Advocacy Groups Urge Public to Help Save Environmental Funding in Rhode Island Budget

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — As the days and hours run out on this year’s General Assembly session, environmental groups are urging the public to reach out to lawmakers to support or oppose legislation and restore key funding.

Energy efficiency. Some 20 environmental groups are imploring their supporters to contact their members of the House ahead of its marathon budget vote scheduled for June 22 and ask them to restore $12.5 million to Rhode Island's energy-efficiency program. The funds aren't taxpayer-generated money, nevertheless, the Finance Committee decided to transfer the cash to the General Fund.

Gas and electric customers pay for energy-efficiency programs when they pay their utility bills. The money is used for energy audits, weatherization and equipment improvements for homes and businesses. The state's energy-efficiency program is considered a major success, ranking fourth in the nation for cutting energy use, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, saving ratepayers money, and creating more than 9,000 jobs.

In a letter, the coalition asks legislators not to defund a flourishing program. “A cut of $12.5 million from our state’s ratepayer-funded energy efficiency programs will hinder growth and significantly impact savings for residents and businesses. Energy efficiency is Rhode Island's 'first fuel’ and its lowest-cost energy resource.”

Save The Bay wants the House to add two jobs proposed in Gov. Gina Raimondo's budget that would focus on cleaning Narragansett Bay through the state Water Resources Program.

The environmental group also wants the House to restore $5 million “scooped” from the Narragansett Bay Commission to the General Fund. Save The Bay warns that the loss of funds jeopardizes water pollution clean-up programs run by the state’s largest wastewater treatment facility.

Environmental infrastructure. Environmentalists want $1 million transferred back to the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank. The funds can be leveraged for $5 million toward programs that finance septic-system improvements and renewable-energy projects.

Farm events. The Rhode Island Land Trust Council is calling for opposition to a bill (H6172) that requires cities and towns to allow weddings, festivals and retail sales on farms. Land trusts worry that the legislation allows this new class of “secondary agricultural operations” to trump local planning and zoning boards. These events can't be denied and only regulated by municipalities.

The Land Trust Council and the Rhode Island Farm Bureau say business interests crafted the bill without input from farmers. They don’t like that small hay fields and pasture land fall under the new rule.

The legislation changes the Right to Farm law, which is intended to shield traditional farming activities from leading to lawsuits over dust, odors and noise from tractors. They say some farmers will be compelled to embrace these events and erode public trust in the integrity of protecting traditional farmland.

“This will happen if people feel that farms are just becoming venues for concerts, festivals and other events and not producing crops," according to the Land Trust Council.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Gregory Constantino, D-Lincoln, has, so far, only had a House committee hearing and no future hearings have been scheduled.