From the State House
Beginning in 2009, the Senate leadership team reached out to the small businesses in our state and took action to address the concerns they raised. Working in bipartisan cooperation with our partners in the House of Representatives and the Carcieri administration, we established the Office of Regulatory Reform, reformed the income tax, and established a fair and predictable formula for state aid to education.
Building on these initial legislative successes, and with the support of Gov. Chafee, the legislature reformed the fire code, established a web-based permitting system, and took many more steps to cut red tape and improve the business climate in Rhode Island.
Yet in 2012, following all of the achievements listed above, CNBC ranked Rhode Island the least appealing state in which to do business in its annual survey.
Some of the national business climate surveys take into account the many recent improvements we have made, and on those the state fares better. However, the surveys also show that we need to continue to examine our business climate and take steps to improve. Fairly or unfairly, the state is being judged nationally on surveys such as these.
Frustrated by the CNBC survey issued last summer, the Senate’s policy staff undertook a review of the factors that go into these rankings. During this process, it was learned that the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council was undertaking a similar review, and we decided to join forces. In January the Senate and RIPEC released a joint report called “Moving the Needle.” This report took an unflinching look at where we need to improve, such as the poor quality of our roads and bridges and the state’s regulatory climate, and what we do well, such as broadband Internet availability and educational attainment. In March, a package of 27 bills was submitted based on the recommendations in the report.
The legislation addresses issues in the categories examined in the report, including commerce, workforce, education, health, energy, codes and regulation, and tax reform. The comprehensive approach we have taken recognizes that varied initiatives will combine to improve our economic competitiveness.
Among the highlights are initiatives to address the state’s approach to economic development. One piece of legislation would reform the Economic Development Corporation, and rebrand the agency as the Commerce Corporation. Another would require a written, long-term strategic vision, developed every four years (coinciding with gubernatorial terms) as a consensus document, similar to what is required in Massachusetts. The package also includes legislation to establish of a division of economic data, as well as a commerce and workforce cabinet.
Other elements of the package address tax incentives, including the establishment of a statewide arts district and reissuance of unused historic tax credits. The legislation also provides new accountability and transparency measures for tax incentives, to better measure whether they are achieving their economic development goals.
No economic development package is complete without addressing the skills of the work- force, and the Senate’s package includes several initiatives aimed at improving workforce development and education. The Senate has passed legislation to establish Back to Work Rhode Island, a program through which job-seekers retain unemployment benefits while receiving relevant training at companies looking to hire, as well as a web-based jobs-match program through the Department of Labor & Training to efficiently identify and address skills gaps among job seekers. Legislation is also included to address issues related to childcare for those seeking to re-enter or stay in the workforce.
In order to improve educational outcomes, the package of bills provides for the reverse transfer of college credits into the Community College of Rhode Island, and encourages outreach to the estimated 110,000 Rhode Islanders with some college education but no degree, to help them “finish what they started.” It also provides for dual enrollment of high school seniors in college.
The Rhode Island Office of Management & Budget’s 2013 small-business survey identifies health-care costs as the number one challenge faced by small business. The Senate’s economicdevelopment package addresses health-care costs through major cost-containment legislation, which also prepares Rhode Island for implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Similarly, to address energy costs, the legislative package includes expansion of the requirement for competitive pricing to drive down the cost of the renewable energy being produced by the smallest projects.
Inconsistent codes and regulatory hurdles are also addressed, through establishment of a code consistency council to make recommendations regarding inconsistencies and conflicts in the fire, building and elevator codes; establishment of a municipal advisory council to statewide planning to assist in development of and participation in electronic permitting; and establishment of a task force to explore a single, statewide standard through the Department of Environmental Regulation related to septic systems and wetlands setbacks.
As of this writing, 25 bills in the Senate’s “Moving the Needle” package have passed the Senate.
We will continue to work together with the governor,
Speaker Fox and our partners in the House leadership, who also have introduced a package of economic development legislation, many of which are consistent with or complementary to the Senate’s initiatives.
We are all partners in this effort – the Senate and House, Gov. Chafee’s administration, the business community, labor, academia and the nonprofit sector. I believe that with all of us pulling on the oars together to move forward in a positive direction, we will make bold progress to move the needle this session. We in the Senate often say that we recognize that, at the end of the session, we will be judged by the actions we took to create jobs and improve economic development in our state. This remains our top priority. We have made considerable progress, and continue to work hard to move our state forward.
Teresa Paiva Weed is president of the Rhode Island Senate. She is a Democrat representing District 13 of Newport and Jamestown.