By FRANK CARINI
The Rhode Island Statehouse isn't very friendly when it comes to the environment. Sure, the vast majority of those who walk the building’s marbled corridors, the lobbyists who write bills and the elected officials who approve them, like green, just not the shades found in forests, wetlands and open space.
The government’s environmental successes are largely accomplished by voters spurred on by nongovernmental organizations. For reasons financial, most of the work needed to ensure our air is clean, our water drinkable and our soil isn’t dirt requires people to donate money and volunteer time to nonprofits and causes that protect those pillars of life. Lawmakers and their appointed bureaucrats then use the passing of green bonds to say, “See what we are doing to protect the environment.”
Taxpayers and voters, don’t be fooled.
In 2016, Rhode Island voters, by a vote of 68 percent to 32 percent, approved $35 million in green economy bonds. Of that voter-approved spending, $4 million was earmarked for improvements and upkeep to state properties, including Fort Adams State Park, Brenton Point, Colt State Park and Goddard Memorial State Park.
Another $5 million was earmarked for cleaning up former industrial and commercial sites — problems created by negligent business/property owners and apathetic officials. Another $3 million was earmarked to help reduce stormwater pollution that contributes to beach and shellfish closures and contaminates waters used for drinking.
The $48.5 million environmental bond Gov. Gina Raimondo has proposed for the fiscal 2019 state budget offers more of the same: $10 million to improve state park facilities and $4 million to clean up brownfields.
Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), described the governor’s green bond to Rhode Island Public Radio as a “big ticket item” that will help better state parks, bikeways, brownfields and drinking water.
Coit also said $5 million will go toward a new coastal resiliency initiative. She noted that the initiative “is intended to help communities mitigate and reduce flooding risks, promote green infrastructure and ensure, as we encounter sea level rise and flooding, that we continue to have public access to our 400 miles of coastline.”
Why does funding for sea level-rise mitigation, in the Ocean State of all places, need voter approval? We should have started properly funding such measures decades ago. Begging voters to fund drinking-water protection is a big-ticket item? Seems like it should be a funding must. Voters keep letting our elected officials off the hook when it comes to respecting the environment and public health.
What happens if voters decide this November they don’t want to pay for cleaning up a corporation's mess, fixing up crumbling state park infrastructure, or preparing for sea-level rise? Nothing, at least when it comes to protecting natural resources and public spaces. Lawmakers will continue to debate the elimination of the state car tax, push for the use of public money to build a private stadium, and shrug their collective shoulders as the state’s shoreline continues to be hardened, trees bulldozed and surfaces paved.
Rhode Island voters didn't get to decide if loaning $75 million to a former major-league pitcher to make video games was a good investment, or if giving taxpayer money to millionaires so they can build a new minor-league baseball stadium is the wisest use of public money.
Instead, Rhode Island voters get to decide if the state should fund the maintenance of public parks and the protection of its beaches, fishing areas, and drinking-water supplies. Shouldn’t those items be expenditures covered in every fiscal budget? Shouldn’t the business owners and look-the-other-way state and local officials who allowed the poisoning of our collective environment be held responsible for the clean up? After all, we live in a capitalist society, not a socialist one.
Voters should be deciding whether to fund video games and ballparks with public money. The role of Rhode Island voters and elected officials needs to be reversed. That won’t happen, in large part, because the environment and public health, despite tough talk and campaign promises, aren’t a priority. Elected officials continue to shirk their responsibility to provide better parks and cleaner air by leaving those funding decisions up to voters and cheerleading organizations. These important quality-of-life items and in-the-best-interests-of-the-public issues don't garner campaign contributions or promise a well-paying job in the private sector.
Here's a recent example of the Statehouse's commitment to undervaluing the environment and public health: Gov. Raimondo, according to Rhode Island Public Radio, is proposing to slash funding from an air-quality improvement program that hasn’t even gotten started.
The Clean Diesel Program, passed during the 2016 legislative session, is intended to provide grants to municipalities and companies to replace diesel trucks with more fuel-efficient and less-polluting vehicles. The governor’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget would cut the program’s funding from $1 million to $250,000.
Coit told RIPR the cuts are needed to help close a projected $60 million state deficit.
“Given all the choices that we had to make, not going forward with a new program was a better choice than cutting existing programs,” Coit said.
There's one item in the state budget that could certainly afford a pay cut: the amount of money spent on press secretaries, communications directors, videographers and social-media gurus. As of last September, there were at least 73 public-relations staffers on the state government and college payroll, earning a combined $5.4 million, according to a recent Providence Journal story.
Funding for the Clean Diesel Program would be eliminated completely for fiscal 2019, to help close a projected state shortfall of $204 million.
Posted on the DEM website is a link to a presentation that notes, “Reducing emissions from diesel engines is one of the most important air quality challenges facing the country.” Other DEM documentation notes that exposure to elevated levels of diesel particulate matter has been linked to a variety of health effects, including respiratory symptoms, chronic bronchitis, aggravation of asthma, increased respiratory and cardiovascular-related hospital admissions and emergency room visits, and premature death.
Posted on the URI website is a DEM report noting the importance of reducing diesel emissions. In fact, diesel exhaust is listed as one of the most significant cancer-causing air pollutants in each of New England’s six states.
Perhaps Rhode Island voters will get the chance one day to approve funding for a Clean Diesel Program. It’s apparent the program isn't a priority in the governor's office.
Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.