Lawmakers Create Separate Board for URI, Reject Expanding College Promise to Four-Year RIC

By Carolyn Morwick

Rhode Island lawmakers tackled education reform and OK’d a separate board of trustees for URI even as they erased a $200 million budget gap.

Gov. Gina Raimondo signed a $9.9 billion budget for FY20, which avoids new taxes, strengthens PreK-12, continues the phase-out of the car tax (auto excise tax) and closes a $200 million budget gap. She praised lawmakers for their hard work but criticized actions she said will deny Rhode Islanders job opportunities. Cuts were made to the Real Jobs Rhode Island job-training program and the Qualified Jobs program, which has enjoyed significant success with more than 3,000 good-paying jobs created with an average salary of $65,000. Instead of boosting these programs, Raimondo noted the General Assembly chose to create new tax incentives to benefit wealthy out-of-state investors.

Legislators fully funded the Rhode Island Promise program at the two-year Community College of Rhode Island but rejected  her plan to expand the program to cover four-year programs at Rhode Island College. They also rejected most of Raimondo’s requested funding to introduce universal PreK as well as her proposals to expand the sales tax, increase the hotel tax and impose a new tax on firearms and ammunition. They accepted her proposals to include digital downloads and streaming services such as Netflix under the sales tax.

In education, the 2019 budget also:

  • Adds $2.9 million for PreK classrooms for 300 new seats with expansion targeted toward the neediest families
  • Increases direct aid to schools by $33 million over the current year.
  • Increases funding for English language learners to $5 million.
  • Adds $640,000 for the Rhode Island Department of Education to be used for education reform
  • Creates 17- member Board of Trustees for the University of Rhode Island, which will no longer come under the aegis of the Office of Postsecondary Education (URI President David Dooley requested the separate board to increase URI’s national and international profile as well as boosting fundraising, scholarships endowments, research and capital investment.)
  • Authorizes revenue bonds for construction at the University of Rhode Island, with $51.5 million for expansion and renovation of Memorial Union and $26.9 million for a new health and counseling center.

Budget casualties

Lawmakers rejected Raimondo’s proposal to legalize recreational marijuana, increase the tax on cigarettes by 25 cent a pack and 30 cents on cigars, and increase the minimum wage from $10.50 to $11.10 next year.

Other key items from opioids to economic development

The budget establishes a restricted receipt account for opioid treatment, recovery, prevention and education services funded by an assessment to manufacturers and distributors on opioid products sold or distributed in Rhode Island (with exemptions for those used in hospice care, addiction treatment and epidurals). The budget authorizes the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority to issue up to $50 million in revenue bonds to finance renovations and repairs to bridges under its purview, and approves up to $200 million in Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle bonds to fund the reconstruction of the viaduct that carries Route 95 North through the City of Providence.

Lawmakers provided additional funds to Rebuild Rhode Island for future tax credits and created the Rhode Island Small Business Development Fund to encourage investment of private capital by federally licensed investment companies

They established a process for creating Special Economic Development Districts on tracts of state-owned land not under the control of the Department of Environmental Management. (The budget included legislation filed by Sen. President Dominick Ruggerio in response to delays on the High Point Tower apartments proposed for the I-195 Development District). Lawmakers also increased tax credits from $15 million to $25 million for the Hope Point Tower project. The controversial project has met with opposition from the Providence Downtown Design Review Committee, which unanimously opposed the developer’s most recent application for a waiver on the 100-foot height restriction to 500 feet. The building would be 46 floors high.

Session focuses on abortion rights, education reform

The Rhode Island State House was the scene of intense lobbying and protests centered on the protection of abortion rights. For the past 25 years, legislation protecting Roe v. Wade was not allowed to come before lawmakers for a vote. This year, legislation to protect abortion rights was voted down by the Senate Judiciary Committee, denying a vote by the full Senate. In an unusual maneuver, Senate Judiciary Chair Erin Lynch Prata transferred the bill to the Health and Human Services Committee, where it passed unanimously and went to the Senate floor, where it was approved, adding Rhode Island to the list of states voting in favor of protecting women’s reproductive rights.

Education reform was also a key issue in the Ocean State, after a scathing report about the quality of schools in Providence and elsewhere. Rhode Island legislators looked to neighboring Massachusetts in addressing ways to improve the situation. Lawmakers approved two bills to reform PreK-12 education in Rhode Island. The first bill cosponsored by Rep. Joseph McNamara (H 5008B) and Sen. Hanna Gallo (S 08638) would require the commissioner of education to align statewide standards with curriculum and the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System. According to Gallo, this legislation would provide academic standards that target the skills, competencies and knowledge necessary for student success.

The second bill, sponsored by Sen. Harold Metts (S-0869A) and Rep. Jean Philippe Barros (H 6085Aaa), makes it easier for school principals to be certified by creating a fast-track mandatory program in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Applicants would have to meet experience, academic and leadership requirements.

Lawmakers also approved legislation to prevent violence at schools. Gallo and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello cosponsored legislation to create threat assessment teams in schools to identify potentially threatening behavior.

Healthcare, Alzheimer’s care

Several bills were passed that provide support for Rhode Islanders affected by Alzheimer’s disease including a bill to allow the spouses or partners of patients residing in Alzheimer’s or dementia care units or programs to live with them.

Also approved was legislation that would establish a formal process to provide a structure for support of disabled \or aging individuals, which is not as restrictive as guardianship, to allow individuals to maintain some measure of independence.

Carolyn Morwick directs government and community relations at NEBHE and is former director of the Caucus of New England State Legislatures. Visit here for summaries of the legislative sessions in other New England states.

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