As his fourth year as a Rhode Island lawmaker gets underway, District 73 Rep. Marvin L. Abney, D-Newport, Middletown, anticipates an active legislative session where jobs, infrastructure, taxes, and the school funding formula will be among the issues on the agenda.
Seventy-four other representatives and 38 senators joined Abney at the Statehouse on the afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 5, when the General Assembly convened as constitutionally required on the first Tuesday in January. A week into the new session, he took time out before a committee meeting to give Newport This Week an idea of what may be dominating the headlines emanating from Smith Hill over the next few months.
The needs of the state’s roads and bridges have initially taken center stage, prompted by Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposal to toll big rig trucks as a way to finance repairs.
Abney is keeping his eyes on the larger goal, saying that efforts to grow jobs and the economy will be linked to the condition of our infrastructure.
“I do quite a bit of traveling, and one thing I try to find out is what it takes to have a good busines-friendly environment. I’ve spoken to a lot of business CEOs, and one thing they look for in bringing a company to any area is whether appropriate infrastructure is in place to accommodate them,” he said. “They wonder whether the roads and bridges will support what they want to do, whether their 500 or so trucks can get their products to where they need to go. And Rhode Island is on the low end of that equation.
“We have some people who never want change,” Abney continued, “but our job as legislators is to look at all sides of an issue and stay focused on the big picture.”
The lawmaker also foresees “a lot of good debate” on school funding, noting that problems can arise under the current system where educational funding “follows the kids.”
“If you have a small town where 50 students decide to attend a charter school, you can quickly do the math and realize that there is a lot of money that’s no longer in the local district’s budget,” he explained. “This results in necessary conversations about which classes to cut, and some localities may have to increase property taxes to make up the difference. Towns are saying, ‘Give us a voice.’” Abney has already joined as a sponsor of HB 7067, a bill which would eliminate a city or town’s obligation to pay for their students’ enrollment in charter schools.
“We just need to ensure that all of our schools can do the best they can within the funding structure that is established,” he said. “There will be a lot of discussion on how to accomplish this.”
On another educational front, Abney predicts that a statewide teacher contract will be “looked at pretty hard this year,” although he is less certain that definitive action will be taken. An 11-member special commission was formed last June for a “comprehensive study and [to] make recommendations regarding the costs, benefits, and impact on taxpayers of a statewide teacher contract.” The panel’s findings are due to Senate leader- ship on Feb. 1. The commission has undertaken its study following bumpy teacher contract negotiations in both Newport and Middletown in 2015.
“The issue [of a statewide contract] is starting to be understood more,” he said. “It’s getting some traction in the sense that many legislators are starting to listen to the ideas and problems involved, but I’m not sure we’ll get something like that done in the near term.”
Abney has previously said that the exclusion of some Social Security benefits from Rhode Island’s income tax was a success of the 2015 session, and he is confident that 2016 will bring efforts to look at further ways to “continue to reduce the burden” that taxes present for residents, possibly through similar exemptions on military or private pensions.
Further, he feels that the pros and cons of casinos will again be a topic of interest as legislators weigh a request from the Tiverton Town Council to approve a ballot question for a local and statewide vote on the proposed move of the Newport Grand gaming facility to that town.
Abney will retain his places on the House Finance, Veteran’s Affairs, and Health, Education and Welfare committees in 2016. Several laws were enacted last year that benefited veterans, including legislation giving them a priority for housing rental subsidies and retention assistance, a separate bill prohibiting housing discrimination based on military status, and another law providing in-state tuition for qualifying veterans and military personnel. Abney expects that additional veterans’ measures will be introduced this session.
And as for other matters demanding the legislator’s time, he acknowledged a responsibility familiar to all elected officials: “We need to be responsive to constituent requests.”
Editor’s note: This article on Rep. Marvin Abney is the fourth installment in a series published in Newport This Week that began on Dec. 23 about local representatives in the General Assembly.