The economy took center stage Tuesday as lawmakers convened the 2013-14 session of the General Assembly and re-elected Theresa Pavia Weed President of the Senate and Gordon Fox Speaker of the House.
There were new faces in both chambers and a familiar local face in a new role in the Senate. Warwick Senator William Walaska was elected President Pro Tem but only after a bit of playful shenanigans providing comic relief to the oft-repeated message from both chambers that the state needs to make it easier for businesses to operate and that it needs to train a skilled workforce to attract companies here.
Warwick Senator Erin Lynch nominated Walaska with a less than glowing speech concluding that she thought he would be “OK.” When her colleagues realized she was poking fun at Walaska, there were laughs, but none like those when the electronic voting board posted all red lights when it came to the vote. A technical glitch was blamed for the problem.
“Thanks for the resounding nomination,” Walaska said when he took the podium, evoking more laughter.
In her speech, Pavia Weed said the “future begins with an honest assessment of the challenges we face.” She said that, “working together, with our partners in the public and private sectors, we will focus on economic development with a renewed sense of urgency to ensure families financial security and prosperity.”
Initiatives the Senate would target include better equipping the state’s workforce with the skills needed in today’s knowledge economy; reversing the state’s reputation as over-regulated; improving education at all levels; encouraging urban revitalization; economic development through the arts; addressing budget issues to preserve services while improving the state’s competitiveness; and improving the affordability, quality and transparency of the health care system.
Across the building, in the House chambers, Fox hit on similar themes.
“We must make the right decisions in this session to pave the way for a brighter future,” he said.
Fox said the House would cancel its regular session on Jan. 17 to hold a five-hour economic conference at Rhode Island College. He said he is tired of seeing the state at the bottom of national rankings when it comes to business.
“It is certainly time that we develop a new customer-friendly attitude toward business, with less regulatory red tape and fewer hurdles to jump through.”
Fox also pitched education, pledging support for education funds for cities and towns, saying that legislators must find ways of solving problems without rolling them down hill to the cities and towns.
“It’s public education that is going to benefit all of us over time,” he said.
The Warwick delegation remains unchanged, with the exception of House District 23, where incumbent Robert Flaherty chose not to seek re-election. His successor, K. Joseph Shekarchi, acclimated quickly to the role. He chatted with fellow lawmakers as the scheduled start of the House and the formalities leading up to the oath of office were delayed by more than 20 minutes.
Veteran Warwick-Cranston Representative Joseph McNamara advised Shekarchi to become accustomed to the less than prompt commencement of House business.
McNamara also said he has drafted legislation to amend a bill passed last year that requires local and federal background checks of school mentors. While the Department of Education reasoned the law applied only to mentors actually working within schools, the Warwick School Committee required 750 seniors working on their proficiency projects to limit contact with their project mentors to emails and phone calls, out of an abundance of caution about the new law. McNamara said he would contact the committee’s legal counsel, Rosemary Healey, as well as the Department of Education before finalizing the amendment.
McNamara is encouraged that his “return to work bill,” which didn’t make it into law last year, is being looked at as one of many ways to stimulate the economy. The measure would allow people to continue collecting unemployment while training with a new employer.
McNamara also hopes for a revising of the current system of basing valuations on a vehicle’s best/clean condition. McNamara sought to revise the system last year but met resistance from municipalities that claimed they couldn’t make up the reduction in tax revenues. McNamara said he is suggesting the trade-in value of vehicles be phased in over three years, to reduce the tax hit to municipalities and restore equity.
“People know what their cars are worth,” he said. “They lose faith in the fairness of the system of taxation [if the best value is used].”
The economy and trying to help the business climate was on top of Rep. Joseph Trillo’s list for the session. “There are so many regulations killing business,” he said.
The economy was also high on the list for Senator Lynch and Senator Michael McCaffrey.
With the Newtown shootings on the minds of many, both expected gun control measures would also come before lawmakers, depending on what is done on a national level.
In her remarks, Pavia Weed said, “Public safety in our schools will be a priority as we work with the Attorney General, the State Police and our federal partners to address the many concerns that this tragedy has caused the country to focus on.”
Fox said, “We must redouble our efforts to be certain that our schools and public places are safe and secure.”