Civility, Honesty, Priorities, Ideas, were all topics at Filippi’s Open Forum

Residents filled the Quonnie Grange to share their concerns and ideas about state government
Residents filled the Quonnie Grange to share their concerns and ideas about state government

On Wednesday evening, November 18, State Representative Blake Filippi hosted a community meeting at the Quonochontaug Grange, on Route 1 in Charlestown. Residents were encouraged to bring their concerns and ideas about state government to this open discussion. What follows is a report of that meeting provided by those in attendance.

Representative Filippi briefly discussed both his accomplishments to date and his priorities for the coming legislative session. He then opened the floor to questions from 70 constituents, listened carefully to concerns, and dealt with each issue in a forthright manner. He dismissed no one. Topics ranged from RI’s economy, taxes, and reputation for corruption to accepting refugees from Syria, Lyme Disease, and the right to die. He consistently supported open, transparent, accountable government and seemed to make friends with any doubters.

Accomplishments: Filippi summarized his accomplishments from this past legislative session. He was a driver behind the State’s new policy to exempt Social Security Income from the state income tax – and he promised to continue to advocate for the extension of this exemption to pension benefits. Filippi also spearheaded the extraction legislation needed to give DEM the tools to bring Copar Quarries under control. He supported the elimination of the sales tax on business gas and electricity usage, and he was also a key opponent of the state-wide property tax known as the Taylor Swift” tax. He also was a strong advocate for the paving and maintenance of state roads in South County – especially on Rt. 1.

Editor’s Note: Filippi hosted a rally at Westerly’s Bradford Preserve in October 2014 and pledged to take action to fix Copar Quarries. Once elected, he sponsored numerous bills that he placed in front of various House Committees to increase awareness of the seriousness of the problems with Copar’s fugitive dust. That advocacy garnered the needed support to pass the fugitive dust bill as one of the last legislative acts in 2015. Filippi partnered with Senators Dennis Algiere and Elaine Morgan and Representatives Brian Patrick Kennedy, Sam Azzinaro and Bob Craven in these efforts.

Future Priorities: Filippi’s priorities for the coming months include support for the Ethics Commission’s oversight of the legislature and instant runoff elections to assure elected officials have the support of the majority of voters. Filippi said that voters would select first and second choices for an office and that should the top candidate receive less than 50% of the votes, the candidate at the bottom would be eliminated and his or her votes redistributed to the second choice candidates. Filippi said both Memphis and San Francisco have employed instant runoff elections successfully, as has London, England, a city of 8.9 million.

Reforming internet sales is another priority. The Amazon tax that forced large online companies to charge sales tax should they have any physical presence in the state was intended to raise revenue. However, it has cost the state programming jobs in the same high tech industry the state seeks to cultivate. As soon as the legislation was enacted, Amazon eliminated all of its affiliate relationships so that consumers would not have to pay the sales tax. The Amazon Tax has excluded an entire industry, cost the citizens of the State numerous jobs, and the state has realized $0 in tax revenues from it.

Filippi also said he endorses the labeling of genetically modified food so consumers have the opportunity to make informed decisions about what they are putting into their bodies.

Filippi explained his reason for opposing the governor’s proposed tolls on trucking that the administration estimates will raise $30 million from RI truckers and $30 million from out of state truckers. Although he does not know how the issue will ultimately be resolved, a number of legislators have expressed doubts about the Governor’s plan. One concern was that trucks might divert through Connecticut and Massachusetts and that the latter might lower tolls between Worcester and Boston to increase traffic and their share of funding from the International Fuel Tax Agreement. The administration estimated that installation of high speed camera toll booths would cost $40 to $50 million. Another concern was that with minor reprogramming, the booths could be used to include a tax on passenger cars to raise needed revenue in the future. Although the current governor promises to exempt passenger cars, a future administration could take advantage of the opportunity. Should the tax on trucking move forward, Filippi would propose a Constitutional Amendment to preclude new tolls on passenger cars so that a future tax on them would have to come before the voters.

The Following Questions Came from the floor and are followed by Blake Filippi’s (BF) responses.

1.) What is Filippi’s position on accepting refugees?

BF: The federal government has exclusive domain over immigration, refugee, and citizenship issues. All the state can do is hold back state funding for refugee settlement programs. I do not want to stop refugees – women, children, fathers, families. I do have concerns about single, draft eligible males and the fact that the government has a limited ability to vet refugees from war-torn Syria. I understand some senators and representatives are going to ask the governor to rescind her offer of help. Again, the federal government is responsible for monitoring international residents. A state cannot stop refugees from coming over their border.

2.) Are you aware of CRMC’s plan to obtain new public access through eminent domain?

BF: No, I am not aware of a plan to acquire a new right of way, but CRMC would have to pay the owners for their property taken.

3.) Can you keep an eye on the enormous amount to be spent in the name of infrastructure so that funding goes to competent contractors?

BF: The governor is restructuring DOT and hopes to save $100 million a year over the next ten years.

Audience feedback: The paving on route one is six months old and already has cracks. It will freeze this winter, and we’ll have more cracks and potholes. RI is destined to go bankrupt. People are leaving. We need to find candidates throughout the state – we need more “Blakes”.

4.) Will you sponsor a compassionate care act or right to die legislation?

BF: I have a hard time accepting that the government’s role is to stop someone who is terminally ill and suffering from taking his or her own life. I would need more time to consider whether I would sponsor such legislation.

5.) Will you support the request to the governor for the addition of someone, Superintendent Barry Ricci, the RI Superintendent of the Year, to the statewide advisory committee for education? South County was overlooked entirely.

BF: Someone from Washington County should definitely serve on the committee. I will follow up with the governor.

6.) Why did it take so long to get DEM to act on the problems at Copar?

BF: DEM claimed it didn’t have the tools and resources it needed to gather evidence prior to the new legislation. With the new monitoring guidelines we enacted, Armetta saw a new presence and closed shop.

7.) Will you sponsor legislation to require homeowner notice of ledge blasting two weeks in advance by certified mail so owners have the opportunity to have their well tested and home inspected?

BF: I agree that homeowners within a certain area should receive such a notice, and I will look into the agency that should assume responsibility for administering the notices.

8.) Why is DEM failing to act on its mandate to protect native fish, white brook trout and pearl shell mussels, from climate change?

BF: I will explore the issue with DEM.

9.) Does the 8% short term rental tax go to the general fund or commerce or somewhere else?

BF: I will obtain the exact figures on how much money was collected and where it went, and will follow up.

10.) Will you work to make certain that all state contracts have a “date done by” in them and a penalty for missing deadlines?

BF: I agree all state contracts should have such a clause and will explore introducing the concept. These types of provisions exist all the time in private contracts.

11.) Do you know what the state water board plans to do with the motel it bought? It’s an eyesore.

BF: I’ve received calls about the state of the property and asked the Water Resources Board to mow the grounds – which they then did. I also sponsored legislation to require town approval of any state water board purchases, but that was dead on arrival because the state does not like to give up power. At the request of the Town Administrator, the motel will be torn down in the next few months.

12.) Is there anything that can be done to contain the state’s rush to spend funding so they don’t end up with another rumble strip fiasco in which they are removing the rumble strips they just installed?

BF: I understand that some funds come with a “use it or lose it” clause, and these funds do sometimes end up being used in a less than prudent manner. I believe that is bad policy.

13.) Why is the DOH failing to act about the epidemic of Lyme Disease?

BF: I’m not sure what the DOH is doing but am aware of a DEM project on Block Island that failed. They brought in a Connecticut firm to hunt deer – but to no avail.   The town then put a bounty on deer, and local hunters took many. The meat was then donated to a food bank. Our deer population has now stabilized, and Lyme ticks have fewer hosts to spread from.

14.) What can residents on a private road without a maintenance agreement do to get Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgages?

BF: This is a tough issue. You are correct that those mortgage options require a private road maintenance agreement. In the absence of a road maintenance agreement there must be a state law that apportions the cost of maintenance. Similar laws exist in Washington and Connecticut. I’ve discussed this issue with the Judiciary Committee and believe there will be movement on a bill this year.

15.) Are you aware that the DCYF’s high level investigators, often attorneys, are placing a burden on already overworked social workers with high caseloads?

BF: I am aware that the state is funding an investigation that will hopefully bring needed changes to the agency that will be welcomed by social workers and those providing direct services.

16.) What have you done about RI being 47th on all business demographics?

BF: The state’s reputation for corruption drives businesses away. I think reasserting the power of the Ethics Commission will help. Two years ago, we reduced the corporate tax to the lowest in New England, and this was a good move. However, we still have a burdensome regulatory environment and our property taxes are too high – not in our District thankfully. Indeed, Providence has some of the highest commercial tax rates in the country. Moreover, the cost to build and maintain commercial property in Providence rivals Boston and New York, yet the rents are far less. People won’t invest under these circumstances.

We should be doing everything we can to attract high tech companies just over the border in Massachusetts. Incentives, not giveaways, can be used to attract these 21st century businesses. But in doing so, we must make sure that we are educating a 21st century workforce.

We also need to do a better job of keeping our seniors here. Their wisdom, business acumen, contacts and capital are invaluable. A few years back, our death taxes were partially reformed. The limits were raised and the “cliff” that reverted estate taxes back to the first dollar was eliminated. This was a good move, as was our decision to exempt social security income from taxation.

Representative Blake Filippi
Blake Filippi

Audience feedback:

Eight individuals thanked Rep. Filippi for hosting the open forum, for being a visible presence at the state house for South County, for supporting funding for a nonprofit adult education agency, for honoring scouts at URI last week, and for communicating frequently through his web page at http://blake36.com, through Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/BlakeAFilippi/ and through Twitter at https://twitter.com/blake_filippi