RIPEC Proposes Business Oversight of DEM

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC), a nonprofit business advocacy group, is unapologetic about its stance that the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) hampers business interests. RIPEC’s executive director John Simmons said local business leaders have sent the message that several state agencies, most notably the DEM, are an “impediment or stoppage to economic development in the state.”

To fix that problem, RIPEC delivered a proposal (pdf) to Gov. Lincoln Chafee to reorganize the DEM under a new Executive Office of Commerce. The study released by RIPEC on Sept. 25 proposes three new pro-business entities to oversee seven state agencies. A new secretary of commerce would also serve within the governor’s office.

Simmons insisted that none of the existing environmental regulations would be altered under the plan. The intent, he said, is to instill “a balanced approach” between economic and environmental interests. One goal, he said, is to create a single application for business permits that are required from several state agencies.

The business community, Simmons said, has told him that the DEM is “the agency that has been the biggest impediment to commerce in this state.”

On Oct. 11, the Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI), a consortium of 60 state environmental groups, released its opposition to the proposal.

“Environmental protection is the lynchpin to any robust and sustainable economy. Too often it is perceived as an impediment to economic growth, but this perception is not fact,” according to ECRI.

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) also opposes RIPEC’s plan, saying that unregulated development in sensitive habitats such as wetlands and waterfront leads to “significant price tags,” costs that Matunuck Beach and Pawtuxet Valley are currently paying.

As a policy matter, housing our environmental management agencies under a so-called Commerce Department sends the wrong message at a time when we need to be communicating a much clearer message about the connection between our natural resources and the health of our economy,” said Tricia Jedele, head of CLF’s Rhode Island office.

The RIPEC restructuring plan must first receive approval from Chafee. The General Assembly must also sanction the restructuring. Simmons said legislation will be introduced when the Legislature convenes in January.