With the launch of a new legislative session, East Bay lawmakers discuss priorities

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 1/15/20

The Rhode Island General Assembly got back to work last week, and with it, your elected representatives. East Bay Life spoke to several local senators and representatives to hear what issues are at …

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With the launch of a new legislative session, East Bay lawmakers discuss priorities


The Rhode Island General Assembly got back to work last week, and with it, your elected representatives. East Bay Life spoke to several local senators and representatives to hear what issues are at the forefront of their minds, and agendas, for 2020.

It all comes down to money, and the budget, and this year will be no different. For many legislations, including District 11 Sen. James Seveney, representing Bristol, Portsmouth, and Tiverton, budget management is the number one priority for both houses of the General Assembly.

"As a member of the House Finance Committee I will be focused on working with my colleagues to close a nearly 200 million dollar deficit without drastically cutting necessary services or placing undue pressure on the most vulnerable Rhode Islanders and those who work with them," said Rep. Gregg Amore, whose House District 65 serves East Providence. Likewise, Rep. Jason Knight, of Barrington and Warren's District 67 will be working to see spending prioritized to benefit social services. "I'm interested in seeing money allocated in the right places," he said. "DCYF needs to be fully funded, and we need to make sure we are prioritizing infrastructure, education, social safety, and public safety, before we fund things like business development through the Commerce Corporation."

"First and foremost, our priority is addressing the approximately $200M budget deficit," said Senator Louis DiPalma, whose district 12 covers parts of Little Compton and Tiverton, as well as Newport and Middletown.

"Education is the top agenda item for the Senate this session," said Senator William Conley, Jr., whose District 18 represents East Providence and Pawtucket. "Last year, the General Assembly enacted several reforms aimed at improving critical aspects of our education system, including strengthening civics education, financial literacy, English language learning, and programs to attract teachers in difficult to fill subjects like math, science, and world languages. We will closely monitor the implementation of these reforms to ensure improvement in these areas, because our future depends on it."

The school funding formula, an issue close to the hearts (and wallets) of Bristol and Warren residents, is also going to be figuring into the legislative debate, especially as the Senate is forming a study committee on the issue.

District 10 Sen. Walter Felag's district encompasses Tiverton, as well as Bristol and Warren, and one of his personal legislative priorities for this session is seeing the enact ion of a bonus for regionalized school districts.

Climate and environmental issues will get a lot of airplay this session, with legislators expressing interest in effecting change with climate resiliency as well as other environmental issues. Sen. Seveney is committed to increasing the percentage of zero-emission vehicles in the state vehicle fleet, as is Rep. Knight. "As part of the environment committee I want to work on bills to explore transitioning state vehicles from fossil fuels to renewables," he said. "Inside of 10 years, I would like the state fleet to be 100 percent powered by renewables."

Banning the use of plastic bags statewide is a top priority of Sen. Cynthia Coyne, whose district 32 represents Barrington, Bristol, and East Providence, as well as for Sen. DiPalma. The failure of the General Assembly to achieve that last session was mentioned as a regret by Rep. Terri Cortvriend, whose District 72 covers Portsmouth and Middletown. "My biggest disappointment that no environmental bills were brought to the floor of the House, including the plastic bag ban."

Chemicals known as PFAS that are used in the manufacture of plastics and remain in the environment, entering human bodies via drinking water, are a growing concern for lawmakers. Several indicated they will be looking to address ways to remediate them, including Rep. June Speakman of Bristol and Warren's Disctrict 68, who would like to introduce environmental legislation that would ban and remediate PFAS, and Rep. Knight who would like to establish a means of monitoring the levels of these chemicals in the water.

For District 69 Rep. Susan Donovan, whose district represents Bristol and Portsmouth, legislation addressing sea rise is a top priority. "Being coastal communities, our residences, municipalities and businesses, will be affected by future sea level rise, increasing storm intensity and flash flooding. I’ve been meeting with colleagues, the governor’s policy staff and experts in the field to investigate ways to fund climate resiliency in the East Bay," she said.

Sea level rise is also on the mind of Rep. Cortvriend. "Having recently received a presentation on the most recent storm tools has me very concerned that we have not developed the strategies that we need to plan for a 100 year storm, factoring in the sea level rise we are already experiencing," she said. "It is a goal to make more of my colleagues in the House aware of this threat."

Gun legislation is a perennial concern, with increased attention brought about by the recent murder of a Pawtucket woman who was shot with a 3-D printed gun. "My priorities will be focused on banning 3-D printed guns, ghost guns and other untraceable firearms," said Sen. Coyne. It's a universal concern among members of the East Bay delegation, and one that will likely see action this session. "I'm confident we will address gun control this session," said Rep. Knight. "There are lots of high profile gun bills on the table."

Additional issues mentioned by East Bay representatives included affordable housing, the tax burden on working families, substance abuse prevention, mental health awareness and suicide prevention, the state lottery contract, legalization of marijuana, rising health care costs, quality of life issues for senior citizens and people living with disabilities, and small business regulation.

"As always, we need to find ways to make it easier for small businesses to operate in our state," said Rep. Donovan. "I’ve asked the Department of Health to look into reducing the yearly fees charged to the small prepared foods industry." Similarly, in conversations with local salon owners, Rep. Knight discovered a fee inequity in that industry that he would like to see addressed. "There are all kinds of licensing fees for all kinds of professions but the fees for hair salons and barber shops are more," said Rep. Knight. "Even though no more or less work is needed to review and approve or deny."

According to Rep. Speakman, changes in tax policy that make it easier for small businesses to set up shop in our communities is another key business priority.

"As a retired law enforcement officer, public safety is always one of my greatest concerns," said Rep. Dennis Canario, who represents Little Compton, Portsmouth and Tiverton in House district 71. "I will continue to support and sponsor bills that keep our families and friends safe."

Several legislators suggested that they would be holding community forums to solicit input for constituents in the upcoming weeks, but community members are always welcome to reach out to members of their delegation to express their concerns and hopes. Contact information for every member of the Rhode Island General Assembly, along with calendars, news updates, and a wealth of information, is available at http://www.rilin.state.ri.us.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.