Town’s legislation facing challenges

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 6:15pm

Two pieces of state legislation the Town of New Shoreham is pushing in the Rhode Island General Assembly were heard on April 11 and are facing challenges. Both are currently being held for further study. One bill is on the economic requirements for affordable housing, and the other bill would give the town  “exclusive power” to regulate Uber-type services from operating here. That latter bill has appeared to stall altogether.

Town Manager Ed Roberge told The Times that challenges associated with both pieces of legislation were evident during the hearings. Roberge said there was good discussion involving legislation aimed at increasing the affordable housing pool on Block Island, but there are concerns about setting a statewide precedent. As for the anti-Uber legislation, Roberge said that legislation is once again languishing.

Despite that, State Rep. Blake Filippi, who sponsored the bills, said, “These bills have a shot at moving forward. They have  a chance. I don’t want to give anyone false hope, but I also don’t want people feeling there isn’t a chance for passage.” Filippi said the process moving forward is going to involve speaking with Nicholas Mattiello, the Speaker of the House, over the next few months. “The dynamics in the General Assembly are favorable. It’s a give and take up there.” 

Filippi told The Times he was unable to attend the hearings due to a work conflict. He works as an attorney, and had to attend the closing of a client’s business transaction. Filippi said he checked in with House Committee Chair Joseph Solomon to stress how important the legislation was to Block Island.

Roberge said he attended the April 11 hearing regarding affordable housing in both the Senate and the House along with Housing Board Chair Cindy Pappas. Sen. Susan Sosnowski joined them for the hearing in the Senate. The legislation passed in the Senate in 2018, but it did not pass in the House at that time.

“We had a good interactive conversation” in the Senate, said Roberge of bill S0452, which is intended to expand the affordable housing pool on Block Island by allowing residents who earn up to 140 percent of area median income to qualify. The current legislation allows up to 120 percent of median income to qualify. “I thought the communication was robust, and it gave us the opportunity to speak on behalf of the bill.”

However, Roberge said it was a different story in the House, where Filippi, who sponsored bill H5451, was not in attendance. He said the main concern from Shelby Maldonado, Second Vice Chair of the House Committee on Municipal Government, was that the legislation could be precedent setting statewide, meaning other cities and towns would want to raise their percentage of median income as well.

“I think she was not receptive to increasing it to 140 percent,” said Roberge, who noted that passage of the legislation could “migrate statewide,” and lead to “unintended consequences.”

Roberge and Pappas testified that Block Island was “unique,” and should be held to a different standard due to the island’s economics. 

Roberge said “things went well.” He intends to follow up with Maldonado, and Filippi regarding the legislation.

Self-regulation legislation

The anti-Uber legislation the town is pushing has stalled in the House the past two years. The town, backed by its Commission on Motor Vehicles for Hire, an advisory committee, is seeking exemption from the Rhode Island legislation that passed in April of 2016, opening the door for Uber-type services to operate anywhere in the state under the regulation of the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers.

With the passage of its legislation, the town would regulate Uber-type ride sharing services on the island. Block Island currently has 32 licensed taxicab operators, and a taxi ordinance regulating its transportation services that has been in place since 1929.

Filippi reintroduced the bill, known as H5450, in the House on Feb. 14, and it was heard on April 11. It is presently being held for further study. The bill has not come to a vote since first being introduced in the House in 2017. Similar legislation was heard in the Senate, and unanimously passed on April 10, 2018. It was reintroduced on Feb. 27, 2019, when it was referred to the Senate Commerce Committee for study, where it now resides.

Roberge said Filippi was not in attendance at the April 11 hearing, but four of the island’s taxicab owners were and “the committee gave them ample time to testify.” The owners who attended are: Judy Clark, Sue Millikin, Fred Leeder and James Rondinone.

Roberge said the taxicab owners testified that since the town has regulated the business for 88 years there is no need for a change in policy. “It’s a valid point,” said Roberge, who was not optimistic about the legislation. Roberge said he would be communicating with Filippi to discuss the legislation’s status.

Roberge said, “No representatives from Uber or Lyft were in attendance,” but he noted that their lobbyists could have been at the hearing.

First Warden Ken Lacoste said that maybe a letter writing campaign could be influential “in getting it over the hump.”  

Lacoste said he didn’t know if either piece of legislation would “make it out of committee. A lot of it depends on the leadership,” he said, referring to the leaders of the General Assembly.