The economy took center stage Tuesday as lawmakers convened the 2013-14 session of the General Assembly and re-elected Theresa Pavia Weed President of the Senate and Gordon Fox Speaker of the House.
There were new and familiar faces in both chambers, and Cranston reassumed a powerful position with House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello.
“It’s a significant benefit to the city of Cranston when important budgetary issues such as PILOT [payment in lieu of taxes] come up. Through my position, being the second in command in the House, I’m able, with the assistance of the other members of our delegation, to keep an eye on things that are important to the city of Cranston,” he said. “I use that position to represent my constituents. It has benefited Cranston.”
Also serving on the House leadership team are Majority Whip Stephen Ucci (D-Johnston, Cranston) and Deputy Whip Christopher Blazejewski (D-Providence). This is Ucci’s first time in a leadership role in his eight-year legislative career.
“It’s an honor to do it because you’re elected by your peers to the position and secondly, it’s an opportunity to be at the table more beyond the votes on the floor,” he said.
At a Republican caucus in November, Rep. Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield, Burrillville) was re-elected Minority Leader and Rep. Joseph Trillo (R-Warwick) was re-elected Minority Whip.
On the Senate side, Warwick’s William Walaska was elected President Pro Tem but only after a bit of playful shenanigans providing comic relief to the oft-repeated message from both chambers that the state needs to make it easier for businesses to operate and that it needs to train a skilled workforce to attract companies here.
Fellow Warwick Senator Erin Lynch nominated Walaska with a less than glowing speech concluding that she thought he would be “OK.” When her colleagues realized she was poking fun at Walaska, there were laughs, but none like those when the electronic voting board posted all red lights when it came to the vote. A technical glitch was blamed for the problem.
“Thanks for the resounding nomination,” Walaska said when he took the podium, evoking more laughter.
Senator Dominick Ruggerio (D-North Providence, Providence) was re-elected Senate Majority Leader and Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown) was re-elected Minority Leader.
For the most part, the Cranston delegation remains unchanged. Senators Josh Miller and Hanna Gallo returned Tuesday, as did Representatives Peter Palumbo, Joseph McNamara, Michael Marcello and Robert Jacquard, as well as Ucci and Mattiello.
Cranston’s only new face on Smith Hill is Senator Frank Lombardi, who filled the seat vacated by retiring Senator Bea Lanzi.
In her speech, Pavia Weed said the “future begins with an honest assessment of the challenges we face.” She said that, “working together, with our partners in the public and private sectors, we will focus on economic development with a renewed sense of urgency to ensure families financial security and prosperity.”
Initiatives the Senate would target include better equipping the state’s workforce with the skills needed in today’s knowledge economy; reversing the state’s reputation as over-regulated; improving education at all levels; encouraging urban revitalization; economic development through the arts; addressing budget issues to preserve services while improving the state’s competitiveness; and improving the affordability, quality and transparency of the health care system.
Across the building, in the House chambers, Fox hit on similar themes.
“We must make the right decisions in this session to pave the way for a brighter future,” he said.
Some of that work has already begun, Mattiello said.
“We have been taking action to make the state more business friendly. We’ve reformed our tax structure, we’ve lowered our top rate, we’ve enacted regulatory reform, pension reform, we have a better budget structure than we’ve ever had since I’ve been in the General Assembly … the state has and continues to move in the right direction,” he said.
Mattiello believes this session will continue that focus, as the state remains at the bottom of national rankings for business friendliness.
“That’s frustrating for all of us and we’re going to take a hard look at it this session. It’s a priority to us,” he said, adding that restructuring the EDC will be a project taken on very soon by the General Assembly.
The House is canceling its regular session on Jan. 17 to hold a five-hour economic conference at Rhode Island College. Fox said he too is tired of seeing the state at the bottom of national rankings when it comes to business.
“It is certainly time that we develop a new customer-friendly attitude toward business, with less regulatory red tape and fewer hurdles to jump through.”
Ucci is confident that the General Assembly can make Rhode Island more business-friendly, as the issue of the economy, “transcends party lines and it transcends philosophical lines.”
“We need to do something to spur economic development in the state and we need to be less bureaucratic for business. We need to get people back to work,” Ucci said.
McNamara is encouraged that his “return to work bill,” which didn’t make it into law last year, is being looked at as one of many ways to stimulate the economy. The measure would allow people to continue collecting unemployment while training with a new employer.
McNamara also hopes for a revising of the current system of basing valuations on a vehicle’s best/clean condition. McNamara sought to revise the system last year but met resistance from municipalities that claimed they couldn’t make up the reduction in tax revenues. McNamara said he is suggesting the trade-in value of vehicles be phased in over three years, to reduce the tax hit to municipalities and restore equity.
“People know what their cars are worth,” he said. “They lose faith in the fairness of the system of taxation [if the best value is used].”
Fox also pitched education, pledging support for education funds for cities and towns, saying that legislators must find ways of solving problems without rolling them downhill to the cities and towns.
“It’s public education that is going to benefit all of us over time,” he said.
With the Newtown shootings on the minds of many, many legislators expect gun control measures will also come before lawmakers, depending on what is done on a national level.
In her remarks, Pavia Weed said, “Public safety in our schools will be a priority as we work with the Attorney General, the State Police and our federal partners to address the many concerns that this tragedy has caused the country to focus on.”
Fox said, “We must redouble our efforts to be certain that our schools and public places are safe and secure.”