Newport County legislators talk energy infrastructure, education at annual forum

Courtesy of Newport Daily News 

NEWPORT — Eight Newport County legislators participated in a forum hosted by the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission on Thursday. Here are the highlights:

Consensus on improving education

The message was loud and clear from the lawmakers: “Stay the course.”

After three sets of standardized tests and a soon-to-be third education commissioner in recent years, the state must be disciplined about following one path forward. “That’s what Massachusetts has done and others [have done],” Rep. Marvin Abney, D-Newport said.

Sen. James Seveney, D-Portsmouth, emphasized the importance of investing in education in the younger grades to ensure children have the baseline skills they need. His wife, a first-grade teacher, saw the benefits when the state implemented full-day kindergarten, he said. Better-prepared students were entering her classroom at the start of the school year.

After Seveney’s comments, Rep. Terri Cortvriend brought up Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget proposal to create a universal pre-K program across the state.

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, lauded Rhode Island for funding computer science in all grades, the first state in the country to do so. Current students will help fill the 1,000 vacant computer science jobs in the state, she said.

On affordable housing

The legislators said they understand that home-ownership is out of reach for many groups of Rhode Islanders — millennials, the elderly and middle-class families — but stressed that government alone can’t fix the problem.

Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, called for establishing a partnership between government and the private sector, including bankers, Realtors and insurers, to find solutions.

″[Developers] want to build the biggest house on the lot because that’s most lucrative,” said Rep. Susan Donovan, D-Bristol. “We have to find a way around it.”

“We’re not even going to be able to afford to house our workers and that’s going to have an effect on our economy,” Cortvriend said.

On energy infrastructure in the wake of the gas outage

Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, said the state relies heavily on natural gas for not only heating, but also electricity. “We need to be thinking about diversification of our resources and to make sure we’re doubling down on our efforts with renewable energy,” she said, “because putting all of our eggs into one basket to both heat our homes and provide electricity to me provides a greater risk.”

Carson said the state must grapple with the implications of climate change and that resiliency planning “must start today.”

Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Newport, said the state must address the root causes behind the outage that affected roughly 7,000 National Grid customers in Newport and Middletown.

On being a legislator

Some of the most interesting insights were in response to a question from Portsmouth Town Council Vice President Linda Ujifusa about the difficulties of being a legislator.

“You’re trying to do what’s right for your constituents but you have to get down to the process that involves 38 senators and 75 representatives, and people in leadership on both sides and the governor’s office,” Abney said. “And it’s very frustrating.”

In a similar vein, DiPalma said just because something is a top priority for him doesn’t mean it’s the case for the rest of the legislature. “I want it done yesterday,” he said. “Our issue is the No. 1 priority.”

And there are limits on how much the General Assembly can accomplish with a six-month session from January to June.

“It’s the first part-time job I have that goes seven days a week,” Ruggiero said.

So should the legislature meet year round?

Ruggiero and Carson said they aren’t sure but the issue should be explored.

Ruggiero also had this quotable nugget about the realities of governing: “We campaign in poetry but legislate in prose.”