New Plan Calls for Environment to be 'Pro-Business'

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Environmental groups are troubled by a proposal from a business advocacy group to radically shift state offices and departments.

In a plan called “Systematic Restructuring,” the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) subjugates the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and most other agencies under the supervision of business-focused committees.

The DEM, in particular, would be overseen by a secretary of commerce as well as an executive of commerce.

Environmental groups say the proposal is the result of a “pro-business” movement that perceives state regulations and environmental rules as impediments to economic growth.

“I’m not happy,” Tricia Jedele, president of the Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI), said during the group’s recent monthly meeting.

Jedele said the project appears to have been “done in a vacuum” without input from environmental groups or even state agencies. She said calls to the governor’s office haven't been returned.

“I’m in shock the report came out. It’s a left hook,” said Jamie Rhodes, director of Clean Water Action’s Rhode Island office.

ECRI members were incredulous that Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a self-proclaimed advocate for the environment, could endorse the idea. “Isn’t this a reaction to the Curt Shilling thing and debacle at the (Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation)?” said Eugenia Marks of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

ECRI plans to write a letter of protest to the plan, contingent on the backing of it 60 member groups and individuals.

The action by RIPEC seems to fall within its stated goals. In it mission statement, RIPEC, a nonprofit advocacy group, states that it intends "to improve government agencies, assist elected officials and staff in sound policies and programs” and “promotes a public policy agenda to foster a climate for economic opportunity.

Its board of directors is made up of top management and administrators at Rhode Island businesses and universities. Amica CEO Robert DiMuccio serves as president. He states in an online letter that the "RIPEC board of directors believes that it is time for Rhode Island to take the necessary steps towards fundamental and transformative, yet compassionate and affordable change in the funding, provision and delivery of state and local services.

RIPEC said its Sept. 25 proposal (pdf) was developed after Chafee asked for an analysis of the troubled Economic Development Corporation (EDC). RIPEC said it used the request to take a “broader look” at economic issues in the state. In the plan, the departments of transportation and education would serve under a new Commerce Coordinating Council. RIPEC also proposes a “customer-centric approach” that advocates for outside groups to manage state loan programs, which may include the EDC’s Renewable Energy Fund.

RIPEC is already moving ahead with engaging the state legislature to advance the project. A committee overseeing some of the changes would include “a broad coalition of stakeholders,” according to the report.