By PAUL J. SPETRINI
Catherine Cool Rumsey may be new to the State Senate but, less than two weeks after defeating incumbent Frank Maher in District 34, the soon-to-be first-time legislator is already saying all the right things when asked what her goals are for the upcoming term in the General Assembly.
“It’s jobs, jobs, jobs,” Rumsey said. “Bringing the economy back, that’s the focus.”
It’s a message all six of North Kingstown and Exeter’s state representatives can’t stress enough.
In a series of phone interviews conducted last week, the area’s State Senators (Rumsey and Dawson Hodgson) and State Representatives (Doreen Costa, Robert Craven and Larry Valencia) all agreed that the most pressing issue facing Rhode Island is working toward creating a better business climate, with an emphasis placed on fostering small business growth and the elimination of red tape.
How the General Assembly gets to that point and what it does to improve Rhode Island’s ranking as one of the nation’s worst states to do business in will likely dominate a two-year term in which many hot button issues—including the potential legalization of marijuana, the adoption of local pension reform and a potential acceptance of gay marriage—are also expected to be addressed.
Each legislator has their own ideas on how to best stimulate a still stagnant state economy but they all agree on the same core principals: that unemployment in the state remains too high and small businesses are having a tough time succeeding in Rhode Island because of “strict regulations” and “corporate red tape.”
The area’s lone Republican representatives, Costa and Hodgson, feel the General Assembly can make one quick change to foster growth: eliminate or change the state’s $500 minimum corporate tax. Valencia agrees and, in the last term, proposed a bill that would have revamped the system by forcing larger corporations to contribute more while lessening the burden on smaller businesses.
“Right now of $500 regardless of the size of your company,” he said. “So Amgen, which has a giant operation in West Greenwich, is paying $500 the same as the Subway operator here in Wyoming. It’s not fair, it really should be a very small or a nonexistent fee for small operators or new businesses and that would do a lot to spur new business.”
Costa feels the fee should be wiped off the books completely.
“That’s not going to hurt anyone,” she said. “We’re going to lose some income in the state of Rhode Island, I know that, that fiscal number, but how money are we going to lose on businesses just leaving instead of starting?”
The biggest topic of debate between the state legislators is what changes, if any, need to be made with business regulations in the state.
Some Assembly members feel regulations are too tight and restrictive, with Costa questioning how stringent fire code rules handcuff local business owners as one example, and others say the fear of a repeat of the 38 Studios debacle should lead to tighter control of the Economic Development Corporation.
“Well, I think you have to have effective regulations that allow businesses to grow and expand but you also have to make sure that there’s different rules and standards so that you preserve the environment,” Rumsey said. “We have different standards and laws that we have to uphold so it’s kind of a balancing.”
Either way, with a House of Representatives and State Senate that is overwhelmingly Democratic, legislators from both sides agree that voters expect a lot to be accomplished over the next two years.
For newcomers like Rumsey and Craven, the challenge is “learning the ropes” of the General Assembly but both feel they’re well equipped to fit right in with their fellow lawmakers.
“I don’t consider myself to be a novice in government,” Craven said. “So other than the formalities of the body itself and requisite methodology in which bills are filed, I don’t believe that there will be much of a learning curve on the issues that I’m interested in.”
The challenge the whole Assembly faces, meanwhile, is much tougher, especially for members of the Democratic party who should, based on numbers alone, control the flow of ideas over the next two years.
“To be honest with you, I’m not worried because with six of us up there in the General Assembly, I don’t know how much we’re going to be able to get done,” Costa said of the lack of Republican members at the State House. “So all these bills should get bipartisan support, they should be business-friendly. Now, if there are more regulations imposed on businesses and more taxes are created, they’re not going to blame the six of us. So who are they going to blame? The 69 Democrats in the House of Representatives because they control the House.”
Hodgson feels there’s only one thing that matters in this upcoming term and it has nothing to do with party politics. For the next two years to be successful, he says, there needs to be a noticeable change in Rhode Island, one neither side can argue with.
“Two years from now, for this to have been a successful term, we have to have unemployment at eight percent or lower,” he said. “We have to have realistic and important goals and certain levels.”