Rhode Island lawmakers brace for another truck toll debate
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - The first order of business in the Rhode Island General Assembly will be resolving the unfinished business of last year.
And there's plenty of unfinished business to tackle when the part-time body of 38 senators and 75 representatives reconvenes Tuesday, including Gov. Gina Raimondo's proposal to install truck tolls to pay for a massive 10-year public works plan to repair bridges and roads.
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello say they are committed to an unusually productive winter. They anticipate scheduling early votes on bills that would normally wait until late spring.
"I believe we'll have more work to do early on in this session than traditionally," Mattiello said in an interview.
Some of that work should be easy, such as passing a bill allowing online voter registration and renewing an expired good Samaritan law that protects people from prosecution on drug charges if they call 911 to report an overdose. Those bills survived extensive public vetting last year and had wide support but were orphaned when Paiva Weed abruptly sent senators home for the summer. She said those bills will be re-introduced immediately and should pass easily.
The bigger challenge will be reaching agreement on RhodeWorks, the infrastructure plan that lawmakers, businesses and residents have debated for nearly a year inside and outside the statehouse. Mattiello, Paiva Weed and Raimondo, all Democrats, have met privately in recent weeks to sort out their differences.
"What I think is clear is that there is strong consensus that our crumbling infrastructure is a priority and needs to be fixed," Paiva Weed said. "Nobody is debating the fact that we need to invest in our roads and bridges. The discussion has been around how we fund that."
The Senate last year swiftly endorsed Raimondo's plan to raise money from highway truck tolls, but the bill hit a roadblock in the House after truckers and other groups protested.
Mattiello, the plan's most powerful skeptic, said recently that his views have evolved and he has grown more comfortable with tolls after a study found that the overall economic effects would be positive.
But he is reluctant to support another part of Raimondo's original plan, which was to borrow money heavily by issuing a bond to finance the infrastructure projects.
Republican leaders and a growing number of Democrats, including Mattiello, have called on Raimondo to publicly reveal more details about her plan, including proposed locations of highway truck toll gantries and the local roads that truckers could use to avoid them.
Raimondo has said that information will be released once state officials complete their revised proposal, which is being adjusted to account for a new infusion of federal highway funding.
"I think it's good and healthy that we've had a bit of a timeout. Everyone can have fresh eyes in looking at the proposal," said Bill Fischer, spokesman for the Rhode Island Trucking Association, which remains opposed to installing tolls he says are costly, antiquated and inefficient.
Open government advocate John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island worries that only rank-and-file lawmakers have been taking time off, leading their appointed leaders to negotiate deals privately.
"Right now the debate largely seems to be confined to the speaker of the House, the Senate president and the governor. It would be nice to see a broader debate with more of the members," he said. "It seems like there's a game being played where everyone is trying to design what the speaker of the House wants on this, when really he's one of 75. It would be better for Rhode Island if all 75 had a voice. It's a very top-heavy legislature."
Apart from the road plan, Rhode Island's political leaders have fewer specific proposals on their legislative agenda than they did at this time last year. That's in part because they were successful in achieving top priorities in the last session, such as a Social Security income tax exemption, education initiatives and a suite of business tax incentives and other economic tools.
This year, as the November election to choose a new body of lawmakers approaches, political leaders are unlikely to let controversial bills fester.