PROVIDENCE — At a press conference Thursday afternoon, April 25, in the State House, House Finance Committee Chairman Helio Melo joined Speaker Gordon Fox and Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello in announcing a package of 18 bills aimed at improving the state’s beleaguered economy.
The three pols took turns introducing the pieces of legislation, which are in various stages of development. The explanation of two of the most notable proposals, fittingly, was delivered by Speaker Fox.The first was the creation of a new position at the Cabinet level, a Secretary of Commerce. The second was a replacement for the troubled Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (RIEDC), the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation (RICC).
The new Secretary of Commerce and the RICC would play integral roles in lifting the state out of its economic doldrums, Speaker Fox explained. The Secretary would have input into the creation of policy for just about all facets of the economy, from healthcare and education to roads and bridges. The Speaker added, the Secretary of Commerce will be “central to the success of economic development” in the state in the future.
The Speaker said the RICC would, like the current RIEDC, stay as a quasi-governmental entity. However, there would be more stringent oversight and evaluation of the corporation and its mission would be more narrowly focused. The Secretary of Commerce would be the RICC chairman and Chief Executive Officer.
Learning from the missteps of the RIEDC, the RICC’s role will not be to provide one company with $75 million, as the RIEDC did in the 38 Studios debacle, but to offer smaller sums to properly vetted businesses.
“Government can’t be the whole solution,” the Speaker noted.
Chairman Melo (D-Dist. 64, East Providence), as did the Speaker and the Majority Leader, highlighted six of the proposals, including one authored by local rep Joy Hearn (D-Dist. 66, East Providence, Barrington) which would allow private employers to pay employees on a two-week cycle. Current law mandates pay periods be one-week in length.
Another significant proposal Chairman Melo revealed was that of increasing external reporting and accounting practices at the state level. The legislation would require the Office of Management and Budget to “inventory reports required across agencies and include status in the annual budget.”
Chairman Melo said the reporting and accounting proposal was “of particular importance” to the Finance Committee. He added, “We want government to be as transparent as possible.”
The Chairman said he hopes to have some if not all of the proposals written and ready to come before the House Finance Committee as early as its scheduled Tuesday, April 30, meeting.
“It’s a great package of bills,” Chairman Melo said following the press conference. “A lot of these bills could stand on their own, but a good portion of them have to do with restructuring the EDC and putting together the Office of Secretary of Commerce, so those might have to be blended together.
“But overall I think they’re very realistic pieces of legislation and they’re things we very much need to improve economic development in the State of Rhode Island.”
Over the next several weeks, Chairman Melo will work with his counterpart in the upper chamber and fellow East Providence pol, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel DaPonte, to reconcile the legislation put forth from each body.
Sen. DaPonte (D-Dist. 14) is part of President Teresa Paiva Weed’s leadership group that crafted the “Moving the Needle” economic development package introduced by the Senate earlier in April.
“We have our plan and they have theirs. We know what we have to work with,” Chairman Melo said.
Governor Lincoln Chafee also has a plan, which keeps the RIEDC intact and offers up some proposals that are similar to the General Assembly outlines as well as others that deviate from the House and Senate plans.
For his part, Chairman Melo believes the House version provides a significant and comprehensive blueprint from which to construct a better economy for the state.
“It’s a major first step towards making Rhode Island a more business friendly state,” the Chairman added. “It’s not all going to be in play overnight, but it’s definitely the first, right step towards achieving the goal of creating a better economic environment in the State of Rhode Island.”
Rep. Kenneth Marshall (D-Dist. 68, Bristol, Warren), Rep. Gregg Amore (D-Dist. 65, East Providence) and Rep. Katherine Kazarian (D-Dist. 63) were among the legislators in the audience Thursday, there to support the package.
Rep. Marshall was downright bullish in voicing his endorsement of the legislation, saying he was “inspired and tremendously happy to be part of the team that helps move the state forward.”
“This is a new way of approaching business. Most of these things haven’t been done in over two decades, at least,” added Rep. Marshall, who is a co-sponsor on several bills in the package. “When you do the same things over and over again, you get the same result. We’re doing something different.
“From where we are today, the only way to go is up. I guarantee in two years, once these bills are in place, our unemployment rate will be below seven percent.”