RI lawmakers plan March election to ask voters to approve $400M in bonds

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When Rhode Island lawmakers finally vote on a budget for the current fiscal year next week, they plan to ask voters for $400 million in borrowing for education, green infrastructure, transportation and other initiatives.

If passed, the bond referendums would go to voters in a special election likely on March 2, according to state Rep. Joe Shekarchi, who is expected to be elected speaker of the House in January.

The proposal, included as part of a “skinny budget” passed by the House Finance Committee Wednesday evening, includes seven separate questions for voters to consider.

Question 1: $107 million for higher education projects at all three state colleges, including a fine arts center at URI, Clarke Science Building at RIC, and renovations at all four CCRI campuses

Question 2: $74 million for green initiatives including state beaches, campgrounds, parks (including the I-195 land park), clean water, the Woonasquatucket greenway project and Providence river dredging

Question 3: $65 million for affordable housing development

• Question 4: $72 million for transportation infrastructure, to match federal funds for ports, highways, roads and bridges

• Question 5: $15 million for early childhood facilities and the education capital fund

• Question 6: $7 million for arts and culture including the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts grant program, Trinity Repertory Company and Rhode Island Philharmonic

• Question 7: $60 million for Quonset to develop the Port of Davisville and acquire and develop other industrial sites for “job-producing activities”

“We recognize it’s a significant amount, but the time to spend is right now when the interest rates are low and the economy needs it,” Shekarchi told reporters during a budget briefing Wednesday afternoon.

The new budget proposal also includes $1.5 million to help pay for a mostly mail-in election for the bond questions, with $1 million going to the secretary of state’s office and half a million dollars to the R.I. Board of Elections.

The proposed bill also waives the requirement for two witnesses or a notary to sign a voter’s mail ballot. (The provision was also waived for the September and November elections this year as a result of a court order, but that decision didn’t impact future elections.)

Gov. Gina Raimondo had proposed borrowing $269 million in her original budget plan in January, but increased that request in July. In a typical year the borrowing would have gone to the voters on the November ballot after the budget passed, but the General Assembly held off on passing a budget amid financial uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

The new bond proposal also splits the borrowing into seven questions, while Raimondo had proposed three.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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