PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Elorza administration is asking state leaders to approve a package of bills that would increase state aid to Providence, allow the city to tax certain properties owned by nonprofits and help the city monetize its water system.
Although 2018 is an election year and the state is trying to close a projected $200 million budget gap, Providence officials say they’re confident they’ve put forward a legislative agenda that is realistic.
Here’s an overview of the mayor’s requests.
Sell or lease the water supply.
This is the big one that Mayor Elorza has repeatedly said he’ll continue to pursue as long as he is leading Rhode Island’s capital city. Officials say they haven’t fully prepared the legislation they’ll ask lawmakers to approve, but they are considering an alternate approach to last year’s dead-on-arrival proposal to create a regional water authority that would have had the power to purchase or lease local water systems. Elorza has said he is opposed to privatizing the water supply, but he also believes the city should have the ability to monetize it in an effort to substantially reduce – but not necessarily eliminate – the city’s $1 billion pension shortfall. An independent assessment of the water system last year valued its assets at $404 million.
More funding for English language learners.
It wasn’t so long ago that Rhode Island was one of only a handful of states in the country that didn’t have a funding stream for English language learners. That has changed, but Governor Raimondo’s proposed budget level funds the ELL line item at $2.5 million for the entire state. The city is asking the General Assembly to increase ELL funding to $5 million, in part because officials estimate it cost $17.7 million to teach those students during the 2016-17 school year. Providence’s ELL student population is projected to hit 30% in the coming years. The city also wants lawmakers to make ELL dollars part of the state’s overall education funding formula.
Tax the nonprofits.
This is a version of the legislation Providence requests every year. The city is asking the General Assembly to allow it to tax “non-mission essential” property owned by nonprofits, like parking lots, vacant lots and certain buildings. City leaders have always been vague on exactly how much of the property owned by its colleges and hospitals isn’t essential to their respective missions, but it’s safe to say the windfall could be substantial: officials estimate approximately 50% of all property in the city is not currently taxed.
Bonding for school repairs & the green economy.
The city is supporting Governor Raimondo’s proposal to ask voters to approve $250 million for school infrastructure repairs as well as a separate $48.5-million green economy and clean water bond. On the school side, officials aren’t asking for changes to the bond question. (Important: the $250 million is not for Providence only and the city is already planning to borrow money on its own to make school improvements.) With the environmental bond, the city wants approximately $6 million to be set aside for dredging the Providence River.
Driver’s licenses for undocumented people, gun safety
While Providence typically seeks bills that would generate more revenue, there are several pieces of legislation that don’t fall in that category. The mayor is again asking the General Assembly to approve driver’s licenses for people in the country illegally, arguing that reducing the number of unlicensed drivers benefits everyone. On guns, the city isn’t putting forward any specific bills, but officials have told lawmakers they’ll support any legislation that will allow only police to carry a firearm on school grounds as well as “high capacity and assault rifle bans.”
Close the catering license loophole.
It’s rare to see legislation that focuses on one specific business, but that’s basically the case when it comes to Providence’s request to prevent catering companies from serving alcohol between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m., except if municipalities give them the okay to serve until 2 a.m. The backstory on this bill is there’s a single nightclub in the city – Dusk 2 Dawn – that has a 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. license but doesn’t have a liquor license. Instead the club hires a catering company to sell alcoholic beverages. A Superior Court judge recently ruled that that city has no right to attempt to prohibit the club from allowing alcohol sales.
Expand programs like Providence Talks.
One of the most important initiatives city leaders have launched in recent years is Providence Talks, a program designed to close the so-called “word gap” between poor and more affluent children by providing families with “word pedometers” to track the number of words children hear during their first few years of life and following up with in-home visitation services. Now the city wants the state to set aside $1 million in the R.I. Department of Human Services budget as an early childhood innovation fund that potentially benefit Providence Talks or similar programs.