LEGISLATIVE WRAP UP: A Year of Missed Opportunities
The Rhode Island General Assembly’s 2019 session has come to a close. Save The Bay pushed tirelessly for legislation to reduce plastics pollution, protect the watershed from irresponsible large-scale solar development, and help fund climate adaptation and resilience projects. In the end, the General Assembly did not pass any of our legislative priorities, making the 2019 session one of missed opportunities for the Ocean State.
Save The Bay’s top legislative priority this year was the creation of the Ocean State Climate Adaptation and Resilience Fund (OSCAR). Rhode Island is increasingly seeing the impacts of climate change. These impacts will pose more and more significant risks for state and municipal infrastructure, such as roadways and public utilities. Cities and towns, along with the state, must start making important changes to these infrastructure to adapt to climate change threats. But that takes funding.
House bill 5628 and Senate bill 412 would have established the OSCAR fund and generated nearly $2 million per year by doubling of the state’s fee on petroleum products shipped into Rhode Island. If passed, OSCAR funds would have been awarded as direct grants to cities and towns.
Towns could have used the funds to reduce the vulnerability of low-lying infrastructure through such actions as removing, relocating and redesigning roads or utilities; re-grading and revegetating eroding banks and buffers; and acquiring land necessary to maintain public access. What’s more, OSCAR funds could have been used as match to leverage federal funding opportunities, likely doubling or tripling the power of the fund. Several cities and towns passed resolutions in support of OSCAR, including: Cranston, East Providence, Barrington, South Kingstown, Westerly, Charlestown, and Portsmouth.
Save The Bay thanks the bills’ sponsors, Rep. Shelby Maldonado (D-Central Falls) and Sen. Erin Lynch Prata (D-Warwick/Cranston), as well as several other members of the General Assembly, for their hard work in support of this legislation. While we didn’t achieve the goal of passing OSCAR this session, we did gain traction in General Assembly. And, in true Save The Bay form, we will try again next year. Climate change isn’t going away, and neither is the need for OSCAR.
Another top priority for us this year was a strong statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. Save The Bay participated in Gov. Raimondo’s Task Force to Tackle Plastics and supported the legislation that came out of that task force (H. 5671 / S. 410). The Senate version bill was eventually amended to match 14 local ordinances already in place, as these were considered slightly stronger in their definition of a reusable bag. The House version was also amended to remove a proposed fee on paper bags, but contained a weaker definition of reusable bag. While the entire environmental community supported the “stitched handle” requirement for reusable bags in the Senate bill, the two chambers were ultimately unable to reach consensus and got nothing passed. Save The Bay will continue to support local efforts to reduce plastic pollution; we hope that progress can be made on this issue in 2020.
Solar Siting and Forest Protection
A third top priority was establishing statewide solar siting guidelines that would protect the watershed’s most environmentally sensitive areas. Unchecked large-scale solar power development threatens forests and natural areas throughout the Narragansett Bay watershed. We support statewide solar siting rules that direct solar development to already disturbed areas, such as landfills and brownfields, while avoiding forests and environmentally-sensitive areas. Save The Bay strongly supports clean energy when it is responsibly sited; we need to ensure that expansion of solar power doesn’t come at the expense of our forests, which are critically important to the health of the Narragansett Bay watershed. Legislation to establish solar siting guidelines (S. 661 /H. 5789) did not pass this year, but we will work with legislative leaders and our allies to renew this effort next session.
The Budget & Environmental Enforcement Staffing
Save The Bay also keeps a watchful eye on the state budget, particularly funding and staffing levels for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), two agencies that play a critical role in protecting and improving the Bay. DEM has suffered significant and steady staffing cuts over the past 20 years, and this year’s budget continued that trend with the decrease of yet another DEM full-time equivalent position. Both DEM and CRMC need more staff and funding to process permits, conduct inspections and enforce environmental laws. Save The Bay will continue to press for more resources for the state’s environmental agencies.
Several bills made minor changes (and rollbacks) to existing laws, including the cesspool phase-out law. You may remember that Save The Bay led the years-long fight to phase out Rhode Island’s remaining cessools, a key contributor of bacterial pollutants in our waters. The revised law allows DEM to extend the deadline by which property owners must replace their cesspools with either a septic system or sewer hookup. Such extensions could be granted only if connection to municipal sewage treatment—the preferred environmental option—is imminent. We will work with DEM to ensure that extensions are granted only when it would serve the environment and public health.
Looking forward to the 2020 legislative session, Save The Bay will work to find new and better ways to engage our supporters in our advocacy work. We launched a new online advocacy tool this year, called VoterVoice, that makes it easier for our members to connect with their elected officials. Ultimately, legislators act on the issues that they hear about from their constituents. The next time you see your state representative or senator, be sure to ask them what they did this year to protect and improve Narragansett Bay and urge them to do more in the future. Save The Bay’s political strength lies in YOU, the people who support our work, so please continue to make your voice heard in whatever way you can.