RhodeMap Future Still Unclear Even After Approval

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Opponents of the new state economic development plan delivered a chorus of catcalls, murmurs and shouts of “socialism” during a decisive vote Dec. 11. One guy even gave Nazi salutes, and another greeted the State Planning Council in Russian.

Throughout the meeting that resulted in a unanimous decision to adopt the non-binding RhodeMap RI economic plan, critics derided members of the State Planning Council. They were called “cowards” and accused of treason as they explained that the plan is based on sound research and public input and didn't authorize land takings, social engineering or a takeover by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

There also was clear frustration among board members by the outpouring of objections from conservative groups and their supporters in recent weeks. The opposition was strong enough to convince Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello to delay the vote for three weeks, while during that time eight town councils and other groups joined in opposition to the plan.

Jan Reitsma, a State Planning Council member and aide to Gov. Lincoln Chafee, described the pushback as “vicious attacks.”  

Much of the scorn was directed at RhodeMap RI’s Social Equity Advisory Committee, a subcommittee that called for greater inclusion of minority groups in the state workforce and more affordable housing. The concepts unleashed a wave of criticism on a broad range of issues during an hour of public comments before the recent vote by the State Planning Council.

“Social equity is a big steaming lie,” Dan Tirado of Cumberland said. “Let’s not forget that Obamacare was shoved down our throats for the same reason.”

North Kingstown resident Diane Slater received applause for attacking welfare and housing. “The people who live in government-subsidized housing don’t contribute to the tax base,” she said. “And yet (it is) their children who we educate in our school systems. And, by the way, the state of Rhode Island is the only one where you can come and apply for welfare 24 hours after you get here and you get it."

Chafee, however, praised the plan for including elements that are helping the economy grow. “We’re on the road to recovery and it’s all because of inclusion,” he said.

RhodeMap RI supporters repeated that the plan is not a law nor does it force municipalities to cede power. Kevin Flynn, the associate director of the Division of Planning, downplayed the role of the social equity committee, saying it has an advisory role and no decision-making authority.  

Janet Coit, director of the state Department of Environmental Management and member of the State Planning Council, outlined why the plan helps the environment and promotes jobs and industries such as fishing and agriculture that rely on healthy natural habitats.

“It’s the first time we’ve really seen our state beaches and our natural resources highlighted as the assets that they are,” she said.

After the council's unanimous morning vote to approve RhodeMap RI, Mike Stenhouse, head of the conservative advocacy group Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity that whipped up much of the opposition to the plan, told ecoRI News that he agrees with many of the environmental goals and other aspects of the new state plan, but said he wants a new plan directed by economists and businesses experts — not government planners.

“But the more important point is those good ideas will be overwhelming crushed by the negative impacts if property taxes get raised and HUD mandates get imposed on municipalities," he said. "(The goals) are small potatoes compared to the big negatives.”

Stenhouse’s rhetoric was much harsher prior to the vote, when he held a rally and press conference in the lobby of the Department of Administration. At his rally, he promised to make conditions “politically toxic” for politicians in the General Assembly who support RhodeMap RI.

It didn’t take long for lawmakers to act. Not long after the State Planning Council vote, Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, D-Coventry, said he planned to introduce legislation in January exempting his district from RhodeMap RI recommendations.

Stenhouse, for his part, issued a statement that afternoon criticizing the advocacy group Grow Smart Rhode Island, a member of the State Planning Council, for receiving funding from the state and from the Rhode Island Foundation, one of the principal advocates for RhodeMap RI. Stenhouse called the plan “38 Studios-style cronyism.”

In the past, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has been scrutinized for not revealing it’s funding sources. Prior to his rally, Stenhouse told ecoRI News his organization never accepts public money.

“It ranges from small-donor individuals, high-donor individuals, a few grants we get occasionally from national foundations, but it’s all privately done and we work very hard at it," he said.

Anonymous funding was necessary “to protect recrimination” against donors, he said. The vast majority of money for the center comes from local individuals, he noted. He refuted any financial link to outside big-business advocacy groups, such as those run by the Koch brothers or any of their associated political action groups.

“We never look to advance anybody else’s agenda," Stenhouse said. "Our agenda is determined by our board and our staff and nobody else. If you want to talk about outside agendas, it’s not us. It’s RhodeMap Rhode Island that’s following a national agenda. And HUD is funding it and will fund more of it.”

Before it wraps up in spring 2015, RhodeMap RI must go through a similar public vetting for a statewide housing plan, as well as complete a technical paper on growth centers.

As for the General Assembly adopting RhodeMap RI recommendations, that seems doubtful. Matiello said in a statement to the Providence Journal that RhodeMap RI goes “far beyond” the scope of economic development.  

Gov.-elect Gina Raimondo did not respond to a request for comment.