Climate Change Council, Blue Economy to See Funding Boosts Under McKee’s Proposed Budget
January 21, 2023
PROVIDENCE — State officials are taking another swing this year at fully funding Rhode Island’s climate council.
Under the budget proposal released by Gov. Dan McKee on Jan. 19, the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) would receive $4.5 million for staffing and operations. The EC4, despite being designated the lead agency on state climate change response, has been unfunded since its inception in 2014.
Budget officials said the allocation would be budget-neutral; funding for the EC4 would be “scooped” from proceeds of the utility systems benefit charge, a fee on ratepayers that goes toward energy-efficiency programs.
The funding is identical to what was proposed by the McKee administration last year. Environmental groups criticized taking the money from other state programs and advocated finding another funding mechanism. The General Assembly ultimately stripped the allocation from the budget and chose not to fund the EC4.
Last year, director of the Department of Environmental Management and EC4 chair Terry Gray defended the governor’s choice to “scoop” funds from one program to another.
“From my standpoint as the EC4 chair, we need money to implement the Act on Climate,” Gray told ecoRI News in 2022. “The source of money can be debated, and where it comes from, I think, is secondary to the fact that we get some kind of investment in the EC4 to make the work happen.”
The EC4 currently only has a single staff member dedicated to its work.
DEM is slated to hire eight new full-time equivalent (FTE) positions under the governor’s budget proposal, all of them related to work done via federal grants awarded to the agency. The proposal continues the trend of aggressive hiring in the department from the past few years: in 2021 the agency had 394 full-time employees. If the new positions are approved by the Legislature this year, it would bring the DEM workforce to 425.
Meanwhile, the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), which manages the state’s hundreds of miles of coastline and coastal waters, will receive no additional staff under the governor’s budget proposal, remaining at 32 full-time employees.
The blue economy is expected to get a big boost under the governor’s budget. State officials proposed using big chunks of federal COVID dollars given to states during the pandemic to invest in economic projects: $45 million in bioscience investments, including developing a wet lab incubator; and $25 million for continued development in the South Quay Project.
State officials are hoping to transform the South Quay in East Providence, next to Bold Point Park, into an offshore wind development port. The Providence River is currently being dredged in support of the project, where dredged material from the bottom of the river will be used as fill material.
The Clean Water State Revolving Fund would also receive federal COVID dollars under the governor’s budget. The governor recommended an increase of $28.5 million to the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, which runs the funds, to unlock state matches through 2028.
McKee has also proposed abolishing the often-misused litter tax. The tax, totaling less than $1 million in collection last year, was designed to support litter cleanup projects, but budget officials noted the money is rarely used that way. In its place the governor wants to allocate $100,000 for a Litter-Free Rhody campaign.
The McKee administration has also recommended a pair of statutory changes to the state’s paint and mattress recycling programs, opening them to a competitive process for selecting the organizations that run the programs. Other changes would allow for a process of transferring excess money, a cap on administrative expenses, and an allowance for reserve funds. The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation would operate the programs as a last resort.
Local Agriculture and Seafood Act (LASA) grants would receive an increase of $500,000 for the second year in a row. The grants provide money for small and new agriculture and aquaculture producers.
The governor has also designated $100,000 from DEM to Rhode Island’s only wildlife clinic. Last year the clinic was in danger of closing after its full-time volunteer veterinarian retired. This year’s allocation is identical to the one made by the General Assembly last year.
The governor’s budget has a long road until it is passed into law, and legislative leaders will likely have their own ideas on what environmental priorities to fund in next fiscal budget.
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