2014-01-16 / News

Ruggiero begins sixth legislative session

Focus for Jamestowner is still on building economy
By Ken Shane

Rep. Deb Ruggiero Rep. Deb Ruggiero As prescribed by the state constitution, the new legislative session began in Providence on the first Tuesday of January, and for the sixth year in a row, Jamestown resident Deb Ruggiero will represent District 74 in the House of Representatives.

Ruggiero, who represents Jamestown and Middletown, was first elected to the General Assembly in 2008.

One of the first things to happen in the legislative session is the presentation of the governor’s budget, which took place Wednesday. At the time she spoke to the Press, the budget had not yet been introduced and Ruggiero said she was looking forward to it.

Ruggiero said the budget points to where Gov. Lincoln Chafee wants to take the state of Rhode Island.

“I would hope the governor would be committed, as he has in the past, to continue to fund higher education,” she said. “We need to fund workforce development. We have the second highest unemployment rate in the nation.”

The spending plan is of particular interest to Ruggiero because she is a member of the House Finance Committee. The 15-person panel is charged with vetting the budget. Ruggiero said she was anticipating the testimony that will take place to help shape the final plan.

Specifically, Ruggiero would like to see the corporate tax rate reduced from 9 percent to 7 percent. She believes the 2 percent decrease would make the state more business competitive.

Ruggiero plans to once again this year submit her estate tax bill, which is aimed at helping small businesses and farmers. The legislation would raise the tax exemption from $924,000, one of the lowest thresholds among the 23 states that have an estate tax, to at least $1 million. The bill also proposes to remove the “cliff,” which taxes an estate based on the aggregate value of the property instead of the difference between the value and the threshold.

“I don’t think that was intended when the state tax law was written,” Ruggiero said. “We’ve been trying to change it for the last four years.”

Ruggiero also plans to continue her push for renewable energy credits that would allow homeowners to get tax breaks for investing in renewable energy in their homes. According to Ruggiero, when the credits were in place from 2006 to 2010, the cost to the state was about $150,000 in tax breaks a year. She says the positive economic impact in terms of tax revenue and job creation, however, was about $1 million annually.

The credits were discontinued when the lawmakers reformed the tax code in 2010. The changes caused Rhode Island’s solar industry to come to sudden halt. According to Ruggiero, in the three years since the credits were withdrawn, the number of solar installations have fallen precipitously.

Ruggiero led the fight for distributed generation and it was passed into law three years ago. It allows developers to sell excess energy created by their renewable energy projects back to National Grid. The long-term contracts between the developers and National Grid makes it easier for developers to get financing for their projects, she said.

The distributed generation law expires in 2014, however, and Ruggiero hopes it will be extended based on its success. The program has allowed renewable energy projects to be developed, such as the solar arrays at the East Providence landfill and at Conanicut Marine’s Taylor Point boatyard here in Jamestown.

Another proposal of Ruggiero’s would push back the date for teacher layoff notices from March 1 to June 1, except in cases of disciplinary action.

“Teachers don’t know what their status is going to be,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of our teachers are so dedicated and talented. Why put them through that angst of getting a layoff notice?”

Although there is plenty on the table, Ruggiero believes the focal point of the 2014 legislative session needs to be about the economy and jobs.

“We have to do something about having the second highest unemployment rate in the nation,” she reiterated.

The key to economic progress, Ruggiero says, is becoming more business competitive by training employees and controlling charges.

“We can only get out of this economic mess by creating a better workforce and a better tax structure.”

One of the most widely discussed issues in this area is the tolling of the Sakonnet River Bridge. Ruggiero expects a final report from the special legislative committee to come out this week.

“I’m hoping the governor has something in his budget on transportation funding,” she said. “The people of Aquidneck Island and Jamestown can’t keep paying tolls so that nobody else has to worry about it anywhere in the state. The people in Jamestown have been paying a toll on the Newport Bridge for many years so folks in Bristol and Portsmouth can go over the Mount Hope Bridge for nothing.”

Ruggiero is also co-chairing a joint legislative task force on firearms and behavioral health that has been meeting since September. The state does not currently submit mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The task force is looking at ways other states are handling the issue and trying to determine whether Rhode Island should submit those records.

“We’re looking at the person and not the weapon,” Ruggiero said. “What’s before us is balancing public safety with Second Amendment rights and mental health issues.”

The recent calls for a center barrier on the Newport Bridge have been growing louder, and Ruggiero has heard them. Some time ago she wrote a letter to the state bridge authority asking why there couldn’t be some kind of divider on the roadway. The bridge authority said it was studying the issue. Ruggiero plans to meet with Sen. President Teresa Paiva Weed to determine what course of action to take.

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