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By Emily Greenhalgh
PBN Web Editor
PROVIDENCE – Collaboration, perspective and planning were the watchwords at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce’s 2013 Legislative Luncheon, where more than 650 people gathered at the R.I. Convention Center on Wednesday to hear the state’s legislators discuss economic development, tax policy and the state’s business climate.
Sponsored by Twin River Casino, the luncheon included opening remarks by Chamber Chair Jon Duffy and Chamber President Laurie White, who also acted as moderator of the panel. The panel included House Speaker Gordon D. Fox, D-Providence, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, Reps. Nicholas A. Mattiello, D-Cranston, and Brian C. Newberry, R-North Smithfield, and Sens. Dominick J. Ruggerio, D-Providence, and Dennis L. Algiere, R-Westerly.
In his opening remarks, Duffy talked about the myriad challenges facing the upcoming legislative session, including improving the state’s economic climate, tax policies and workforce as well as competing with neighboring states.
“Some [initiatives] will work, others may not, but in the end we're all talking about new ways to stimulate growth,” said Duffy. “I think we have learned that participation and collaboration can yield great results.”
In turn, all of the panel members mentioned the need for across-the-aisle collaboration within the General Assembly, as well as with the governor and the local business community to help drive Rhode Island economy forward.
“We do recognize that we’ve been in a crisis,” said Fox, adding that the important part is recognizing “an opportunity that the crisis presents.”
“We are working together. We know the issues. We know you want bold actions, but a lot of this stuff is going to be like removing barnacles,” said Fox, adding that the progress was going to be slow and arduous, but change would happen.
More than just working together, the panel members insisted it was important to look at the big picture, both within the state and nationally. “We can’t keep living in our own little world,” said Paiva Weed. “We need to step out of ourselves and out of our little issues and look at the broader-based picture.”
Part of looking outside our walls was investigating the corporate tax rate, said Mattiello, the House majority leader. “I stand firm that we need a competitive business environment in Rhode Island,” he said, adding that the tax code was something that “we need to seriously look at.”
“Being such a small state, you have to be competitive with your neighbors,” said Mattiello. “Let’s maintain our competitiveness with our neighbors, let’s hold the rates where they are, and let’s maintain the predictability for our businesses,” he added.
Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee’s budget, which was viewed “favorably” according to Mattiello, including cutting the corporate tax rate from 9 percent to 7 percent, but altering the credits some companies get for doing business in Rhode Island.
White asked if it was time to consider a revised version of the Jobs Development Act, to which Paiva Weed responded it was too early to make that assessment.
“Some of our signature employers rely on the JDA, it keeps them in Rhode Island,” said Mattiello. “You don’t want to lower the [corporate tax rate] and cut the credits and then lose big employers that provide high-paying jobs.”
“How do we make sure that businesses here are incentivized to stay in Rhode Island, but also send messages to the outside world that we are open for business and want you to come to Rhode Island?” said Paiva Weed.
Regulatory reform is “not a sexy thing, it’s about getting down to the nitty-gritty,” said Fox.
Algiere, the Senate minority leader, added that the goal is to retain business and figure out what investment credits are working and which ones are not working. “If they’re not working and we’re getting no return on investment, then get rid of it,” he said. “We have to be bold and our objective is growth,” said Algeire.
The panel also touched on historic tax credits and the potential combined Rhode Island College and University of Rhode Island nursing center, as well as redefining education from K-12 to Pre-K through lifetime learning, which would focus more emphasis on workforce development and closing the skills gap.
The nursing center, which was referred to as a “health sciences facility,” was making forward momentum, according to Paiva Weed. “We’ve never jumped from an idea to a vision,” she said, adding that the next steps included indentifying stakeholders and creating a task force to investigate economic feasibility, impact on local colleges and other factors that people have voiced concerns about.
Developing an overall plan, both within the government and within the business community was important for everything in the upcoming session, said Paiva Weed and Fox. Fox added that a plan “forces us as a state to look at where we want our economy to go, to look at our resources.”
“I like the idea of a plan, I like the idea of process, I like the idea of bringing people together,” added Fox, who pointed to recommendations to a recent report by the R.I. Public Expenditure Council.
“We have an opportunity in the months ahead to actually dramatically change Rhode Island’s direction by changing a lot of the key smaller things,” said Paiva Weed in her closing remarks, adding that “there are a number of pieces of legislation coming out this year that I think will help move Rhode Island forward. We can have an optimistic future.”