. House Finance Chair Rep. Marvin Abney (D-73), was reticent to comment substantively since his committee ultimately handles the budget.
Five of the eight legislators suggested a post-graduation residency requirement would make Raimondo’s RI Promise Scholarship proposal stronger. For Ruggiero, it should be pitched as “reduced college debt for the middle class,” and tied to commitment to remain in the state for a period of time. Carson also felt staying in RI was important and would consider requiring some type of academic standard. Donovan concurred in wanting to keep graduates in Rhode Island. Mendonca called RI Promise “honorable” and joined with those who’d require staying in RI.
Seveney said that current system focusing only on K-12 was “antiquated,” that RI Promise would help bring students into the 21st Century. He too supported some type of post-graduation requirements. DiPalma provided a historical perspective, noting that it was only in 1892 that Rhode Island voted to fund high school education. Now, he said, high school was necessary but not sufficient, and the state should be thinking about Pre-K thru 14. Felag found the goal “laudable,” but questioned the funding commitment in the out years, especially given the slippage in 4-year graduation rates (40% at URI).
They began the forum with brief statements about their legislative priorities for the current session. Seveney was focused on substance abuse, and was sponsoring a bill to add funding for prevention. Mendonca talked about creating an office of the Inspector General and pension relief. Donovan is looking at legislation that would make it easier for schools to access infrastructure funding for green enhancements. Carson stressed issues affecting senior citizens and her work on the Tourism Study Commission. Ruggerio talked about renewable energy, focused on the budget as a priority, and picked up the theme of support for aging in the community. DiPalma echoed the importance of the budget and support for fair wages for developmental disabilities services. Felag echoed the importance of supporting seniors, particularly through the Livable Home Tax Credit to defray cost of affordances. Finally, Abney while personally devoting effort to veterans issues, acknowledge that for him, the budget was the main priority.
The audience was given opportunity to ask some questions, and the first was on transparency in government. DiPalma said, “you can never have too much,” and stressed the need for the state to continue its efforts to use social media. He highlighted the importance of both print and online media and also gave a shout-out to former ProJo reporter Gina Macris, whose blog, Developmental Disability News, he said is “doing exactly the right job.” Abney talked about the importance of civics education. Carson discussed the challenges of a legislature that meets at 4pm: “It’s inaccessible for people to get there,” which is one reason she brought the House Tourism committee on the road.
An audience question on education prompted general concern from the panelists. Seveney talked about them importance of the CS4RI program and STEM as a national security issue. “RI Promise is an economic driver,” he said, that will enable kids to get high-tech jobs and afford to live here. Donovan focused on ensuring equity. “If we want Rhode Island to move forward, we need all our schools to be successful.” For her, helping them save money on energy through green programs would free more dollars for learning. DiPalma pointed out the importance of the defense sector for Newport County and the role of STEM education and programs like P-Tech for workforce development. Ruggiero echoed that, noting that the P-Tech combination of high school, business partnerships, and community college was a powerful tool for providing jobs.
In a lightning-round question on marijuana legalization where the options were “yes,” “no,” or “study,” the legislators were generally reserved. DiPalma, Mendonca, and Seveney were in the “no” column, with Felag, Ruggiero, and Donovan saying “study.” (Ruggiero said “don’t support it, but it needs a lot of study.”) Carson was the lone “yes” although she said she would not sponsor, but would vote yes if it came to the floor.
More than 100 people attended the forum at CCRI Newport. It sponsored by the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission. Neil Steinberg of the RI Foundation was the moderator.