Government

Rhode Island House Members’ Proposed $13.6 Billion Budget Fails to Fund EC4

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The House budget does include a one-year pilot program that would offer free bus service on RIPTA’s popular R-Line. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — The agency that is taking the lead on the state’s climate-change response will have to go another year without a budget, after House lawmakers failed to include funding for the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Committee (EC4) in their spending plan.

House members unveiled their version of a $13.6 billion state budget last week.

Gov. Dan McKee’s budget proposal in January suggested “scooping” $6 million annually from state energy-efficiency money to fund the committee, which operates without funding and relies on a single staff member on loan from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. While the move from the governor was not popular among local environmental groups, the House did not provide an alternative method of funding the EC4.

“The ratepayers scoop of energy-efficiency funds has been removed, which is a good thing, we advocated for that,” said Hank Webster, Rhode Island director of the Acadia Center. “However, we also advocated for policymakers to find another way to fund the EC4’s activities.”

DEM director and EC4 chairman Terry Gray told ecoRI earlier this year that the greater impact would come from the committee having no operating budget. “From my standpoint as the EC4 chair, we need money to implement the Act on Climate,” he said. “The source of the money can be debated, and where it comes from is I think secondary to the fact that we get some kind of investment in the EC4 to make the work happen.”

Still, the fiscal 2023 budget indicates lawmakers are ready to spend money and resources on environmental management. DEM is slated to receive 16 new full-time positions under the House version of the budget, as opposed to the nine it requested earlier this year. At least six of those new hires would be in the department’s permitting and compliance offices, areas in which staffing for years has been seen by outside observers as insufficient.

The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) would receive $150,000 to hire a full-time hearing officer, an attorney, to adjudicate contested decisions by its voting body. McKee had proposed $15,000 for a part-time hearing officer. Hiring a full-time hearing officer was one of the short-term recommendations from a special legislative commission created to study CRMC reorganization.

Lawmakers are also giving $4 million to the Ocean State Climate Adaptation and Resilience (OSCAR) Fund. The fund was created last year by the General Assembly, but at the last minute its funding mechanism — charging a nickel per barrel of oil and petroleum products imported into the state — was stripped from the bill.

“It’s really great news, we’ve been advocating for OSCAR for five years,” said Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy and policy for Save The Bay.

OSCAR awards grants to municipalities to improve climate resiliency by using and improving “natural” features: resizing culverts or restoring floodplains and saltwater marshes, for example. The program is in addition to Municipal Resilience Program grants administered by the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank.

The House Finance Committee also recommended $25 million from State Fiscal Recovery funds for an electric heat pump incentive program, designed to help low- and moderate-income households buy and install electric heating systems to replace heating oil or natural gas systems. Residential heating accounts for 18.3% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Rhode Island.

Starting in September, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) will run a one-year pilot program with free bus service on the R-Line, a popular route starting at Broad Street in South Providence and running to the Pawtucket Transit Center on Roosevelt Avenue. RIPTA will be mandated to track ridership data and submit a report to the Legislature by March 2024 for further evaluation of the program. Sen. Meghan Kallman, D-Pawtucket, and Rep. Leonela Felix, D-Pawtucket, had introduced legislation this session to make all RIPTA bus routes free. The bill was held for further study.

The budget is far from final. Lawmakers’ version of the budget is scheduled for a full vote of the House on Thursday afternoon, and legislators may still make changes on the floor.

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