June 11, 2023 District Letter

Dear Neighbors:

Yesterday, Lauren and I heard some entertaining musical performances by talented artists in our neighborhood as part of PVD Porch Fest. We hope to return next year and for many years to come. This week’s letter discusses ways to improve the Providence Public Schools and some of the highlights of the legislative budget

A. Improving the Delivery of Education in the Providence Public Schools

We are nearing the end of the fourth school year of the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools, and it is far from clear whether the State has achieved any transformational change that could carry over to a return to local control. Last December, former Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith and former Providence Schools Superintendent Susan Lusi collaborated on an opinion piece that made the case for reshaping the labor-management relationship in Providence schools to elevate the status of teachers as education professionals who share greater responsibility with management for policy decisions and accountability for outcomes. Boston Globe writer Dan McGowan reviewed their essay in a column entitled “These Grownups Have Real Ideas to Fix the Providence Public Schools. Will Someone Please Call Them?”, in which he endorsed their “call to action.”

With that in mind, Representative Slater and I have introduced a joint resolution to establish a legislative study commission consisting of three legislators from each chamber, a representative from the Department of Education, and two non-voting members of the public who could be Mr. Smith and Dr. Lusi. The commission will be charged with (1) reviewing the labor-management relationship in Providence defined by State law, (2) gaining feedback from stakeholders and (3) presenting a report next year with recommendations for changes (if any) in State law governing the labor-management relationship in Providence that can improve the delivery of education in Providence Public Schools classrooms.

B.   The Legislative Budget

The House Finance Committee unveiled its budget last Friday (June 2), and the full House of Representatives approved it with some modifications on June 9. The Senate will review and vote on the House budget in the coming week. Because the House budget was negotiated with Senate leadership and the Governor, I do not expect the Senate to make major changes. I believe the resulting legislative budget improved upon the Governor’s budget in several areas, including three shifts in tax policy.

1.     The Motor Fuel Tax

The legislative budget removed the Governor’s proposed “pause” of inflation adjustments to the motor fuel tax that would permanently cut off a $12.4 million annual revenue stream. As I noted in my February 5 letter, the gasoline tax is a “user fee,” a funding source that matches (in part) the cost of maintaining roads with those who benefit from them. (With the increased use of electric vehicles, we will need to find another “user fee” for these users.) This user fee also advances the policy goals of the Act on Climate by providing funds for public transportation and by creating a financial incentive for non-automobile alternatives.

2.     The Sales Tax

The legislative budget also removed the Governor’s proposed reduction of the sales tax from 7.0% to 6.85%, which would have produced a $35 million reduction in annual revenues. As noted in my February 12 letter, this tax reduction would provide only modest savings to taxpayers. Also, given the numerous exemptions already present in our sales tax, it is far from clear that Rhode Island would derive any competitive advantage from the proposed broad-based reduction.

3.     The Business Tangible Tax

The legislative budget chose a different tax reduction program, creating a $50,000 exemption for all businesses from the tangible tax imposed by municipalities, using approximately $25 million in State funds to reimburse local authorities for this exemption. This tax reduction/exemption will save thousands of businesses (especially small businesses) of a time consuming and financially burdensome regime. There is a degree of State involvement in local tax policy, which, as I noted in last week’s letter can raise issues. In this case, however, the State’s involvement is in the form of a financial subsidy rather than an unfunded mandate.