As hard as times have been for states across America during the Great Recession and subsequent weak economic recovery, they have been particularly rough here in Rhode Island. But this year, my 74 colleagues in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, working together across party lines and with our 38 colleagues in the Senate, came together this legislative session to work seriously on the challenges facing our state and to put Rhode Island on a more solid footing for the future. Collaboration, cooperation and compromise characterized most, if not all, of our greatest achievements this session, and I believe the state is better off for this approach.
Most importantly, we passed a budget for the 2012 fiscal year that closed a $300 million gap, largely through targeted spending cuts. Our priorities in the House leadership and Finance Committee were reducing the structural deficit and maintaining the most critical services, while also seeing tax increases as a very last resort. As a result, we decided that a net sales tax increase of $165 million as proposed by Governor Chafee was not appropriate. Instead, in collaboration with the Senate, we made substantial changes to human service programs, eliminated longevity raises going forward for all state employees and made a variety of other spending cuts across state government – ultimately reducing the structural deficit over the next five years by 42.5 percent as compared to the governor’s budget.
The budget did incorporate many of the governor’s ideas, including full implementation of the school funding formula, increasing funding to public higher education and beginning the process of reforming our funding of transportation to reduce future borrowing.
Ultimately, this budget will put Rhode Island on the map as a place that incentivizes people to be industrious, while maintaining the public services that improve our quality of life and reflect the compassion that has long characterized the state.
We took another major step forward for economic development by passing landmark legislation to establish the I-195 Redevelopment Commission. I am proud that we were able to work with the Senate, in particular Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, Providence Mayor Angel Tavares and the Chafee Administration to ensure that the commission can create a brighter future for our state and our capital city, and this legislation encourages the Knowledge District development that will be so crucial to our economic future and to providing many new quality jobs.
We enacted a number of other new laws that will improve the quality of life for Rhode Islanders. I am proud of the passage of civil unions’ legislation that makes Rhode Island one of just a dozen states providing state rights to same-sex couples, even as I remain committed to establishing full equal marriage rights. We also passed a bill guaranteeing insurance coverage for services required by children with autism, capping a collaborative process that brought together advocates and the state’s major health insurers. We established for the first time the right for adult adoptees to access their original birth certificates. And working together with low-income and ratepayer advocates, National Grid and the Chafee Administration, we passed the Henry Shelton Act, enabling the state to help tens of thousands of low-income families and elderly residents to keep warm during our tough winters and to help and encourage those with overdue utility bills to pay off their debt.
The General Assembly also made substantial strides this year in transparency, recognizing that technology could help us to better inform the public we serve about the work that we do. For the first time, we began posting all floor votes online in real time, and we are also posting committee votes online within 24 hours of committee meetings.
I recognize that we could not resolve every issue through collaboration, cooperation and compromise. In particular, the fight over how to resolve disputes between school committees and teachers over labor contracts was a divisive one, and the issues involved remain complex. I was not convinced that binding arbitration was the best means to resolving open-ended labor contract disputes in the schools and preventing teacher strikes. I will continue to look at this issue and try to forge a solution that recognizes the needs and interests of taxpayers and teachers, but especially the needs of students and parents in our public schools.
While the Assembly is now in recess, we as legislators recognize that there are still major issues ahead of us to address. First and foremost, I am committed, as I know President Teresa Paiva Weed is in the Senate, to decisively tackling pension reform, in a way that is fair to taxpayers as well as retirees and current state employees. Along with the Governor and General Treasurer Raimondo, the Assembly recognizes the magnitude of the issue and we are looking forward to a fall session that will give us the opportunity to fully focus our attention on it.
Our state has not left hard times behind, but after the dedicated work done in the State House this year, we can see calmer waters ahead for the Ocean State.
Representative Gordon D. Fox, a Democrat from District 4 in Providence, is Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives.