The 2024 legislative session gave big wins to top officials and advocates on a number of important policy issues. Pictured is the Rhode Island State House. (Photo by Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)
Between the record $14 billion spending plan and a marathon final day that kept lawmakers voting until almost 2 a.m. on June 16, the 2023 legislative session brought a slew of key victories for policymakers and advocates.
Here are some of the top winners from the session.
House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi
The most powerful lawmaker in the Rhode Island General Assembly emerged victorious on several fronts. Not only did 13 of the 14 bills in his sweeping housing package pass, but the Warwick Democrat also secured a quasi-public agency (as he proposed in separate legislation) to oversee the $45 million in life sciences funding included in the fiscal 2024 budget.
And speaking of the budget, Shekarchi deserves some of the credit for a sub-three-hour House floor debate on the tax-and-spend plan — the fastest in at least the last decade — and with support from five of nine House Republicans.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha
You can’t get everything you want, but the state’s top prosecutor certainly got most of it. Namely, funding to hire 15 of the 20 additional staffers – including a new, four-person cold case unit. Though Gov. Dan McKee didn’t honor Neronha’s request in his original fiscal 2024 budget proposal, legislators incorporated just shy of $2 million into the final version using attorneys’ fees from the settlement of the Purdue Pharma case. Two other Neronha-led issues: enforcing lead-poisoning protections for tenants, and harsher penalties for wage theft and worker misclassification, also cleared the State House in the final throes of the legislative session.
Environment (sort of)
The long-awaited and much-debated question of shoreline access was settled thanks to newly approved legislation that sets the literal line in the sand 10 feet landward from the high tide, or seaweed, line. Public access and coastal advocates rejoiced in the victory.
Advocates scored several other wins in the 2023 session, including: a ban on Styrofoam takeout containers and plastic stirrers at restaurants; $4.5 million (the first-ever funding) for the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council, which is tasked with helping the state meet its decarbonization laws; and a high-profile solar development and forest protection bill which Sen. Alana DiMario, a North Kingstown Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, referred to as her “fourth child’ (in addition to her three human children).
Not-so-lucky were attempts to create a bottle deposit-refund program and overhaul the state’s coastal regulatory agency – more on that tomorrow.
Most small-business owners have one less tax to pay thanks to a $50,000 exemption in the state’s tangible tax. The tax break, which lets business owners bypass paying taxes on the first $50,000 of office furniture, computers and other tangible assets, wipes out the entire bill for an estimated 75% of small businesses, according to analysis by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.
RIPEC, along with a bevy of business owners, championed the exemption as a way to ease the financial and administrative burden for business owners, especially important in light of Rhode Island’s comparatively high commercial property tax rates.
A bill out of the Senate ensured no co-pays for Rhode Island EpiPen users. Brand name versions of the anaphylactic drugs often sell for as high as $700, rendering them inaccessible to many. The Senate version of the bill, S575, sponsored by Sen. Pamela Lauria, a Barrington Democrat, was passed in concurrence by both chambers the last night of session. Rep. Michelle McGaw, a Portsmouth Democrat, sponsored an identical bill in the House.
The Rhode Island Secretary of Housing came out as one of the biggest winners of this year’s legislative session, not least because the budget allocated over $251 million in state and federal funding to his department. Pryor has great leeway in how to deploy that funding, with much of it going to increase its staffing. Most prominent among these wins was the announcement in March of an additional $30 million to fund the state’s first Low Income Housing Tax Credit, meant to boost housing production.
Rhode Island College
The state’s oldest public university received a major boost with $4 million to establish a cybersecurity institute in the fiscal year 2024 budget. More importantly, it received more than $10 million for the Hope Scholarship program, which will guarantee free tuition to full-time, in-state students during their third and fourth years of study. The scholarship is modeled after the Rhode Island Promise program, which covers two years of education for students straight out of high school attending the Community College of Rhode Island, and aims to boost sagging enrollment at RIC.
The funding formula changed the mechanism for measuring students in poverty. Whereas it was previously students at 185% of the federal poverty level using free lunch and other data. Now, it is determined directly using SNAP records and multiplying that by 1.6 to ensure noncitizens and those qualified but not enrolled are included. That gets the district’s Student Success factor — a number meant to account for poverty t when determining per pupil funding. That accounts for 40% of a district’s state funding.
It also creates transitional funding of more than $20 million to help public schools cover the loss from students transferring into charter schools. In addition, multilingual learner programs will receive an additional $16.8 million and special education to almost $15 million. All in all, school funding increased by almost $58 million this fiscal year compared to the prior year.
Note: Stay tuned tomorrow for a list of the biggest losses suffered during this session.
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