New House Speaker and Fate of Environmental Bills

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Environmentalists championed a slate of priority bills at the Statehouse last week. Does a new House speaker and leadership pose a threat to these and other environmental legislation?

The six priority bills put forth by the Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI), an organization that represents most environmental groups in the state, advance a number of green issues.

Resilient Rhode Island Act (H7904) caps greenhouse gas emissions and establish infrastructure for climate-change adaptation.

Food Scrap & Compost Management (H7033, S2315) creates a statewide organic diversion program to recycle or compost food scraps.

Bag Ban (H7178, S2314) prohibit single-use plastic bags from checkout counters in retail establishments.

Renewable Energy Tax Credit (H7083, S2213) restores a 25 percent state tax credit for residential renewable-energy projects.

Distributed Generation Program Extension (H7727, S2690) reserves a larger allotment of electricity for the fixed-rate sale of power to National Grid from large renewable-energy projects.

Open Space, Clean Water & Healthy Communities Bond (Article 5, Question 4 of governor’s budget). Voters will be asked in November to approve a $75 million ballot question for clean water, green infrastructure and environmental projects.

There are plenty of additional environmental and agricultural bills, such as a GMO labeling law and a ban on cesspools. But the change of Speaker of the House — often referred to as the most powerful political position in the state — House leadership and the reshuffling of several committees changes Rhode Island's political landscape.

Bob Plain, editor of RI Future, describes the switch from Rep. Gordon Fox, D-Providence, to Rep. Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, as a shift from a conservative Democrat to a more conservative Democrat.

“Mattiello, a Cranston lawmaker, is one of the more conservative members of the House, a legislative chamber dominated by fiscal conservatives and social moderates whose party affiliation often belies their political leanings,” Plain wrote in the March 23 article titled “Anybody but Mattiello.”

Mattiello didn't respond to a request for an interview.

The fate of legislation is largely determined by the nonpublic discussions between the House speaker and the House leadership team. However, the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources certainly has a say on what bills advance to House leadership.

Three members of the committee holding seats during Fox’s leadership were removed after Mattiello took over as speaker: Maria Cimini, D-Providence; Teresa Tanzi, D-South Kingstown; and Larry Valencia, D-Richmond. All voted “abstained” during the House vote that elected Mattiello.

Rep. Donna Walsh, D-Charlestown, the lead sponsor of the compost bill, voted for Mattiello but lost her title of vice chairwoman on the environment committee.

All four representatives have voted consistently for environmental legislation. None expressed immediate concern that ECRI’s priority bills are in doubt. Cimini, however, was less certain about the fate of the bag ban legislation, a bill she sponsored.

“I am hopeful that with the new leadership’s focus on jobs and the economy that they look to the environment and see that protecting regulations that protect our environment is a good thing for our economy and the environment,” Cimini said.

The three new committee members — Thomas Palangio, D-Providence; Peter Palumbo, D-Crantson; and Scott Slater, D-Providence — weren't serving on the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources when many of the priority bills held hearings. Therefore, their stance on the bills is unclear. Palangio told ecoRI News he considers himself an environmentalist, especially on animal rights issues, and was inclined to support the priority bills yet wanted to review them more closely.

Local environmental leaders Abel Collins, of the Rhode Island chapter of the Sierra Club, and Channing Jones, of Environment Rhode Island, remain optimistic about legislation this year, but both said it’s too early to determine the fate of specific bills.

Jamie Rhodes, ECRI’s president and Rhode Island director of Clean Water Action, recently met with Walsh and Mattiello to discuss specific bills.

“I think the new speaker will look upon environmental legislation with the same lens he is viewing all legislation during the session: ‘What is its impact on our economy?'" Rhodes said. “Luckily for the environmental movement, most of the efforts we are working on this year pose significant benefits for the economy.”

The compost/organics-diversion bill, he said, supports new composting and digester facilities, which also benefits the local agricultural community. Other bills have similar economic benefits, he said, “and we have to trust that Speaker Mattiello will see that environmental protections and resource conservation are a couple of pieces that need to fall in place to spur sustainable growth.”

So far, Mattiello has received vocal support from groups that support deregulation and tax cuts, such as the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity. Although the new speaker ranked near the bottom of the conservative think tank’s recent 2013 Freedom Index, which grades state legislators on tax and regulatory voting records.

After recent polling, bills like the bag ban, which Environment Rhode Island has promoted heavily, has strong support in the House and Senate, as well as from the public, Jones said. “It ultimately comes down to what the people want," he said.