Category Archives: News

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May 21, 2023 Letter

Dear Neighbors:

As Congressional gridlock pushes our nation’s economy towards a cliff, our State House officials are negotiating Rhode Island’s budget, which we expect the House Finance Committee to present in the next few weeks. This week’s letter will discuss a recent presentation from the new Department of Housing in the context of the State’s efforts to address longstanding shortages of this critical resource.

A.   The 2022 Commitment of Federal Pandemic Relief Funds

As noted in my letters of January 16, 2022 and May 15, 2022, the State identified housing as a priority for the federal pandemic relief funds, committing $250 million for this purpose. Last year, the Governor appointed Josh Saal as assistant secretary for housing within the Commerce Department. At an April 7, 2022 hearing, Mr. Saal acknowledged that the key elements of the State’s plans to spend the $250 million were not yet in place, partly because the State did not have an existing overall plan to address the housing shortage. He stated that he intended to prepare such a plan during the coming year. 

B.    The Unmet Need for Planning

Last fall, Mr. Saal left State government. A few months later, Governor McKee appointed Stefan Pryor as Secretary of a new free-standing Department of Housing. When Secretary Pryor presented the new Department’s budget to the Finance Committee last week, he identified the need to develop a Statewide housing plan. He said he needed at least a year to complete it. When I asked whether Mr. Saal had made any progress on such a plan, Secretary Pryor stated that the previous work was limited to ideas about spending the $250 million without developing sufficient context around it. As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”

C.   Available Federal Subsidies

The Governor’s federal budget includes $90 million to subsidize the development of 600 low income housing units, a subsidy per housing unit of $150,000. As I noted in my May 15, 2022 letter, State grants for low income housing can be leveraged with a transferrable federal tax credit (with the acronym LIHTC) that can pay for 30% of the cost if certain requirements are met, including the expenditure of State funds. Unfortunately, the Governor’s budget used $90 million of federal funds, even though the budget had a surplus of over $600 million of State funds. I advocated last year (unsuccessfully) to fund the low-income housing program with State funds and to transfer other State expenditures into the federal budget. (The federal guidelines are sufficiently flexible to allow such a re-designation of certain State programs.) Because of these budgetary decisions (and others before them), Rhode Island has not made sufficient use of the LIHTC program to spur the development of low income housing. We will need to commit general revenue funds for this purpose in the future if we wish to make any meaningful progress in addressing the State’s housing shortage.

D.   The Scale of Our Housing Shortage

At the hearing, Secretary Pryor confirmed that the housing plan will include a full assessment of the State’s housing shortage (which spans the spectrum from market rate housing, to worker housing, to low income housing, to shelter for people experiencing homelessness), benchmarks and goals to reach, and plans to achieve those benchmarks and goals. Because, for example, the shortage of low income housing exceeds 5,000 units, and the current budget for a State subsidy per unit is $150,000 (making for a total of $750 million, though this could be reduced to around $500 million if State, rather than federal funds are used), the State will need a significant commitment of resources to address this issue, as well as the enactment of other reforms to reduce the current, excessive regulatory burdens that limit housing development.

E.    Recent Initiatives and Conclusion

Last week, the Governor announced two budget amendments to allocate an additional $29 million of federal funds to support housing development, which no doubt can be helpful if invested as part of a well-planned program, though perhaps less effectively than the same amount of state funds. With that said, we will need to make a long-term and substantial commitment of state-level funds to “unlock” the additional support available under federal programs.

May 14, 2023 District Letter

Dear Neighbors:

I hope you can share Mother’s Day with your family, be it together, on the telephone or virtually. This week’s letter will discuss alternative voting systems and last week’s estimate of budget revenues.

1.     Maine’s Voting System

On Wednesday, the Senate commission studying non-plurality voting systems heard a presentation by Sara Gideon. She served as Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives when that state adopted a ranked-choice system for State primaries for State and federal offices, and elections for federal office. (Maine’s Constitution requires plurality elections for State offices.)

Maine’s program brought voting administration changes including a more extensive ballot, a tabulation process that required more than one night to complete, and the possibility that a candidate whose plurality (which was less than a majority) led after the first round only to lose the race to someone with fewer first-place votes after the second-place and third-place votes were counted. The Secretary of State and the candidates engaged in extensive voter education. Maine voters adjusted to all of these changes, even in one race where a local candidate who won only 5% of the first-choice votes ultimately won a majority after the second, third and fourth-place votes were counted. In that case, even the losing candidates accepted the legitimacy of a result that would have been impossible in a strict plurality system.

The Commission will hold one more meeting, on May 31 at 2:00 p.m.  At that time, the Commissioners will welcome public comment, and will discuss their own initial thoughts concerning the alternatives to Rhode Island’s current voting system. We also welcome public comments in writing, which you can send via email to the Commission’s legal counsel, Patricia Breslin, at . 

2.     Determination of Next Year’s Budget Revenue

Last week, the Department of Revenue completed its final estimate of State revenues for the upcoming fiscal year. The estimate projects a general fund surplus of $540 million, slightly less than the $600 million projected in the Governor’s budget, but still significant, particularly given the impact of inflation and the Federal Reserve Bank’s measures to address it. 

A major contributor to the surplus it the more than 1,000 vacancies in the State’s workforce as I noted in last week’s letter. While these vacancies reduce the cost of government, they also cause serious deficits in critical State programs including public safety (State Police, courtroom sheriffs, Department of Corrections guards, etc.) and social services for the most vulnerable Rhode Islanders. Also, the vacancies reduce the State’s contribution to the pension fund, which is based on the overall State payroll. I asked the Treasurer to explain the impact the vacancies have on the pension. He responded in a letter that informed me that the State pays interest into the fund for these unpaid contributions, and the overall State contribution is rebalanced each year based on staffing levels and anticipated pension costs. As a result, the State’s future pension contributions will increase due to this year’s understaffing. Also, to the extent that the vacancies result from inadequate pay (which appears to be the case for several agencies), it may become necessary to increase agency budgets to hire essential staff.

To conclude, the revenue projections indicate signficant funds that can be spent on one-time projects next year, but also long-term headwinds that support caution regarding multiyear revenue commitments, either in the form of tax reductions or permanent new programs.

May 7, 2023 District Letter

As we resume much of the “normal” life we had before the pandemic, our observance of Mental Health Awareness Month provides an opportunity to reflect and remember the many members of our community whose struggles continue from the plague that arrived three years ago. May is also the month in which the General Assembly makes its final estimates of revenues and case loads to set a fiscal frame for next year’s budget. In this week’s letter, I discuss some of the budget options we have seen to date in the Finance Committee.

The 2023-24 State Budget

The State’s budgets for the past three years have been exceptional in terms of both the range of crises that required a massive response and the amount of additional federal funds provided to meet those challenges. The federal government also supported a rapid rebound of the national economy through generous fiscal and monetary policies, described in a recent PBS documentary as the Age of Easy Money. The pandemic exposed several holes in the State’s “safety net” for vulnerable Rhode Islanders, which the State was able to alleviate with a temporary “patch” of federal funds, as well as a substantial surplus in last year’s State budget. 

This coming year’s budget will have less support from the federal funds “patch,” which by then will be largely exhausted. The State’s initial projection of a surplus of State funds for this year’s budget also likely will be reduced, as it was based in substantial part on a failure to fill more than 1,000 vacant State positions that are being filled, and which is subject to revision this month as we recover from the “Age of Easy Money.” In light of this, I believe the State’s fiscal capacity to fund new multiyear initiatives and/or to enact substantial permanent tax cuts will be significantly constrained. Among the major proposals for new initiatives that will compete for priority in this fiscal environment are the following:

A.       Tax Relief

1.     Sales Tax

The Governor’s budget proposes a permanent 0.15% reduction in the sales tax rate (reducing it to 6.85%), which would provide annual savings of $39 to the average Rhode Island household and have a fiscal impact of $25 million next year and $35 million in subsequent years. Other legislation proposes larger reductions to 6.5% ($119 in household savings, $112 million in lost revenue) and 6% ($239 in household savings, $225 million in lost revenue).

2.     Gasoline Tax

The Governor’s budget proposes a “pause” in next year’s scheduled increase in the gasoline tax, which would reduce revenue by $12 million annually.

3.     Tangible Tax

The Senate leadership has proposed a statewide tangible property tax exemption of $100,000 (with the shortfall reimbursed to municipalities with State funds) that would require an annual commitment of $36 million.

B.       Programmatic Initiatives

1.                 Housing

A recent Rhode Island Foundation report was but the latest reminder of the State’s longstanding shortage of housing generally, especially affordable housing. The report calls for a strong State response, beginning with greater staffing to coordinate local and private projects, and extending to the creation of a State housing development corporation. This later proposal, which is included in Senate Bill 866, was proposed last year with an initial capitalization amount of $300 million. 

2.                 Public Transportation

The Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority received federal funding to maintain its operations in the face of reduced ridership during the pandemic. With the exhaustion of those federal funds, RIPTA has requested an additional $30 million in State funding to avoid drastic service cuts.

3.                 Social Services

As first documented in my November 28, 2021 letter and in others since then, the pandemic exposed holes in the State’s safety for for Rhode Islanders with disabilities, seniors, children and families, and those battling mental health conditions and substance abuse. The State allocated federal funds to create a two year “patch” to stabilize this emergency, but those funds will largely run out at the conclusion of the current fiscal year. At one point, the United States House of Representatives approved the Build Back Better Act, which would have provided long-term investments of federal funds in this area, but the bill was not approved by the United States Senate. The General Assembly approved legislation last year to conduct a comprehensive review of provider reimbursement rates to be completed later this year, but in the meantime, Senator DiPalma has proposed bill S-782, which would appropriate $200 million in general revenues for the next year to continue the increased wages and reimbursements pending completion of the rate review process.

4.                 Higher Education

In a Presentation to the Senate Finance Committee, the President of the University of Rhode Island documented the State’s disinvestment of 37% over the last 20 years (in inflation adjusted dollars) at a time when enrollment has grown by 33%, leaving URI as worst-funded “flagship” public university in the country. This disinvestment has manifested itself in threadbare programming and crumbling facilities. URI requested an additional $32 million in operating funds next year and $122 million in capital funds over the next five years.

5. Relief for Retired State Employees

In 2011, the General Asssembly enacted pension reform, which included a freeze on cost of living adjustments (COLA’s) for retirees until the fund reached 80% of the actuarily “fully funded” amount. At a hearing last week, we learned that the current target date to resume COLA’s is 2031, and that the purchasing power of a pension awarded in 2011 or earlier has declined by 30% since the reforms took effect. There are a series of proposals to provide partial compensation that range from $5 million — $30 million as a one-time expenditure, to others that would commit $30 million or more annually going forward.

6.                 Other programs

Many other governmental departments requested budget increases beyond the Governor’s budget, such as for teacher training, pre-kindergarten, public education and other initiatives in amounts of less than $5 million apiece. It also is possible I will learn of new initiatives proposed before the Senate Finance Committee and/or from elsewhere in the General Assembly in the coming weeks.


In hearings before the Senate Finance Committee, we have heard and will continue to hear often compelling presentations describing the social benefits of proposed tax reductions and/or investments in existing or new government programs. When I consider each presentation in isolation, I often see arguments to justify its incorporation into the budget; however, such an approach is not financially possible in the aggregate. These individual decisions ultimately will be determined in part by the financial projections the General Assembly will make this month. Once that amount is set, the State will have to decide which items within the universe of worthy possibilities can be made priorities in next year’s budget.

April 30 District Letter

I hope you enjoyed Earth Day, including those of you who marked your celebration by a neighborhood cleanup. This week’s letter will first discuss the latest data available to assess State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools, which indicate that the takeover is not succeeding. The letter will then discuss the Governor’s recently announced education plan, which is not actually a plan.

1.     Assessing the State’s Takeover of the Providence Public Schools.

Earlier this month, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) published “report cards” describing the performance of schools and school districts in the 2021-22 academic year. The data provide an opportunity to gauge the success of the State’s 2019 takeover of the Providence Public Schools. Aware that the pandemic affected our schools during these three years, I looked at data measuring the growth (or improvement) in academic performance in Providence, rather than the static achievement level. Also, instead of looking at Providence in isolation, I compared Providence’s improvement to two peer communities, Pawtucket and Woonsocket.

a.        Growth in English Language Arts in 2021-22: Providence is level with Pawtucket and Woonsocket

RIDE grades academic growth on a three-point scale each for English language arts and mathematics. In its 2021-22 report card, Providence earned a rating of two points out of three in English language arts growth, the same as Pawtucket and Woonsocket

b.        Growth in ELA in 2018-19: Providence was ahead with Pawtucket and Woonsocket

I then reviewed the report cards from 2018-19, the last school year prior to the takeover. Because the 2018-19 RIDE report card did not aggregate the growth rating of individual schools into a single number, I constructed an aggregate by taking the average growth rating for all of the district’s schools, where a score of 1 indicates an adequate baseline. Using this method, I calculated that Providence’s composite ELA growth score in 2018-19 was 0.86, which was better than both Pawtucket (0.84) and Woonsocket (0.77). 

To test my conclusion, I used the same methodology for the 2021-22 data. Providence’s composite score was 0.85, better than Woonsocket’s 0.82, but lower than Pawtucket’s 0.95. In other words, Providence’s rate of growth in ELA achievement outpaced these two peer communities prior to the takeover, but those communities gained ground on Providence (Woonsocket) or passed Providence (Pawtucket) since the State takeover began. 

c.        Growth in Mathematics

Moving over to mathematics, Providence’s rate of improvement in mathematics was weaker than Pawtucket and Woonsocket both in 2018-19 and in 2021-22, but the gap between Providence and its two peer communities increased since the takeover began.

d.        What the Report Cards Tell Us

My analysis has limitations, both in terms of the small number of data points and the partial shift in how the data was reported over time. With that said, I believe it is safe to say that the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools has failed to produce greater improvement in Providence compared to its peer communities. I also believe the data support the conclusion that in some areas, Providence’s rate of improvement (as measured against its peers) has declined since the takeover began.

2.     The Governor’s Education Plan

In the Governor’s State of the State Address, he pledged “within the first 100 days of my full term, we will be outlining a plan to reach Massachusetts education levels by 2030.” 100 days later, he made an Education Address in which he presented his “Learn 365 RI” strategy. He identified three areas for Rhode Island to attain Massachusetts levels, namely RICAS math/English scores, student attendance and FAFSA completion. The described strategy will consist of funding for agreements with mayors to support extracurricular activities outside of the normal school day and school year. 

The “Learn 365 RI strategy” does not achieve the Governor’s State of the State claims. To begin with, it is not a plan. A real plan contains goals, benchmarks and implementation mechanisms in addition to any strategies. Second, Learn 365 RI is manifestly unsuited to achieve the lofty goal articulated in the State of the State Address. To point out the most obvious problem, this “strategy” is limited to supplemental programs outside of the normal school day and school year, and may be duplicative with successful existing supplemental programs such as Providence After School Alliance and Inspiring Minds.  

A real plan, such as the one adopted by Massachusetts in its Education Reform Act of 1993, relies primarily upon structural changes to the delivery of education in the classroom during the school day. A sounder way to catch up to Massachusetts by 2030 would be to follow the best practices from the Bay State, which have little if anything to do with extracurricular programs. In short, the “Learn 365 strategy” is, at best, an interesting idea, but it falls far short of being a plan, never mind a plan that has a non-trivial chance of achieving its stated goal of catching Rhode Island’s schools up to the level of Massachusetts by 2030. Instead, it is more accurately viewed as a political strategy in ways that resemble the Governor’s “Rhode Island 2030 working document” that I reviewed in my November 21, 2021 letter.

3.     Conclusion

I believe the 2021-22 report card fails to demonstrate any improvement in the growth of academic performance among the students in the Providence Public Schools as measured against the peer communities of Pawtucket and Woonsocket. In fact, there are data to support the conclusion that Providence’s comparative rate of improvement is inferior today to what it was prior to the takeover. Also, the Governor’s “plan” to improve the State’s academic outcomes to catch up with Massachusetts by 2030 is not an actual plan, never mind a plausible one. 

For these reasons, I believe the best future for the Providence Public Schools will come when the State finds the courage and the candor to (1) acknowledge that the takeover of the Providence Public Schools is not succeeding, (2) learn from its mistakes to make the best use possible of the remaining years of the current takeover term and (3) begin a credible planning process for the best possible transition back to local control.

March 12, 2023 District Letter

Dear Neighbors:

I hope you navigate today’s transition to Daylight Savings Time, with its (temporarily) darker mornings and brighter evenings. In this week’s letter I will discuss: (1) legislation to address the teacher shortage, (2) proposed revisions to the education aid funding formula, (3) restoring the rights of parents of children in special education programs and (4) collaboration between the Providence School Department and the Providence School Board.

1.     Retaining Retired Teachers To Fill Classroom Vacancies

As noted in my February 19 letter, Providence and many other Rhode Island school districts face a shortage of classroom teachers this year, which they are filling with retired teachers. Under State law, those retired teachers normally are limited to 90 days of active work annually, but on Tuesday the Senate passed legislation to waive the 90-day cap for this school year and next, subject to districts’ obligation to fill as many vacancies as possible first with active teachers. The House of Representatives likely will pass the bill this week, opening a window of time in which to develop a longer-term remedy.

2.     Improving The Education Aid Funding Formula

In my letters of January 8January 15, and January 22, I described the components of the State’s education aid funding formula, noting the need for improvement in several of them. At last Tuesday’s Finance Committee meeting, Senate leadership presented Bill S-456, which would (1) expand the “student success factor” weight of +40% per pupil to multi-language learner students and (2) allow school districts to waive the “quadratic mean” calculation of State share if it reduces their state aid (as it does in Pawtucket and Woonsocket). I would prefer a more comprehensive review and reform. At a minimum, I would prefer that the incremental reform proposed recognize the extra needs of multi-language learners who also are in poverty and remove the “quadratic mean” completely. Nevertheless, the Senate leadership bill does represent progress.   The Finance Committee voted to hold the bill for further study.

3.     Restoring The Rights Of Parents Of Children in Special Education Programs

On Wednesday night, the Education Committee heard public comment concerning Bill S-180, which would restore to parents of children in special education programs certain procedural rights concerning the development and modification of a child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  Prior to 2008, Rhode Island and federal special education law guaranteed parents the right to review an initial IEP in advance of the meeting at which it was initially adopted, and the right to approve (or disapprove) subsequent changes to the plan. In 2008, new laws removed these procedural rights. Many Rhode Island school districts continue the pre-2008 program as a best practice, but there are “horror stories” from parents of children in school districts that abandoned the pre-2008 program. The bill would restore the pre-2008 standards for all parents. Advocates and educators testified that they will work together over the coming weeks to develop an amended bill that (hopefully) both sides can support. The bill’s sponsors also plan to introduce legislation to address an acute crisis in Providence, where dozens of special education students between the ages of 3 and 5 are unable to attend school due the district’s failure to hire qualified teachers.

4.     Enhancing Collaboration Between The Providence School Board And The Providence School Department

As a result of the 2019 State takeover of the Providence Public Schools, the Providence School Board relinquished its supervisory authority to the State, which in turn conferred it upon the Commissioner of Education and the Turnaround Superintendent. Last year, the General Assembly enacted S-2838B, which directed the School Department to present regular reports to the School Board beginning this month. The bill also directed the School Department to update the Turnaround Action Plan (TAP) to incorporate meaningful annual goals, as the original TAP stated ambitious targets to reach by the end of five years, without identifying intermediate annual benchmarks to allow us to monitor the effort’s progress. The bill (which was passed last June) directed the School Department to complete this update by September 1, 2022. Unfortunately, the School Department failed to do so; instead, we are now more than six months past the deadline with no changes to the TAP. It is against this background that the new Providence School Board will meet this Wednesday evening (March 15) at 6:00 p.m. It is my hope that the School Department enlists the collaboration of the School Board to bring the TAP into compliance with, paving the way for future collaboration in other important areas (such as facilities plans or the above-mentioned special education crisis) as we prepare for the day when operation and management of the Providence Public Schools return to local control.

March 19, 2023 Letter

I hope you enjoyed your celebration of St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s Days. When my children were little, I used to serve them (with the aid of blue food coloring) green scrambled eggs on March 17, to their delight (initially) and annoyance (later on). This week’s letter will discuss the School Department’s revision to the Turnaround Action Plan, the City’s electricity aggregation program and the non-plurality voting systems study commission.

1.     Updating The Turnaround Action Plan

When the State takeover began in 2019, the Providence School Department developed a Turnaround Action Plan (TAP) which presented at slides 31-34 a series of metrics by which to measure the success of the takeover. For each of the metrics (such as percentage of 8th grade mathematics students achieving proficiency), the TAP stated the 2019 performance level (which was 7.4%) and the 5-year goal (in this case 50%). Unfortunately, the TAP did not provide a year-by-year set of annual benchmarks to measure progress towards the ultimate goal. Thus, for example, during the 2022-23 school year, only 10% of the 8th grade mathematics students achieved proficiency, making it difficult to predict with confidence that the District will reach the 50% goal in four years. (Because of COVID, the 5-year goals have been extended by two years.)

In light of this, I introduced legislation last year that the General Assembly passed in modified form as Bill S-2838B which, required, among other things, that the School Department update the TAP to include meaningful annual goals in 16 areas by a deadline of September 1, 2022. Unfortunately, the original, deficient TAP remains on the School Department’s website, and in correspondence I had with the School Department through the end of February, 2023, the Department updated the TAP in only 5 of the 16 required areas.  

At a School Board meeting this past Wednesday, the School Department presented a TAP Update that includes additional meaningful annual goals, bringing the total to 10 or 11 of the law’s 16 required areas. This improvement is appreciated; however, we are now more than 6 months past the deadline. In my lawyer’s world, we would call this material non-compliance with a clear legal obligation.  Even if we allowed some room for error, a student who takes a 16-question quiz and gets 10 or 11 answers correct will receive at best a grade of D+ (68.75%). I am hopeful that the School Department will, in the coming weeks, work with the School Board (whose input the School Department has, to date, essentially ignored) to improve its compliance with the law to a level closer to what our schools properly expect from our students.

2.     The City’s Electricity Aggregation Plan

In recent weeks, Providence received a letter from the City announcing our participation in its Community Electricity Program. The letter informs us that we are automatically enrolled in the program but can choose to opt out at any time. I have not personally been involved in the selection or implementation of this program, but I recommend your reading an informative letter from Council member Sue Anderbois, a letter from Council Member Helen Anthony and a Report describing a similar program in Massachusetts. These two Council members are holding a Zoom on Monday, March 27, which you can connect to using a link in Councilwoman Anthony’s letter above.

3.     The Non-Plurality Voting Systems Commission

The next meeting of the Non-Plurality Voting Systems Commission will take place on Wednesday, March 22 at 2:00 p.m. in the Senate Lounge. The Commission will hear from FairVote, an organization advocating for ranked-choice voting and the National Council on State Legislatures, a non-partisan research organization that will provide a general overview to supplement the one the Commission received on March 1 from Professor Myers.

April 2, 2023 Letter

Dear Neighbors:

The ongoing land war in Ukraine, near-start of a civil war in the State of Israel and indictment of our former President command more of our attention and concern than the ongoing discussions about our State’s future. While acknowledging that reality, this week’s letter will discuss our State’s commitment to children in need and the Senate District 3 legislative grant program.

1.     Our Commitment To Children In Need

a.     The 2021 “Down Payment” Emergency Aid Program

The State’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) is charged with the essential mission of providing a “safety net” to Rhode Island’s children and families in desperate need. Some of my earliest Finance Committee hearings in late 2021 featured harrowing accounts of children with urgent emotional issues having to wait for weeks and months in unstable conditions before receiving needed care, often resulting in long-lasting harm. 

Many of these gaps result from a lack of professionals due to inadequate State staffing levels and/or inadequate compensation to partner social service agencies. To prevent the situation from collapse, the General Assembly in early 2022 appropriated $113 million in federal pandemic funds as a “down payment” to stanch this social wound. As part of last year’s budget, the General Assembly also authorized a rate review process to determine adequate levels of reimbursement for partner agencies over time.

b.     Avoiding A Financial Cliff

At last Thursday’s hearing, the Finance Committee reviewed the proposals in the Governor’s budget to sustain our child welfare system past last year’s “down payment.” We learned that DCYF remains unable to fill the vacancies in its staff, reducing the services it can provide while also exposing the employees who remain to burnout. Also, the Governor’s DCYF budget discontinues the stopgap supplemental funding from last year’s federal emergency budget, creating a financial cliff when the current fiscal year ends on June 30. Because the rate review process will take another year to define adequate reimbursement rates, providers testified we need to provide another “patch” over the next year to prevent the return of the emergency conditions we saw in late 2021.

c.      Long Term Issues

While we can use federal pandemic relief funds to fill this gap for another year, we need to find a stable, long-term funding stream for this essential program. As a result, I believe we should be cautious before implementing any permanent tax cuts (such as the Governor’s proposed sales tax reduction) in this year’s budget, as imprudent decisions this year could produce the need to restore previous tax reductions (or new tax increases) in future budgets. 

2.     Legislative Grants

Each year, the Senate allows members to request legislative grants to local agencies that (1) are located and/or have a substantial presence within the member’s district, (2) are a 501(c)(3) charitable organization and (3) propose using the funds for a particular project of interest. Last year, I worked with a committee of Senate District 3 residents to prepare a list of recommended grants for approval by Senate leadership. From this process the following agencies received grants in the following amounts:

Beat the Streets New England — $2,500

Classical High School Community Association — $1,500

Fox Point Neighborhood Association — $2,000

Friends of India Point Park — $2,000

Friends of Rochambeau Branch — $2,800

Nathan Bishop Middle School PTO — $3,000

Providence Community Library (Fox Point) — $3,000

PVD Period — $3,000

Village Common of RI — $2,500

Vartan Gregorian Elementary School PTO — $2,500

Volunteer Services for Animals — $2,000

Please spread the word to interested and eligible agencies to send me an email with their proposals, along with the identification of a contact person (name, mailing address, email address and telephone number) for follow-up information. The deadline for submitting grant proposals is Friday, April 28. Also, I would appreciate the help of eight or nine volunteers from District 3 to review and evaluate the grant proposals so I can make a list to propose to Senate leadership for funding. If you are interested, please send me an email. Thank you for your consideration.  

Next week marks the arrival of Passover,Good Friday and Easter. I hope that all of you who observe these holidays find a rewarding and meaningful opportunity for reflection and renewal.

April 9, 2023 Letter

Dear Neighbors:

For those of you who observe Holy Week or Passover, I hope you find meaning and fulfillment during these holidays. They mark our change of seasons to springtime’s renewal, which can brighten and inspire all of us. In this week’s letter, I will describe the public bills I introduced as lead sponsor in this year’s legislative session. I have grouped the bills by subject matter:

A.       Education

Bill S-190 would require collective bargaining agreements entered into by the Providence School Department during the State takeover to be publicly vetted and approved by the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.

Bill No. S-481 would restore to the Providence School Board, during the State takeover, oversight authority with regard to senior administrative appointments and the establishment of policy.

B.       Environment

Bill No. S-465 would direct the Public Utilities Commission to open a proceeding to establish tariff rates for microgrid services. (In other jurisdictions, electricity consumers can combine to form microgrids, a community that is largely self-sufficient in its electricity use.)

Bill No. S-467 would require the Department of Environmental Management to develop rules and regulations to limit the sale (by January 1, 2025) and use (by January 1, 2028) of zero-emission lawn care devices, coupled with a rebate program to offset some of the expense of conversion..

Bill No. S-513 would authorize the appropriation of $1.5 million to the Office of Energy Resources to fund grants for solar carport (i.e. arrays of solar cells placed in a structure above a parking lot).

Bill No. S-515 would authorize the appropriation of $100,000 to the Public Utilities Commission to provide technical support for the development of a microgrid tariff (as proposed in Bill No. S-465 above).  

Bill No. S-520 would authorize an appropriation of $1 million to the Office of Energy Resources to fund a rebate program for any municipality that enacts a local ban on gasoline-powered leaf blowers.

C.       Public Safety

Bill S-361 would establish a set of civil penalties (and, for repeat offenders, a criminal misdemeanor) for people who ride ATV’s illegally on city streets.

Bill No. S-363 would authorize municipalities to enact ordinances to regulate the use of firearms, where these local ordinances supplemented (and did not reduce) the state’s current regulatory program.

Bill No. S-509 would clarify the authority of municipalities to regulate, through their zoning ordinance, the location of short-term rental housing through a hosting platform, such as that offered through AirBnB.

D.       Transportation

Bill No. S-785 would appropriate 15% of gasoline tax revenues to public works departments of cities and towns, based on a formula developed by the Department of Transportation.

Bill No. S-807 would grant the automobile dealer registration board authority, after finding misconduct by a licensed dealer, to award the customer harmed by the dealer additional compensation beyond restitution.

E.       Other Policy Areas

Bill S-271 would authorize an appropriation of $1 million to the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities to fund grants to Rhode Island community cultural organizations.

Bill S-362 would authorize medical researchers to gain access to de-identified treatment records of patients provided that the researchers follow the protocols defined in federal regulations.

Bill No. S-767 would require the public posting of financial information related to the expenditure of American Rescue Plan Act funds by school districts and municipal governments.  

In addition to these public bills, I have introduced legislation in the form of (1) resolutions to provide public recognition to people who passed away, (2) local matters at the request of the City Council and (3) bills requested by State agencies.  

If you have questions about a particular bill, please send me an email, and I will be happy to discuss further.

The General Assembly will out of session next week, so I do not expect to send you a letter next Sunday. Instead, I expect to send my next letter on Sunday, April 23. In the meantime, I wish you all the best.

March 5, 2023 District Letter

Dear Neighbors:

I hope you were able to celebrate Presidents’ Day and/or the school vacation week. With the General Assembly’s return to session, this week’s letter discusses the confirmation hearing of Peter Alviti, Jr., Director of the Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and the first hearing of the Senate’s commission to study certain alternative voting systems.

1.     Transportation Policy and the Act on Climate

This past Tuesday night, the Senate Finance Committee held its confirmation hearing for RIDOT Director Alviti. During his tenure, Rhode Island has made significant progress in repairing roads and bridges; however, a number of citizens spoke in opposition to his renomination due to concerns about the need for more attention to other transportation-related issues, including (1) the development of bicycle infrastructure, (2) pedestrian safety on State roads and (3) the de-carbonization requirements of the Act on Climate.

During my question time, Director Alviti agreed to meet with City officials to discuss improvements to traffic safety at the intersection of Doyle Avenue and North Main Street, which recently was the scene of a second pedestrian fatality. I focused my remaining time on the Act on Climate’s mandates. That Act requires Rhode Island to reduce its overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emission levels from a 1990 baseline by 10% in 2020 and 45% in 2030. To measure our progress, the Department of Environmental Management published a Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory which at page 7 measures the State’s progress against the 1990 baseline in many categories, including “Highway Vehicles,” which accounts for more than one-third of the total. The chart reveals that the State met its 10% reduction goal for 2020 in this category; however, it did so primarily in the earlier years and not the most recent ones, during which the average annual rate of GHG emission reduction was less than 1%. 

In order to meet the 45% reduction by 2030, highway vehicle emissions will have to be reduced by one-third over the next seven or eight years. DOT’s critics at the hearing asserted that any meaningful reduction in highway vehicle emissions will require a reduction in overall highway miles traveled, which is not consistent with DOT’s recent initiatives to add additional highway lanes. I asked Director Alviti if the 2030 mandate for highway vehicles was realistic, and if it was DOT’s policy to comply with that mandate in that category. While acknowledging the urgency and the importance of the Act on Climate, Director Alviti stated that DOT needed to improve its data measurement capacity before it could develop a compliance plan. It goes without saying that the environmental realities we face in Rhode Island and globally are not amenable to extensions and delays. I believe the General Assembly will need to conduct meaningful oversight over the Department of Transportation to ensure compliance with this vital requirement, and I will do my best from my seat on the Senate Finance Committee to advance this work in upcoming budget hearings.

2.     The Alternative Voting Systems Study Commission

As noted in my February 19 letter, the Senate approved the establishment of a commission to study voting systems that could be an alternative to Rhode Island’s current “first past the post” plurality system, which can raise questions about the breadth of support for the winning candidate in a multi-candidate election. This past Wednesday, the Commission held its first meeting, which you can view on video by clicking here. (You can view the Commission’s documents by clicking here. A highlight was a Presentation by Professor Adam Myers of Providence College, who summarized many of the alternative voting systems (run-off elections, ranked choice elections and hybrids) currently in place in other states and municipalities, while also laying out some of the critical policy questions that underlie this choice. Our current system will face another test later this year, when an anticipated large field of candidates will compete in a special election to fill the seat that Congressman Cicilline announced he will vacate. 

I expect the Study Commission to hold its next meeting on Wednesday, March 22 at 5:00 p.m. If scheduling permits, the Commission will hold three more meetings after that, also on Wednesdays at three-week intervals. The Commission then will resume its work this Fall, producing a report for the Senate’s consideration in next year’s session.  

February 19, 2023 Letter

Dear Neighbors:

I hope you can find the time to celebrate President’s Day during this odd winter we are having. This week’s letter will discuss legislation to extend the permitted service of retired educators and an upcoming study commission to review alternatives to plurality voting systems.

1.     The Teacher Shortage Crisis

Many Rhode Island school districts face a shortage of classroom teachers this year. (Providence’s shortage is particularly acute, due to the excessive departure of teachers since the State takeover began.) School districts responded by bringing back retired teachers receiving pensions, paying them a per diem stipend above and beyond their pension benefit. In order to protect the integrity of the teacher pension system, Rhode Island law limits the service of previously retired teachers to 90 days per school year. During the current year, many retired teachers began serving on the first day of school, and they are fast approaching the 90-day limit without any roster of qualified teachers to step in when that limit is reached. This presents an urgent problem that cannot wait until later in the legislative session.

In response, Senator Britto filed a bill the Senate Finance Committee reviewed this past Tuesday to extend that limit to 120 days. The Committee also reviewed a bill sponsored by Senator Valverde that would allow school districts to waive the 90-day requirement for all educators for a period of two years. The 120-day bill would limit the impact on the pension system, but we discussed the fact that it is unlikely that school districts will find replacement teachers when the 120-day interval expires, which may result in the need for further legislation on an urgent basis in around a month. 

In the meantime, the House of Representatives passed a 120-day bill, which the Senate will take up following next week’s school and General Assembly recess. It is my hope that the General Assembly passes, as soon as possible, a bill that waives the 90-day limit entirely for the current school year and possibly next year, and at the same time takes further action to address the long-term teacher shortage. For example, at Wednesday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, the President of Rhode Island College testified that in a typical year 70% of the graduating teachers choose to remain in Rhode Island to begin their careers. When I asked him how we could increase that retention ratio, he recommended new programs in loan forgiveness and housing incentives that, over time, would increase our “home grown” supply of teachers to mitigate the shortages we currently face.

2.     The Alternative Voting Systems Study Commission

In 2021, five Democratic candidates ran for the right to represent our Senate district. I won the primary with a scant 31.2% of the vote, meaning that more than two-thirds of the voters supported someone else. This led supporters of the other candidates to question whether my candidacy best represented the will of the voters. This problem can arise in any multi-candidate election decided by a bare plurality, such as last year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in which Governor McKee was selected with a 32.8% plurality, and in general elections in the past with three or more candidates. Results such as these diverge from the core democratic norm of majority rule.

In response to this problem, other jurisdictions have developed alternative voting procedures that can produce results that feature a form of majority rule, through such programs as runoff elections, “instant runoff” or ranked choice elections, or some combination of these and other alternatives. Last year, the Senate authorized the formation of a study commission to review alternatives to pure plurality elections. That commission will hold its first meeting on Wednesday, March 1 at 2:00 p.m. in State House Room 313. It is my hope that future Commission meetings will take place at a more convenient time for public view and participation, which should be possible as more State House hearing rooms become available later in March. The Commission will hold hearings over the next three months, producing a report this fall to submit to the Senate for its consideration in next year’s legislative session. 

Because the General Assembly is not in session next week, I will not send a letter next Sunday, but I plan to resume on Sunday, March 5.