Jamestowner Deb Ruggiero re-elected for second time
In her upcoming term, Ruggiero said she will continue to focus on environmental issues, as she will co-chair a joint legislative panel called the Petroleum Savings and Independence Commission. The board will look at the costs of the state’s petroleum dependence in terms of economics, health and the environment. The commission will then put forth policy recommendations.
Ruggiero, 54, said 70 percent of petroleum used in Rhode Island is for transportation. “We’ll look at things like efficient vehicles, cool fuels, biofuels and other transportation alternatives,” she said.
Since joining the state legislature, Ruggiero has always emphasized the environment. She is the current chairwoman of the General Assembly’s Small Business Renewable Energy Task Force.
“The commission put forth some comprehensive renewable-energy legislation, including the distributed generation bill,” said Ruggiero, who sponsored the legislation. “That is a real landmark bill that helps people and municipalities doing renewable energy projects to tie in to long-term contracts so that they can get financing.”
According to Ruggiero, the thing the task force heard most was that it was impossible to get financing for renewable-energy projects in Rhode Island. She said that the board worked on cutting through a lot of that “nonsense” so that developers didn’t have go through a long waiting period. Ruggiero added that having National Grid at the table during the negotiations was helpful to the process.
Another accomplishment that Ruggiero is proud of is the passage of the Safe Schools Act. She sponsored the state’s anti-bullying bill.
“No kid should feel unsafe at school,” she said. “Rhode Island did not have a cohesive, comprehensive policy. We had 36 school districts, some with a plan, some without a plan.”
Ruggiero said that the introduction of the proposed law brought together the state Department of Education, the attorney general’s office and various other student and parent groups.
“We had public hearings and we framed a definition of bullying,” Ruggiero said. “Whether your child is being bullied or doing the bullying, parents have to become aware. Technology has also changed the landscape. Before we left bullying in the schoolyard. Now it follows you home.”
In her third term, Ruggiero said her primary focus will be on the economy and creating more jobs. She cited the need to make Rhode Island more attractive for businesses to locate here. She would also like to provide more assistance to the companies that are here already. She intends to champion historic preservation tax credits, which were established in 2002, but dismantled in 2008.
“The tax credit was responsible for restoring hundreds of historic buildings across the state,” Ruggiero said. “When the tax credits were in play, they created about $1.3 billion in development, which included over 11,700 construction jobs. That brings tens of millions of dollars in new state and local tax revenue. It’s something that we need to revive to bring back distressed communities and put people back to work.”
Another piece of legislation that Ruggiero has been working on for several years – and plans to submit as a bill again – is the waiver of the state’s estate tax to a $1 million minimum threshold. The current threshold is $859,000.
“We’re one of the lowest states of the 23 states that have an estate tax,” Ruggiero said. She added that one reason the issue is important is many of the state’s 1,100 farms have a property value of well over $1 million. She said she wants to ensure that when someone dies, their children are not left with a staggering tax bill, requiring them to sell the farm.
“We need to make sure that we haves sustainable farms,” Ruggiero said.
During her most recent campaign, Ruggiero ran on the “four E’s”: economy, education, environment and the elderly. Education is something she intends to focus on going forward. She cited the fact that students in some Rhode Island colleges are not ready for the work. This requires many students to go through remedial studies in order to prepare for college.
“Half the jobs in Rhode Island are considered middle skills jobs, but only 35 percent of the workforce has the skills to do these jobs,” she said. “These are really good paying jobs. You can’t be pro-business and not be pro-education.”
Having to work closely with Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Ruggiero says that he has proven himself to be a collaborator, particularly in terms of the legislature. She added that in her experience, Chafee is more involved than the previous governor, although she doesn’t agree with him on everything.
“There were some things that he put forth in his budget that I was vehemently opposed to,” Ruggiero said. “That included the increase in taxes, and broadening the tax base to include a lot of services.”
Ruggiero cited the proposed increase to the meals tax as one that she strongly opposed. She said tourism is a $700 million industry on Aquidneck and Conanicut islands, and a tax increase would have hurt a number of small businesses.
“I hear from people,” Ruggiero said. “They email me. They call me. They have really good input and I love making sure that I have my finger on the pulse of what the business community and neighbors are talking about, and what their concerns are.”
As a legislator who serves both Middletown and Jamestown, Ruggiero might seem to be in a diffi cult position in regard to the proposed tolling of the Sakonnet River Bridge. She resolves that issue by saying that she doesn’t believe in tolls at all – at least not on the state’s bridges.
“I don’t think it’s fair to the people in Jamestown, Newport and Middletown,” Ruggiero said. “I believe that we have to look at other ways, perhaps I-95 or I-195. It’s just not fair that people who live on an island are constantly being taxed, if you will.”
She said that the tolling of interstate highways is now a federal issue, as a result of recent changes to the federal highway act. The state can no longer impose tolls on freeways like Interstate 95. Ruggiero suggested that Rhode Island’s federal congressional delegation work on it in Washington over the next couple of years.
“I remind people that Jamestown and Newport have been paying for people in Bristol to use the Mount Hope Bridge at no charge for the last 13 years,” Ruggiero said. “I don’t want to see the toll go up on the Newport Bridge. I believe that we, as a state, need to look at other areas. I don’t understand how we can’t even come up with a couple of million dollars to maintain these bridges when we have a $7.7 billion budget. I’m not a fan of tolls.”
The voter ID law was a contentious issue in the last legislative session. Ruggiero said she opposed the bill because the right to vote is the cornerstone of governance.
“I don’t want to see one person ever disenfranchised and become unable to vote,” Ruggiero said. “It is truly a right and it’s a privilege. I did not hear compelling testimony on the House floor that there had been any voter fraud in Rhode Island. I think voter ID is a solution looking for a problem.”
Ruggiero expressed satisfaction that her constituents seem to be satisfied with the way she’s been representing them based on the fact that she was re-elected with 68.4 percent of the vote.
“I work hard,” Ruggiero said. “I read the bills. I definitely pay attention. I listen to people. Listening is really important. You learn when you listen.”
Ruggiero said it’s an honor to serve. “I really appreciate the voter’s trust in me. I’m going to continue to do what I’ve done over the last several years, and that’s to listen, to be responsive, to work hard, and to make sure we have responsible representation in our community.”