Top 10 Biggest Issues of the New General Assembly Session
Tuesday, January 03, 2012
A second round of pension reform, casino gambling and the threat of a tax increase will dominate the conversation on Smith Hill during the new General Assembly session, which kicks off today.
GoLocalProv offers a breakdown of the ten biggest issues that will arise over the next six months.
1) Municipal Pension Reform
Governor Lincoln Chafee and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo couldn’t reach a deal to address local pension plans during the special session last fall, but Chafee has said he will offer a proposal this month and General Assembly leadership has committed to tackling the issue.
A report issued this fall noted that 24 of the 36 municipal pension plans were considered “at risk” and that local plans face an unfunded liability of more than $2 billion. Democratic State Senator Lou DiPalma said pensions will be a top a priority.
“While the state-administered pension plans were addressed in the recent Special Session, the General Assembly will need to support the many municipalities in addressing their locally-administered pension plans, including the plans’ unfunded liabilities, as well as the other post employment benefits (OPEB),” DiPalma said.
Conservative activist Lisa Blais, who heads up the Ocean State Tea Party in Action, agreed with DiPalma. She said the state needs to give cities and towns the ability to address their struggling pension systems.
“[Lawmakers must] provide local officials freedom from collective bargaining agreements to amend underwater municipal pension plans, provide legislation to curb excessive disability benefits at state and local level; provide tools to manage and shut-down abuses of disability payments and lastly restrict cost of taxpayer subsidized health insurance for retirees,” Blais said.
2) Tax Increase/Tax Credits
The state likely faces a budget deficit of over $100 million and the Governor has already hinted that he may once again propose a tax increase to help cover costs. But it’s not just a tax increase that needs to be considered, according to Kate Brock of Ocean State Action. Brock said tax breaks for the wealthy haven’t created jobs and suggested it is time to “restore justice to our tax structure.”
“It’s long past time that the General Assembly stand up for working and middle class families and end tax breaks for millionaires,” she said. “These tax breaks have done nothing to create jobs and have starved the state of much needed revenue to invest in public programs such as making college more affordable and workforce development and training that are the best way to jump start our economy.”
But Republican State Representative Doreen Costa thinks the threat of another tax increase is an issue that could plague Rhode Island.
“The Governor says that he will try again to have a tax increase,” Costa said. “Rhode Islanders can't afford any more taxes. The working people of Rhode Island pay enough. If the Governor is successful in implementing the tax plan, you will see more people leaving the state. I will continue to fight against this issue.”
The debate over education will once again take center stage at the State House, even after the Board of Regents rules on whether Achievement First can open a set of Mayoral Academies in Providence. State GOP executive director Patrick Sweeney said the state needs to cut down on wasteful spending so it can continue to improve schools and offer more choices for students and parents.
“If we focused on waste, we could provide more resources to our children in the classroom,” Sweeney said. “And speaking of the next generation, Mayoral Academies and Charter Schools should be allowed throughout the state so that parents can use the education they want for their children.”
But National Education Association Government Relations Director Pat Crowley said the idea of corporations taking over education is not the route Rhode Island should take.
“The top issues that need addressing for the new session are education inequality and economic justice,” Crowley said. “We need to stop treating corporate education like it is special and we need to stop giving corporate CEOs tax breaks. Reversing these two trends will be key to revitalizing Rhode Island.”
With several cities and towns facing dire fiscal situations, Senator DiPalma said it’s time for the state to once again look into regionalization in an effort to consolidate costs. He said that while much has been done over the past few sessions to address the state’s structural deficit, “we’ll need to proactively address the currently estimated fiscal year ‘13 $125M deficit.”
“As we’re all aware, many municipalities are experiencing extreme fiscal challenges,” DiPalma said. “Shared municipal services is an area deserving of the next step of analysis and implementation, which will be the charge of the to- be-instantiated Joint Committee on Shared Municipal Services.”
5) Healthcare Reform
Rhode Island has drawn national praise for its efforts to implement healthcare reform and the General Assembly will continue to take up issues related to those efforts during the session. Blais said the state’s goal should be to “ensure that the primary goal of the Health Insurance Exchange is to reduce the taxpayers' out-of-pocket costs for health insurance by providing market competition and the ability to purchase insurance across state lines.”
But Ocean State Action’s Brock said the Assembly should focus on another major issue when it comes to health reform: Gender discrimination.
“In these tough economic times, why should insurers be allowed to charge women more for health coverage than men? Being a woman should not be a pre-existing condition and Rhode Island should ban this discriminatory practice in during the 2012 legislative session,” Brock said.
6) Casino Gambling
Voters will decide whether to allow table games at Twin River in November, but with Massachusetts prepared to build three resort-style casinos and a slot parlor, the key issue during the new session will be how to combat the increased competition.
Costa said the state can’t afford to lose anything from its third largest source of revenue. She said the Ocean State has a chance to move ahead of Massachusetts if it acts quickly.
“Now that it looks like Massachusetts might be at a standstill, we could move forward,” she said. “We need jobs here in the Ocean State and this would be a big help. I think Twin River and Newport should look for expansion.”
7) Car Tax
When the General Assembly eliminated the $6,000 car tax exemption, communities were allowed to lower the exemption all the way down to $500. This has sparked outrage among car owners who have been surprised with significantly larger tax bills this year. Warwick State Representative Joseph M. McNamara plans to introduce to introduce a bill that will address current valuation process.
“It is hard to fault cities and towns for doing this, since they are all facing their own financial problems,” he said. “But hiking taxes on anything when so many people are struggling to make ends meet is just not right. In light of the pressure this tax has placed on working class Rhode Islanders, we need to take action to fix this.”
8) Entitlement Programs
2011 was a bad year for the state’s neediest residents, who watched as a new budget destroyed affordable housing funding and made cuts to funds for the developmentally disabled. Democratic State Representative Chris Blazejewski said he hopes to address some of these issues so the state can “focus on turning around the economy for working families.”
“Our state should leverage its resources to help attract outside investment, including federal funds targeting innovation and research as well as private capital,” Blazejewski said. “We also need to support workforce development through funding of higher education and retention of college graduates. Finally, especially in these difficult economic times, we must remain vigilant in protecting our most vulnerable populations, such as through affordable housing for the homeless and care for the developmentally disabled."
The state still needs to become more business friendly and the GOP’s Sweeney said job creation should be the number one priority for the General Assembly.
“We are currently rated the worst place to run a business and have the 3rd highest unemployment rate in the country,” Sweeney said. “We need to alleviate regulations on small business owners and incentivize them to hire new employees. As for the car tax, it is wrong for our legislature to make up its shortcomings on the backs of the taxpayers of Rhode Island. The state could also do a better job negotiating for the little guy when it comes to rates paid to large corporations.”
Republican State Senator Nick Kettle agreed with Sweeney, noting that help is particularly needed for small businesses.
“The few issues I believe that are most pressing for the upcoming session are municipal pension reform as well as addressing the business climate in this state which means helping out small business to help create jobs,” Kettle said.
10) Same-Sex Marriage
While it sounds like same-sex marriage might once again not come up for a vote in either chamber, Brock said there are still issues that need to be addressed with the current civil unions law. She said a top priority should be repealing the Corvese Amendment, which allows any religiously connected entity to ignore the legal import of a civil union.
“We support common sense religious exemption language but the Corvese Amendment undermines the very legal rights and protections that civil unions were intended to provide,” Brock said.
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