PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – From monetizing the city’s water system to legalizing marijuana, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is asking Rhode Island lawmakers to approve a package of bills largely designed to boost revenue for the capital city.
The second-term Democrat also wants members of the House and Senate to consider new education-related initiatives and support several bills that are introduced each year, like driver’s licenses for people in the country illegally.
So what specifically is the mayor asking the General Assembly to pass? Here’s an overview.
Monetize Providence Water.
The mayor’s top aides understand it’s a longshot that lawmakers will pass legislation that would allow the Providence Water Supply Board to be sold or leased to another entity this year, but they say their goal is to continue to educate the public and the General Assembly about the need to strengthen the city’s underfunded pension system. (The mayor has pledged to deposit the proceeds from any water transaction into the fund.) To that end, the city has hired New Harbor Group, the public relations firm run by David Preston, to lead the outreach effort on the issue. The city still considers the quasi-public Narragansett Bay Commission to be the ideal partner for this transaction, although the agency has indicated it is only interested in buying the water system.
Restore state aid.
Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget slashes the state’s payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for cities and towns by $5 million, with the bulk of that cut hitting Providence. PILOT payments are designed to partially reimburse municipalities for properties owned by nonprofit institutions – like colleges and hospitals – that aren’t on the tax roll, but aides to Raimondo say legislation that would allow communities to tax non-mission essential properties owned by nonprofits will make up for the lost state aid. The problem cities and towns face is they typically use new PILOT money to cover the previous fiscal year’s budget. In Providence’s case, Raimondo’s plan would create a $4-million shortfall in the current year’s budget. The city is asking lawmakers to fully restore the PILOT cuts and increase state aid earmarked for distressed communities by 3% to $12.75 million.
Add money for English language learners to the education funding formula.
This is something school superintendents in most of the urban districts have been advocating for in recent years. Raimondo’s budget increases the current funding level for ELLs from $2.5 million to $5 million, but Rhode Island is one of the only states in the country that doesn’t include the money as part of a broader school funding formula. By adding money to the formula, the idea is that it would be more difficult to cut in the future.
Create an Early Childhood Innovation Fund.
This is legislation that was proposed last year, but never came up for a vote. The idea is to create an office on the state level that focuses specifically on supporting children between the ages of zero and three (think pre-pre-school). The city already has a successful program called Providence Talks that is designed to ensure young children are hearing enough words by the age of three, and there’s a chance that creating a statewide fund would allow the program to expand to other communities. Mayor Elorza is supporting a bill that would set aside $1 million a year to fund early childhood programs and put them under one office.
Provide more mental healthcare in school.
With social and emotional learning becoming a higher priority for schools across the country, the city supports legislation that would allow school districts to bill Medicaid for the services of school psychologists.
Mayor Elorza has not been a public supporter of legalizing marijuana in the past, but his aides say they are backing the governor’s proposal this year. They have not yet committed to allowing it to be sold in the capital city, however.
Give Providence a seat at the RIPTA table.
Even though Kennedy Plaza is the central hub for most of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority buses, Providence does not currently have a seat on the agency’s board of directors. City officials say the mayor or his designee deserve to be on the board, especially since Providence is a key partner in many of the changes being made to bus routes downtown.
Prohibit housing discrimination based on source of income.
Rhode Island already prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to people based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, marital status and a whole other host of factors. The city is supporting legislation that would add “lawful source of income” to that list, a proposal designed to prevent landlords from refusing to rent to people receiving welfare benefits.
Crack down on absentee landlords.
The Elorza administration is already moving aggressively to take control of vacant or abandoned properties across the city, but it is also seeking to hold landlords more accountable if they own homes in disrepair. The city is asking lawmakers to approve legislation that would force landlords to house tenants if their current home is condemned by the city. The city also wants to be allowed to attach a lien to a property if it is forced to make emergency repairs that a landlord can’t afford.
Close the catering company/nightclub loophole.
This proposal is aimed at one specific business, although that business isn’t currently open. There’s a single nightclub in Providence that has a 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. license to operate but doesn’t have a liquor license. Instead the club has hired a catering company to sell alcoholic beverages because catering companies don’t have the same kinds of restrictions when it comes to serving alcohol that a traditional liquor license recipient does. The city is seeking to ban catering companies from serving alcohol between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m., but give municipalities the discretion to allow the companies to sell liquor until 2 a.m.
Approve driver’s licenses for people in the country illegally.
Mayor Elorza has supported a driver’s license bill every year he’s been in office, arguing that it would make the roads safer because more people would attend driving school and obtain insurance.
End the “tampon tax.”
The city is asking the General Assembly to exempt menstrual hygiene products from the sales tax, something at least 13 states have already done.
Codify Row V Wade.
Mayor Elorza made headlines earlier this year when he testified at the State House in favor of the Reproductive Health Care Act. The Providence City Council has already approved a resolution supporting the legislation.
Help cities and towns when they are sued.
The mayor is asking lawmakers to approve separate bills designed to partially protect municipalities when they face civil lawsuits: one would be to add a cap to the amount a community can be sued for (the Rhode Island Supreme Court lifted that cap in 2017). The other bill would reduce the prejudgment interest rate of 12% to the federal inflation rate. The city argues that lawyers actually advise their clients to wait to file suit against municipalities because it allows them to maximum the amount they receive in interest.
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Dan McGowan ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan