Elorza administration sees failed legislative proposals as ‘missed opportunities’

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Mayor Jorge Elorza called them “heavy lift” bills.

One proposal would create a regional water board that would have the power to buy or lease water systems throughout the state. Another would increase the amount cities and towns received from the hotel tax from 1% to 2.5%. And the third was a plan to force nonprofits to pay property taxes on parking lots and vacant lots.

“These three heavy lifts, when combined to be part of a larger strategic plan, might actually make them more palatable,” Elorza, a first-term Democrat, said during an interview in March. “It might put us in a position where we can be more competitive on the back end on taxes and we can make really key investments in infrastructure.”

So how’d the city do?

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello killed the water bill on the same day Elorza testified in favor of it in front of the House Corporations Committee. Two days after the mayor included the hotel tax in his legislative agenda, Mattiello publicly opposed the bill. And the legislation targeting nonprofits was held for further study in April.

“They are viewed as missed opportunities that would have complemented the work done during Mayor Elorza’s term to ensure Providence’s financial success over the long term and make the city more competitive with other cities,” Victor Morente, a spokesperson for the mayor, told Eyewitness News.

Morente said the city is “encouraged” by a proposed increase in payments in lieu of taxes from nonprofits as well as a permanent stream of funding for English language learners, but state leaders still need to come to terms on a new budget before the city officials can officially declare victory on those fronts. Same goes with the speaker’s proposal to begin phasing out the car tax, a plan Elorza supports.

Elorza warned last week that the state’s failure to approve a budget could lead to “massive layoffs” in Providence, in part because city leaders were counting on an extra $12.5 million in new school funding for the fiscal year that started July 1.

But while it was nearly impossible to predict that the General Assembly still wouldn’t have passed a budget nearly three weeks into the new fiscal year, some of the city’s other priorities were viewed as long shots for the entire session.

Rep. Ray Hull, a Democrat from this city’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood who serves as a co-chair of the Providence delegation, told Eyewitness News the city introduced its proposal for the regional water board “a lot too late.” Although city officials spent months preparing the legislation, it wasn’t introduced until the middle of April. Mattiello announced his opposition in May.

“The water was the biggest thing,” Hull said. “We spent a lot of time on that. The rollout could have been a lot better. It makes sense when you think about it.”

Hull said he wished the city would have put more political capital into the hotel tax, which he said would also benefit communities like Warwick and Newport.

Rep. John Lombardi, a former City Council president and acting mayor who now represents Federal Hill, said the Elorza administration struggled to communicate its priorities with many members of the General Assembly. He said the city needs to pitch itself as an “economic engine for the whole state.”

“There’s a lack of communication that has troubled this administration since day one,” Lombardi said.

The city did pick up a late win when lawmakers approved legislation that could place a hold on a driver’s registration if they rack up more than $200 in parking tickets and associated penalties. The bill, which could assist Providence in recovering millions of dollars in unpaid parking fines, was a City Council-led initiative. The council hired its own lobbyist – well-known insider Jeff Britt – for the session. The Elorza administration used Government Strategies as its lobbyist.

For now, the city isn’t giving up on its failed proposals. Morente said it’s too soon to say what the city’s legislative agenda will look like for 2018, but he acknowledged the administration expects to request similar bills.

“The administration firmly believes that a more resilient Providence makes a stronger Rhode Island and will continue to advocate for legislation that will strengthen the capital city and bring relief and opportunity for residents,” he said.

Continue the discussion on Facebook

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan