State Capital Notes …
Gov. Lincoln Chafee and state legislators closed out the six-month legislative session by approving an $8.7 billion budget for fiscal year 2015, taking steps they believe will turn the state’s economy around and put people back to work. Rhode Island has the highest unemployment rate in the U.S. at 8.3%. The budget plan fills a $67 million gap, which includes $24.3 million for teacher raises and higher-than-expected human services caseloads.
The spending plan:
- fully funds a new state education aid formula, adding $33.4 million over the prior year
- implements a combined reporting requirement for multistate, multinational corporations which is slated to net $2.2 million in additional revenue
- cuts the corporate tax rate from 9% to 7%
- raises the threshold for the estate tax exemption from $921,655 to $1.5 million
- creates a transportation infrastructure fund for roads and bridges
- includes a $60 million revenue bond for a runway extension at TF Green Airport in Warwick
- includes $10 million for public higher education institutions to maintain tuition freeze
- provides $700,000 in planning costs for nursing schools of Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island, and Brown University administrative offices in the landmark South Street Power Station in Providence
- provides $12.3 million for payment on bond for the failed 38 Studios
- authorizes $45 million for parking garage at J. Joseph Garrahy Judicial Complex in Providence
- increases vehicle inspection fee from $39 to $55
- provides for the gas tax to be raised every two years with a 1-cent increase in 2015-16
- includes $1.5 million for workforce development.
Lawmakers approved four bond referenda for the November ballot: $125 million for URI’s engineering school; $35 million for mass transit hubs; $35 million for arts and culture; and $53 million for clean water, open space and healthy communities.
Funding for Higher Education
The final state budget included $10 million for the Community College of Rhode Island, RIC and URI in exchange for extending the tuition freeze.
Chafee, business leaders and university representatives said if voters approve the bond for a new engineering complex at URI, the state will be more competitive. Currently, the engineering program is ranked 145th in the U.S. The plan calls for the demolition of four buildings at the main campus in South Kingston, renovation of a fifth building and a new 195,000 square-foot facility.
URI and RIC will share a Nursing Education Center which will be part of a larger development of South Street Landing in Providence’s 195 Redevelopment District. The plan calls for transforming the old South Street Power Station in Providence into a nursing education facility. There will be 133,000 square feet of laboratories, classrooms and offices. Officials of both schools will work together to make the most of their respective resources to accommodate undergraduate and graduate nursing programs. The new center is scheduled to open n fall 2016. Community stakeholders consider the center important to establishing a healthcare hub in the region.
Reorganization of Board of Education
More than 18 months ago, the General Assembly abolished the Office of Higher Education and combined K-12 education and higher education under a new agency, the Board of Education. It soon became apparent that the new governance structure was not sufficient to address the state’s public higher education institutions, which support 44,000 students, 4,500 employees and a half-billion dollar budget. A new reorganization plan was adopted in the state budget for FY15, which keeps the current Board of Education and adds two councils: the Pre K-12 Council and the Council on Postsecondary Education. Each council will have seven members who also serve on the Board of Education. The Pre K-12 Council will formulate policy for early, elementary and secondary education including adopting standards; implementing, enforcing regulations; supervising elementary and secondary education; distributing aid to local education authorities and appointing a commissioner of education.
The Council on Postsecondary Education will perform the duties that were previously held by the Board of Governors for Higher Education including: ensuring institutional accountability; supporting accreditation; granting faculty tenure; appointing a commissioner of postsecondary education; college and university presidents; overseeing tuition, budget and capital financing; assuring credit portability and recovery; and promoting alignment and efficiencies among the institutions.
Other responsibilities which were previously held by the Board of Governors for Higher Education and later the Board of Education will now fall to the state’s public colleges and university presidents. These include the ability to create and consolidate departments, divisions, programs and courses of study within the school with the assistance of the commissioner of postsecondary education; adopt a budget which will be submitted to the Council on Postsecondary Education; manage property; recommend tables or organization to the Council on Postsecondary Education and submitting an annual report to the Office of Postsecondary Education, which will include information on tenure, ethnicity rank and gender of the faculty; a report on current student enrollments for each class at the school by race, gender, academic department, outreach program, guarantee admissions program and the current levels of funding and staff of support for each of these programs.
K–12 Legislation Passed
An Act Relating to Education–The Rhode Island Board of Education Act
Eliminates high-stakes testing by placing a three-year moratorium on the use of standardized tests including the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) as a requirement for high school graduation until 2017. Became law without the governor’s signature.
An Act Related to Education, Teacher Evaluation
Legislators also addressed the issue of teacher evaluation and decided that teachers judged by a recent report to be “highly effective” would be evaluated every three years while “effective teachers” would be evaluated every two years. The remaining group would be evaluated annually. School principals still have discretion to observe classroom teachers at any time. Also, school committees and unions still have the right to negotiate additional standards.
Lawmakers also approved a $4.8 million bailout for retirees of the Central Falls school system.
Other Legislation Passed
An Act Relating to Labor—Minimum Wages
The minimum wage will go from $8 to $9 on Jan. 1, 2015. Rhode Island joins Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont among other New England states in raising the minimum wage.
An Act Relating to State Affairs and Government—Authorizing State-Operated Casino Gaming at Newport Grand Subject to Statewide and Local Voter Approval
By a huge margin, lawmakers approved a statewide and local referendum to turn the current Newport Grand slots parlor into a full-fledged casino. The question will be paired on the November ballot with another that would prohibit a casino from locating anywhere else in the city of Newport except at the site near the Pell Bridge. (In a ruling handed down in late June, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court disagreed with Attorney General Martha Coakley and ruled that Massachusetts voters will have the chance in November to repeal the state’s gambling law which was passed in 2011.)
An Act Related to Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals
Requires an involuntary commitment before someone’s firearms rights are suspended and that such information be provided to the FBI. (Gun control advocates failed to pass numerous bills including bills that would ban assault weapons, a ban on magazines containing more than 10 rounds.)
An Act Relating to Motor and Other Vehicles–Motor Vehicle Offenses
Authorizes magistrates, in addition to judges, to prohibit drivers found guilty of driving under the influence of liquor or drugs or refusal to submit to a chemical test, from operating a motor vehicle not equipped with an ignition interlock system. It would also establish updated rules, fines and penalties for the continued enforcement of the ignition interlock system.
Carolyn Morwick handles government and community relations at NEBHE and is former director of the Caucus of New England State Legislatures.