The Republicans who represent East Greenwich in the General Assembly watch the blizzard of bills inundating Smith Hill and contend it is time for a snow plow to scrape the fluff away to expose the bare pavement of fiscal reality.
Sen. Mark G. Gee and Rep. Anthony Giarrusso told East Greenwich News that taxes need cutting, expenditures need paring and a solid base for economic development should be where solons steer their attention at this point in the legislative session.
“My main concern is how are we going to pay for all the bills that are coming due,” Gee, who is in his first term, said on Tuesday, Feb. 24. “I am concerned about our ability to manage government and pay for it.”
A $149.2 million budget deficit for the current 2014-15 budget year is projected to metastasize to $410 million in fiscal 2018, according to a five-year analysis by the state Budget Office.
Nearly 900 bills have been filed so far in both houses, according to the General Assembly website. In 2014, 2,525 bills were filed, according to the same source.
“There is no rhyme or reason; everybody has a pet issue or something a constituent wants. The problem is it is helter skelter,” Giarrusso said. “How do we come up with a plan to set our priorities? Only 25 percent of these bills will see the light of day. We spend a lot of time on these bills and in most cases for naught. It upsets me that there is a lot of wasted time.”
The pair offered their take on several bills and issues:
MOVING PAWSOX TO NEW PROVIDENCE STADIUM:
Giarrusso thinks that propositions like building a new baseball stadium for the PawSox in Providence in the 195 Redevelopment District beside the Providence River are ambitious and worthy to pursue as part of a larger plan to draw people to the state.
“What is interesting about that whole area is its potential to be a destination,” Giarrusso said. “Look at that whole area down there and you find junkyards, piles of scrap and strip clubs. Are you kidding me? Is that the best we can do?
“Is the plan for a ballpark the be-all and end-all? No. But it is a step in the right direction,” Giarrusso said. “I love the PawSox. The problem is not a lack of support from the fans; they are there for every game having a great time. But Providence is more of a destination place: You have water, restaurants, shops. Ultimately, this would be a good business decision.”
Gee said, “In a word, No. Who doesn’t love the PawSox. They are just one of those little things that Rhode Island has that makes the state worth living in. If I had my way I would leave them right where they are.”
Neither Gee nor Giarrusso are in favor of large taxpayer-funded subsidies to build a new stadium.
Giarrusso said, “Maybe lease the land to them or have them buy it and, if not, then let’s see what else is out there.”
ALL DAY KINDERGARTEN
Gee thinks that all-day kindergarten “taken as a concept is a good idea. But there is the reality of our budget situation that casts a slightly different perspective when you are talking about costs than all the benefits that we hear all day kindergarten will bring.”
“Rep. (Hannah) Gallo, a Democrat from Cranston, has submitted a bill that would speed up reimbursements for all day kindergarten. In East Greenwich I am not sure that is the thing that would make the town support it. It is not that much money.”
Like Gee, Giarrusso has a singular question about money for all-day K: “Where is the money coming from?”
“I am 100 percent in favor of it, but I want to see what the state can do to help us with it. Other cities and towns get exponentially more money than we do to support education. Is it better for kids? Sure. But that $1 million to fund it has to come from somewhere. The fact of the matter is it will be the local taxpayers who are paying for it.”
Should funding from the state become available to offset the costs of operating an all-day kindergarten plan in East Greenwich, Giarrusso believes local support for the measure would grow.
INCREASED NEW MOORING FEES TO BENEFIT DEM
A bill introduced by Rep. Joe Trillo, Republican of Warwick, would impose new regulations for mooring access in municipal harbors and impose a new annual mooring fee schedule with the proceeds allocated to the Department of Environmental Management for the sole use of all harbors access and safety.
Giarrusso said, “I am against it. The way it is written (with local fees superseded by the proposed state fee) would take money away from the towns and cities with moorings.”
Gee said with sarcasm, “That is a great idea. Screw the taxpayer, is that what we want to do? I don’t think it stands a chance in hell.”
Both legislators assert the time has come to wield the budget axe with the anticipated arrival in March of the fiscal 2014-15 budget from newly-elected Gov. Gina Raimondo.
“The real event is the presentation of the governor’s budget and whatever Speaker (Nicholas) Mattiello has in mind for the House budget,” Gee said. “Where is the money coming from? I keep hearing that you can’t cut your expenses to address the budget deficit and new spending. People say you can’t cut spending; well, let’s find out. We are not being tough enough and willing to make decisions that will make us unpopular. Let’s steer toward waters that are less expensive for the taxpayers.”
Gee pointed to the Health and Human Services budget, which composes 40 percent of the state budget as a place to start cutting and reining in.
“Let’s look at cutting 10 percent of that budget and see where we stand.”
Gee demurred when asked to specify and a specific area in the health and human services budget to cut. “I don’t have the answer to that in my brandy-spanking-new role as state senator. I do support a line-item veto power, but that comes up every year and it hasn’t happened yet.”
Giarrusso wants “to study waste, fraud and abuse; the things that out of control. We should find out how to solve those problems to control spending.”
He wants to end taxing Social Security benefits on the state level for 60,000 elderly Rhode Island residents. Rhode Island is one of 13 states, like Connecticut and Vermont, that taxes federal retirement benefits.
“Let’s keep the people here who have been working here their entire lives,” said Giarrusso. “Taxes are so punitive that when people retire they just leave. Sure, many leave for warmer climes and warmer waters, and that is great for the winter months, but we want them to come back to enjoy what they have built here. Some don’t come back at all and they are not seeing their grandkids play Little League, perform in plays at school, go to their First Communion and birthdays.”
Giarrusso said that one specific place to cut spending is the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority.
“There is so much spending for the Convention Center – $25 million in the current budget,” Giarrusso said. “The area I would look to cut are the multiple layers of management in the organization. It is out of control.”
Both legislators want to focus attention on economic development.
Gee said to accomplish economic growth that will produce new jobs in a state that has a 6.8 percent unemployment, among the five highest jobless rates in the country, Rhode Island needs to first get its fiscal house in order.
“It seems our strategy is formulated by the mess we are in rather than developing a strategy to get us out of this and toward recovery,” Gee said.
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