East Providence’s three new Rhode Island legislators were formally sworn into office Tuesday, Jan. 1, as the 2013-2014 session of the Rhode Island General Assembly convened.
Sen. William Conley (D-18) and Reps. Katherine Kazarian (D-63) and Gregg Amore (D-65) took the oath of office from Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis. Conley is one of eight new members of the Senate. Kazarian and Amore were among 16 new members of the House.
The Senate began its legislative year with a program of activities that included the re-election of M. Teresa Paiva Weed as President of the Senate.
The House of Representatives began its legislative year with a program of activities that included the re-election of Rep. Gordon D. Fox as the Speaker of the House. Barrington/East Providence Rep. Joy Hearn nominated Fox. The vote was 66-6 with 3 abstentions.
Here are Fox’s remarks:
“I’d like to begin by thanking all of my colleagues who re-elected me today. I am truly grateful for your continued support and I look forward to these next two years as your Speaker.
To those who didn’t support me, I am confident that we will find common ground and collectively work together on the issues that are important to our state.
I want to sincerely thank my constituents from District 4 in the Mount Hope, Summit and Blackstone neighborhoods of Providence who have bestowed upon me the privilege of serving as their State Representative since 1993.
As I am fond of saying, this was a “very interesting” election. I am so grateful that my constituents allowed me to continue my work on their behalf. The challenge invigorated me and I truly enjoyed walking up and down the hills of my district and talking face-to-face with hundreds of my neighbors.
I wrote a thank you letter to every voter in District 4 to let them know that I listened carefully to the concerns they expressed to me and their words will make me a stronger person and a better State Representative.
I am thrilled that several of my family members and friends who helped me along the way are here today. It is so special that I could share this day with you.
Today I begin my 21st year as a Representative and my fourth year as Speaker. But as I look around this room, I remember the great excitement of being a new member as if it were yesterday. In fact, there are still nine of us remaining who were elected in 1992 – and we have shared a common bond since then.
I wish to extend a very special welcome to the 16 new members. Hopefully, many of you will still be together 20 years from now the way we have!
This is a great freshmen class, full of men and women who have been very active in their communities and who bring vast expertise from all walks of life to this chamber.
You will build life-long friendships and will learn a great deal every single day. This is an extremely divergent freshmen group – ranging from a 22-year-old recent college graduate to two Representatives who are returning to serve with a combined 22 years of House experience.
I look forward to hearing your different ideas and viewpoints, considering your positions, and working with all of you to build consensus.
I’d also like to offer a very special welcome to the families and friends of all the freshmen members. They wouldn’t be here without all the help you provided to them. They will need that ongoing support as they face the long hours and hard work that lies ahead as part of their dedicated public service.
I would also like to recognize several other guests here today. I look forward to continuing to work with Governor Chafee, who you will be hearing from shortly. He is a true gentleman who shares our love for this state and is always willing to work with us in the House of Representatives.
I’d also like to acknowledge:
- Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts, whose expertise is so valuable in the health care debate.
- Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, thank you for swearing all of us in today. You have always worked so well with us on issues of transparency in government and helping small businesses.
- Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, who is doing a great job after serving in this very chamber for 20 years.
- And finally my dear friend and my Mayor, Angel Taveras. He and I have a tremendous working relationship and share the passion for our capital city. You have made great strides, Mayor, and I look forward to our continued work in the next two years. And congratulations and best wishes to you and Farah on your recent marriage.
I’d also like to sincerely thank Representatives Joy Hearn and Tom Winfield for placing my name into nomination today. Joy is one of the up-and-coming leaders of this chamber and I am going to be working closely with her in this session.
Tom is one of my classmates dating back 20 years ago. Despite various leadership squabbles in the past, we have always remained good friends. I will be relying on Tom’s steady hand and his sage wisdom to help us through these next two years. Thank you both for your meaningful words.
Now, let’s get down to work!
We have a great deal on our plate this year. But I am confident that all of us in this room are ready to meet that challenge.
Imagine what Abraham Lincoln faced in 1861, with the nation terribly divided. But despite a nation torn apart, he looked toward making the right decisions that would impact the future. In his message to Congress, he ended with words that are still as relevant to us today as they were more than 150 years ago.
Lincoln said: “The struggle of today is not altogether for today. It is for a vast future also. With a reliance on Providence all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.”
This was his first address to Congress. He was elected in 1860, and he was quite literally trying to keep a country preserved.
We don’t have such a daunting task ahead of us on New Year’s Day in 2013. But much like Congress in 1861, what we do today is for the long term. We have a long, festering problem that was triggered by the Great Recession of 2008, and we’ve had a slow-moving economy ever since.
We must make the right decisions in this session to pave the way for a brighter future. We have to believe it – and we have to fight for it.
There is nothing more important in our state than turning this economy around after a national recession that has impacted us so strongly for several years.
This House is not afraid of tackling tough issues. In a special session in 2011, we reformed the pension system. It is now in the hands of the courts, but I remain confident that the law that we worked so hard on for many, many months will be upheld. As I have publicly stated, it is not the place for the General Assembly to be involved in negotiations.
We also took bold action in 2010 when we enacted an education funding formula that was 15 years in the making. We have since made a concerted effort to not only fully fund the first two years of the formula, but even accelerated it.
We included an additional $50 million dollars in the last two budgets for our public schools, and I believe it is an investment that is going to pay off in a brighter economic future for our state. We must not waver from this commitment to educational excellence!
Within the last few years, we also enacted income tax reform to simplify our tax code and make us competitive with our neighboring states.
But as we embark on the new session, it is time to enforce accountability to make sure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. Millions of dollars are budgeted annually for economic development, including tax credits, loan guarantees and workforce development programs.
Are they being spent efficiently?
We need to review programs that are in place now, fund the effective ones and eliminate the programs that are not producing results. We have to always be asking ourselves, are we receiving the appropriate return on our investment?
Those are some of the many questions that we intend to answer this session when it comes to investing state dollars wisely in trying to stimulate this economy.
Economic development is such an important issue that we will cancel our regular session on Thursday, January 17th in order to hold a five-hour economic conference at Rhode Island College.
We will listen to the key people “in the trenches” who will offer us a clear picture of the problems we are facing and provide us with options for solving them. We will be hearing from Rhode Island’s business community, college presidents and leaders from neighboring states. Our goal is to come away from the conference with specific policy changes that we address this session.
I, as well as all of you, am tired of seeing Rhode Island at the bottom of national rankings of states when it comes to doing business. We have the opportunity to improve our standing if we gather some good ideas on January 17th and work towards enacting legislation to address issues such as our complex and unwieldy regulatory system, as just one example.
It is certainly time that we develop a new customer-friendly attitude toward business, with less regulatory red tape and fewer hurdles to jump through!
Though we have made some strides in these areas, we have to do more.
Another area of our focus will be to strive for better coordination of our job skills’ training programs. It is essential that Rhode Island residents get trained for the jobs that are needed. We are simply not moving fast enough or effectively enough in training our workforce for the jobs that are available in the ever-changing economy.
As I stated at the RIPEC dinner a few months ago, I am committed to looking closely and then taking legislative action to restructure EDC. We need better coordination of all the facets of what RIPEC calls “commerce,” a term I like because it incorporates so much more than what we traditionally think of as economic development.
As RIPEC suggests, we need a coordinated effort involving education, job skills’ training, transportation and infrastructure, regulatory reform, and tax policies.
I also embrace RIPEC’s concept of the Council of Economic Advisors to develop a consistent plan for long-term economic success. We need a four-year plan with a clear vision and direction for our state.
And isn’t it time we do a better job of marketing ourselves? Let’s show others that Rhode Island is a great state to do business. Other states are marketing themselves aggressively and very well. When an executive at a Cumberland company told me recently that the EDCs in other states are calling her more regularly than our own EDC, then I know it’s time we take action.
While the economy will be the over-arching issue of this entire session, I want to briefly mention some other matters that will be addressed.
As I have stated for many months, my intention is to bring the issue of same-sex marriage to this House floor before the end of January. It is time. We can no longer be the only New England state without marriage equality. Rhode Island must be next in enacting this basic civil right to marry the one you love.
I will be proud to place my name as one of the sponsors of legislation that will be introduced as early as this week. It will be a very clean and straight-forward bill.
I do not support sending this issue to the ballot. The fundamental rights of a minority group of citizens should not be subjected to a divisive ballot initiative. All of us in this room have been elected by our constituents to lead and make decisions, and we will be doing so in the coming weeks.
Secondly, this House will be stepping up our oversight efforts in a robust way. There are numerous opportunities for more vigorous oversight on a number of issues. One of the first issues that must be addressed involves last November’s election. The problems that were encountered by many of our voters at the polls, like waiting in line for more than an hour in some places, are simply unacceptable.
Additionally, it is time to bring back the historic tax credit program. I was so proud to be the sponsor of the legislation which created this extremely successful economic development tool. It was unfortunate that we were forced to suspend the program a few years ago when we faced severe budget constraints.
We will be working with the Senate to develop a new version of the program that is affordable, and therefore, sustainable.
Also, after the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, we must re-double our efforts to be certain that our schools and public places are safe and secure. We will work with the Senate, Governor Chafee, Attorney General Kilmartin, Education Commissioner Gist and mental-health officials throughout the session to address this multi-faceted but critical public safety issue.
Also, we will join with Commissioner Gist, teachers, and advocates for educational excellence to continue our efforts to ensure we have the finest public educational system.
Finally, of course, is the biggest obligation that we fulfill each year in this chamber – the enactment of a budget. Governor Chafee will be presenting his initial plan to us before the end of the month and then the long process begins anew.
While we have a budget surplus this year, that simply lowers the projected deficit for next year to about $69 million dollars. Without a growing economy, we still face structural deficit problems and we have many difficult choices ahead.
But we will be ready. We certainly must be willing to embrace new ideas to help our state flourish.
As we all know when Lincoln was delivering his message to Congress in 1861, there were enormous challenges. We face many of our own in Rhode Island.
We must channel the optimism that Lincoln conveyed in his message to Congress in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems.
I want to say to you today – especially to all the new members -- the struggles we undertake today are not in vain. They will lead to a “vast future” for our state.
Thank you very much.