Governor's Budget Includes Environmental Support

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposed fiscal 2017 budget increases efforts to go after polluters and expands options for renewable energy. It also provides funding for bike paths, and calls for a bond referendum to protect open space.

Here are some highlights from the proposed $8.96 billion spending plan:

Environmental enforcement
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) would receive $208,000 to hire a new lawyer and environmental scientist. DEM’s legal and enforcement efforts have steadily shed jobs during the past 20 years, hindering decisive legal action against polluters.

The new scientist position would pay $52,000. The job seeks to improve the response to reports of rules violations and enforce new provisions of the wetlands and cesspool laws.

The senior legal council position would pay $69,000. The job would pursue litigation to induce compliance and improve payment of fines and penalties.

No new funding or jobs for enforcement of coastal violations were proposed for the Coastal Resources Management Council. An additional $3.1 million in federal funds will be used for salt-marsh restoration and repairing wildlife refuges damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Climate change
The Coastal Institute at the University of Rhode Island would receive $100,000 to help municipalities prepare for climate-change impacts such as sea-level rise and flooding. The money is expected to help the institute raise larger sums in upcoming years.

Raimondo also is expected to launch a comprehensive climate-change action plan in the coming weeks.

Bond referendum
The $35 million Recreation, Green Spaces and Healthy Communities bond would allocate funding as follows:

• Brownfields: $5 million for cleanup and redevelopment.
• Bicycling: $10 million for state bike paths, such as the Blackstone River Bikeway and the South County Bikeway.
• State parks: $7 million for historic state park development at Fort Adams State Park, Brenton Point, Colt State Park and Goddard State Park.
• Open space: $4 million for state open space and farmland acquisition, and $4 million for local open space acquisition.
• Runoff: $3 million for stormwater prevention matching grants.
• Recreation: $2 million for local recreation development matching grants.

Renewable energy
There are three main renewable energy initiatives in the budget:

Extend the state Renewable Energy Fund (REF) until 2022. The fund provides grants and loans for small and commercial-scale renewable-energy projects, as well as studies for brownfield solar projects, anaerobic digesters and hydroelectric projects. Utility customers finance the REF through the system-benefit charge on their electric bills. Power plants also pay into the REF through renewable-energy compliance payments.

Proposed changes to the state’s net-metering rules would allow solar leasing, which is legal in 26 states, including Massachusetts. A second proposed amendment to the net-metering laws would permit retail and commercial electricity customers to assign solar-energy credits using a practice called virtual net metering. Virtual net metering is currently permitted by municipalities, state quasi-agencies and the Providence water supply department. The practice allows for shared solar projects. Renters and electric customers lacking funds, with a roof or adequate space for solar, can buy into renewable projects.

The governor also supports a bill that would exempt renewable-energy projects that use net metering from local taxation.

Agriculture and seafood
The Division of Agriculture would receive about $150,000 for new sustainable food, farming and fishing projects under the Local Agriculture and Seafood Act grants program.

Lighting, medians and street furniture in business districts would be improved with $1 million for the Main Street Rhode Island Streetscape program.

The proposed budget includes $187,000 for a lead surveillance system and certified lead centers, which would provide non-medical case management to children.

The House Finance Committee will hold public hearings on segments of the budget in the coming weeks and months.