EAST GREENWICH—Senators Bridget Valverde and Leonidas Raptakis along with Representative Justine Caldwell addressed the town council Monday night. It was the first meeting of the year in which state representatives met with the council to jointly discuss where their hopes for the future of the town merge and diverge. Universal pre-K education, the minimum wage and women’s suffrage all took their turn in the spotlight. Council president Mark Schwager outlined the purpose of the meeting.
“This is an opportunity for our legislators to come and give us their initial impressions about the upcoming session,” Schwager said. “It’s also an opportunity for them to tell us what their priorities are within the legislature.”
Valverde spoke to her efforts in getting the state to provide increased funding for mental health initiatives, while Caldwell highlighted current efforts to educate and celebrate the 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage.
“We are just getting started with the session, so priorities for the Senate are still shaping out. We’ve just gotten our first look at the governor’s budget,” said Valverde. “One of the things that we are looking to cover is additional funding for mental health in schools.”
“The secretary of state is launching a big initiative to celebrate the 100th year of women’s suffrage, the passage of the 19th amendment,” Caldwell said. “Another initiative, which I am going to work on with them, is sourcing primary documents about women’s suffrage in Rhode Island with local libraries, so we can ask the secretary of state to put on a little presentation in the East Greenwich Library to bring those documents for people to see.”
Caldwell also highlighted that some of the initiatives being brought back to this year’s legislative session were not entirely popular last year, but that she believes they should be pursued anyway. Key among them is the effort to raise the legal smoking age and an effort to incorporate more climate change measures into budgeting practices.
“I have a couple of bills that I am working on that I think would be of interest to folks, because I hear a lot about them. I am the co-sponsor of a bill to raise the minimum age for the purchase of tobacco products from 18 to 21,” Caldwell said. “Last year we did get some pushback on that from small business owners.”
“I am also co-sponsor of a bill that adds climate change to the analysis that we do for the long-term economic program,” Caldwell added.
Meanwhile, council members Michael Zarella and fellow council member Renu Englehart both highlighted that the town has continued to receive less and less from the state in terms of education funding while being asked to provide more and more. As such, they argued that any state-demanded expansions to the curriculum be accompanied by more state funding.
“The biggest concern that I have as a town councilman of the town of East Greenwich is the governor’s pre-K plan,” Zarella said. “That would be a budget buster for East Greenwich. I don’t know what your support on that is. All I would ask is please make sure that’s not unfunded. Because if it comes unfunded, we’re going to have to maybe open new schools and raise taxes, which we don’t want to do.”
Relatedly, the issue of legislating field trip funding came back to the fore, as state legislators are currently working to redraft state laws to once again allow for districts to ask students and their families to pay for trips. The current legislation was critiqued for being poorly written by the school committee last week, however, and members of the committee are apparently speaking with legislators to better inform the process.
Members of the council also took the time to address the needs of the town and implore the legislators to take such into account when crafting policy. To that end, the need to care for the local road system and the many delays currently being faced by construction efforts near the 4 and 95 were singled out for complaint.
“[Highway] projects are sucking up of a ton of our DOTs budget,” Valverde said. “As well as the time for all the work crews and things like that. While there are roads in the district that need TLC, unfortunately, they’ll probably have to take the back seat.”
Main Street is a particularly troublesome case regarding state transportation funding, as the state has responsibility for construction, but the town is responsible for maintenance. Council member Caryn Corenthal spoke to the issue of not maintaining funds for such work.
“We’ve heard a lot from residents about sidewalks. Dangerous sidewalks, the ability to walk. The elderly who like to walk places, they say they can’t,” Corenthal said.
In all, the meeting highlighted how sharply state and municipal desires can diverge, even when the town and state in question are controlled by the same political party. For the foreseeable future, it seems that the town will see decreasing returns on what it is asked to pony up to the state.