June 4, 2023 District Letter

Dear Neighbors:

I hope you enjoy the arrival of June, with its long days and (normally) warmer weather. With the House Finance Committee’s release of the legislative budget, we are heading into the home stretch of this year’s session. I will review some high points of the House budget next week. In this week’s letter, I am going to discuss the issue of balancing statewide and local interests.

1.     The National Debate Between State and Local Control

In recent years, we have seen the state legislatures in “red” states pass laws to constrain the authority of “blue” cities in such areas as the removal of Confederate monuments and mask mandates and other pandemic regulations. Rhode Island is not exempt from this type of conflict. As a general matter, municipalities are treated as a creature of State law; therefore, their authority to enact regulations on a local basis often requires State permission, as provided by Article XIII of Rhode Island’s Constitution.

2.     State Regulation of Local Tax Exemptions

It is clear that there are some issues that are and should be handled at the State level (such as responding to climate change), but the category of purely local issues is much less well-defined. I saw an example of this in Tuesday’s Senate floor debate of a bill to permit the Town of Tiverton to grant a discretionary property tax exemption to a pregnancy-counseling organization that is reported to encourage women not to have abortions. One of my Senate colleagues from Providence rose to oppose the exemption on policy grounds. Were I a resident of Tiverton (or a member of its Town Council) I would agree; however, the question before us was whether the State should grant Tiverton permission to issue a tax exemption its citizens and government had approved. In my opinion, the State should not have a role in deciding these questions in the great majority of instances, just as I disagree with the actions by the State legislatures in Alabama and Tennessee to prohibit cities from removing Confederate monuments.

3.     Providing Local Communities Authority to Regulate

I introduced bills this year to promote local initiatives in such areas as gun safety regulations that exceed the State’s baseline, regulation of short-term rentals, and providing funding to encourage municipal bans on gasoline powered leaf blowers. For each of these, I made the argument that local communities may have different conditions and priorities that can be achieved without requiring other Rhode Island communities to comply with the same standard. There is a range of views within Rhode Island about each of these policies, often dividing between urban communities versus suburban and rural ones. I therefore filed these bills to seek a middle path that accommodates the preferences of disparate communities.

4.     Local Control as a Constraint on Affordable Housing

On the other hand, there are issues of Statewide interest that may conflict with the norm of local control. We are seeing one such issue play out this year in the area of housing policy, where there is a Statewide shortage of housing generally, and affordable housing in particular, which different municipalities have addressed with differing levels of support. Several years ago, the General Assembly enacted a law to establish a target of 10% of affordable housing in each city and town, with certain mandates to streamline local planning process in communities failing to meet the target. As of today, Providence is one of only six Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns have reached the 10% target. I believe that local land use laws can be an impediment to this Statewide goal, particularly in the communities that have failed to meet the 10% threshold (often by a wide margin). It is possible that an incentives program will help solve this Statewide problem without impinging on local control. Should incentives not succeed, however, this area of local control may have to yield to Statewide priorities.

5.     Conclusion

While we like to think that Rhode Island’s small size creates more opportunities to develop Statewide solutions to our challenges, the diversity of local conditions may support a more varied approach in some cases. On the other hand, there are Statewide issues where local control may stand in the way of needed solutions. I do not have a simple formula to balance Statewide and local priorities. Instead, I will continue to look for the best legislative solution for each issue our State and our communities within it face.