04/25/13 – House Finance, Sakonnet River Bridge Tolls

1:19 p.m.
As tends to happen when the people of Rhode Island rouse themselves to attend a committee hearing in the middle of the day, there wasn’t much parking around the State House, and there was a line to get through the metal detector. Regulars move more quickly, because we’ve got everything ready to go through the scanner.

One regular, Linda Katz of the Economic Progress Institute, managed to skip through the process altogether with a nod and elbow touch to Capitol Police. (I don’t know if I’m that regular… and Linda and I are not related, by the way.)

1:24 p.m.
Difficulty getting into the city and parking led me to miss the anti-toll rally, but I saw a few people I know from around Tiverton heading out. The hallway outside of House Finance is full, and there’s apparently a spillover room.

The committee is sparsely populated: Ray Hull (D, N. Providence and Providence), Larry Valencia (D, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond), Agostino Silva (D, Central Falls), William San Bento (D, Pawtucket). None of them, incidentally, are from communities that would be most heavily affected by the toll.

(I’d note that the committee moved the toll legislation to the end, so it’s possible representatives will make their way down in time.)

1:35 p.m.
Lisa Blais from OSTPA had been kept in the hallway, and the committee called her name to testify on unrelated legislation. One of the toll opponents ran out to get her, and she rushed in to start testifying on the toll bills. She got a good couple minutes in before acting chairman Silva managed to alert her to the fact that they’re on a different bill.

The error made her a minor hero, though, among the people in the audience, who began holding up their signs.

1:43 p.m.
Haven’t seen this happen before: a man testifying on behalf of arts-related tax legislation had his cell phone go off right in the middle of his testimony. His ringtone was the guitar riff from “Bad to the Bone.”

1:54 p.m.
When did I stop being able to sit on the floor for hours at a time…

Incidentally, Rep. Valencia’s bill for an office of inspector general got a smattering of applause from the toll opponents.

1:57 p.m.
Taxi drivers are testifying on behalf of a bill to repeal the sales tax on taxis that was enacted last year. One taxi driver, “a regular guy from Providence,” says he doesn’t pass the tax on to his passengers, because they think he’s ripping them off, so he just pays it out of his own pocket.

A woman who works with one taxi company is confirming that the previous speaker’s experience is common. She adds the statement that many passengers just don’t pay it and walk away.

2:01 p.m.
The next man, from Airport Taxi, says that riders ask about the tax, so instead of talking about the wonderful things about Rhode Island, and the many things to do here, he spends the ride explaining the tax.

Funny, a professional associate recently flew in to the airport, and he told me that, with no prior conversation, the taxi driver jumped into badmouthing the tax.

Gio Ciccione (hired lobbyist for the taxi drivers) says there are 40 taxi drivers in the hall to show support, but that they won’t all testify.

Rep. Frank Ferri (D, Warwick), who has joined the committee, asked Gio what MA and CT do… whether they have a tax like this. Gio said they collect money from taxi drivers in other ways (like utilities tax). Of course, “Rhode Island does those, too…”

2:06 p.m.
The last witness testified that his job is specifically for disadvantaged communities, so he doesn’t expect tips, anyway, but he’s noticed a sharp job in calls for his service.  His interpretation is that people just can’t afford the seven percent increase in total price.

Rep. Hull: “Maybe this was enacted in a strange way, but we hear you.”

2:08 p.m.
And now to tolls. Rep. Silva is introducing the bills and can’t pronounce the name of the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge. “I’m not from there, sorry.”

Rep. John Edwards (D, Portsmouth, Tiverton) is introducing his toll-preventing legislation. His opening image is of a popular clam shack in Portsmouth, frequently visited by folks from Massachusetts. “People just aren’t going to pay $3.75 each way to get an 85-cent stuffy.”

2:12 p.m.
Other committee members who have arrived: Eileen Naughton (D, Warwick), Scott Slater (D, Providence), and John Carnevale (Johnston, Providence).

Isn’t there anybody from the East Bay on the Finance Committee?

2:15 p.m.
As if to answer the question: Rep. Ray Gallison (D, Bristol, Portsmouth) has arrived.

Where are Joy Hearn (D, Barrington, East Providence) and Deb Ruggerio (D, Jamestown, Middletown)?

Jeanne Smith, a key organizer of the push to “STOP” the tolls presented the two tubs of petitions that they’ve been carting around to all of the hearings.

Gallison notes that the new Pawtucket and I-Way bridges have no toll at all.

2:19 p.m.
Silva asks the audience to hold off applause until the end of testimony. He then voted to… hey, wouldn’t you guess it… to hold all bills for further study.

2:21 p.m.
Senator Walter Felag (Bristol, Tiverton, Warren) is testifying for the bills.

By the way, for those interested in the guy in the chicken suit, I’m pretty sure he/she won’t go without plenty of coverage [see below for explanation]. Rep. Edwards called the bridge toll a “cash cow” for the Bridge and Turnpike Authority. How a bridge toll becomes an animal farm issue, I don’t know…

2:25 p.m.
Edwards and Felag both hit on the point that this is a brand new bridge. Edwards said a maintenance toll would only have to be eight cents. The toll is, obviously, intended to fund the maintenance of the older, higher-maintenance bridges and free up transportation money for the rest of the state.

Felag says the solution will come with the May revenue conference next week. He thinks they’ll find that there’s been more revenue than predicted.

2:28 p.m.
Tiverton Town Council President Ed Roderick managed to make it to this hearing: “This is not a tourist bridge; it’s a working-man’s bridge.” Many of the people who cross this bridge are minimum wage workers, many from out of the state, and this would be a huge reduction in their take-home pay.

2:30 p.m.
Keith Hamilton, from the Portsmouth Town Council, is testifying for the legislation.

2:33 p.m.
Next panel: Tiverton School Committee Chairwoman Sally Black, Tiverton Town Council Member Bill Gerlach, and state Representative Dennis Canario (D, Portsmouth, Tiverton, Little Compton.

2:36 p.m.
Black gives the origin of the chicken (she has a sign that says “Cash Cow Squawk”): apparently somebody from government, in a moment of candor, said the toll’s motivation is that the East Bay community “can be plucked without much of a squawk.” (That’s more of a paraphrase than a quote.)

2:39 p.m.
Canario notes that people populated the community and ordered their lives around the understanding that the bridge is not a toll bridge.

2:42 p.m.
Wow, the air conditioner in this room is loud and distracting. While I’m offering meta-commentary, I should note that this room is a more difficult one from which to liveblog than others (like Senate Judiciary), so this won’t be as comprehensive as I sometimes manage to be (which is still not comprehensive enough for some).

Anthony Viveiros just testified, now up is Larry Fitzmorris, from STOP and various taxpayer groups. He says he thinks the number of signatures that they’ve collected might be a record in the state, and they could have kept collecting them.

He says the state is using a “divide and conquer” system to fund our infrastructure.

2:48 p.m.
Silva interjects that they’ve got five pages of people signed up to testify, and they’re not even halfway down the first one. I’d wager they’re going to have to break in order to go up to the floor session and come back down. Don’t know why they scheduled it for midday.

2:51 p.m.
It just occurred to me that the House leadership is going to be unveiling an economic development plan in a few minutes, while the hearing rolls on to stop a toll on a bridge to an island that has been especially badly hit, economically, over the past decade.

Don’t know if that’s ironic or typical.

2:54 p.m.
Roy Berberick, who testified very eloquently about studying the economic implications of the tolls at the Senate hearing, was in the middle of testimony, and Rep. Silva cut him off, noting that he’d gone well beyond his allotted time (there was no announcement of allotted times).

Walter Guertler, who testified about his German food restaurant at the Senate, stood up in the audience and said he would defer his time to Roy Berberick. “He knows more about this than anybody else.”

Silva said they’re going to follow the rules, and “if you cannot control yourself, we would ask you to step outside.”

3:01 p.m.
Rep. Kenneth Marshall (D, Bristol, Warren) noted the economic development press conference about to happen.

Rep. Spencer Dickinson (D, South Kingstown) is suggesting that they should continue the tolls on the Newport Bridge and subsidize the other bridges. He says that, when the Newport Bridge was new, folks in 1969 were happy to pay $13.06 to cross rather than take a ferry. He gets there by adjusting the original 83-cent tokens for inflation.

He’s not calling for that much, but for $6 a crossing.

3:04 p.m.
Silva cut off Rep. Dickinson, too. Now Sen. Lou DiPalma (D, most of the East Bay) is speaking.

Two cents from me: if only these fiscal issues had as enthusiastic backers as social issues. Imagine if people refused to get up from the microphone and Silva was forced to have one after another removed from the room. Really: some hearings go into the early mornings of the next day. Why should people from the East Bay be so constricted in their testimony?

3:09 p.m.
The committee is down to three members of 15. Remaining: Silva, Gallison, Carnevale. What is this?

John Vit offering testimony just pointed out that RI has a lot of deficient bridges. Let’s toll all 1,000 of them, he says.

3:12 p.m.
I was just wondering if any of the Rhode Islanders on the testimony list, who as I said, are not State House regulars, would comment on the empty committee chairs, and Pete Hewitt just said, “Good afternoon, gentlemen, all two of you.” (He must have missed Carnevale, off to the side.)

Silva explained that there’s a press conference going on. Hewitt responded that he feels like he’s testifying in Congress, like “people speaking to walls.”

3:17 p.m.
Gallison jumps in, between testimonies, to stress that the fact that 12 out of 15 members of the committee found something else more important than sitting before the people of the East Bay should not be taken as a sign of a lack of concern. The hearing is videotaped, and the written testimony will be on the record, he says.

Be that as it may, it’s definitely an apt microcosm of the issue, and the way legislators from the rest of the state think the East Bay is some distant land of people who can just absorb a toll in order to prevent tolls on their own local bridges and roads (or, obviously, other reductions in the state’s many programs and plush spending).

3:29 p.m.
The current speaker says that, when the state changed the student funding formula, East Bay communities took a hit and didn’t protest, but raised taxes. When the government imposed a dog-groomer tax, they accepted it, in part because “many of us can’t pick up the dogs to put them in the tub.” When the government put a marijuana dispensary in town, the people worked together to make it non-disruptive.

But now: “We’re oppressed with taxes, we’re oppressed with rules and regulations, and we look at what you’re spending on some budgets at the expense of others. Neglect of roads and bridges have been a primary victim.”

3:35 p.m.
Pat Silvia, who lives in Portsmouth but grew up in Tiverton, likened the toll to a ransom.

“The only two tolls in the whole state happen to be to the same island.”

3:39 p.m.
Howard Benesch says realtors have told him to expect property values to drop. “I don’t know of any state that has achieved success through taxation.”

3:42 p.m.
Benesch notes the “astonishing and irresponsible leadership” behind a process that never does a study of the economic impact and then targets a politically weak community as a “cash cow.”

3:46 p.m.
Benesch’s wife says she was a victim of identity theft and has been advised not to get a transponder. That would force her to pay the huge toll for crossing without one ($5.25 per crossing).

3:47 p.m.
Current speaker says he worked for 50 years as a transportation planner, and none of the common practices in the field have been followed on this issue.

3:51 p.m.
“You’re changing the entire fabric of an urban area when you put that kind of barrier in the way.”

3:56 p.m.
As Tiverton resident Pat Curran reads her testimony, Silva urges her to move quickly, because they have to break at 4:00 for the floor session, and then they’ll come back.

Curran: “When you have someone’s hands in your pocket taking more than you can give, that is greed at its finest.”

(I should note, once again, that it creates a bit of cognitive dissonance to hear people who’ve fought for tax increase after tax increase on the property owners of Tiverton now come to the State House and talk about hands in pockets.)

3:58 p.m.
Town Clerk Nancy Mello says people coming in to town hall to pay taxes and do other town business are expressing real concern about signing up for transponders, even apart from paying more money in taxes/tolls. She says it’s lucky that she’s closed and sold all of the small businesses with which she’s been involved.

That’s a healthy attitude for the state government to encourage!

4:08 p.m.
Anne Dupree says she’s very disappointed at all the empty seats on the committee. Silva objects that they’re all very busy and will be in and out. Jim O’Dell, sitting at the testimony table to speak says, “Sure.”

“They should be here,” said Dupree.

Laughter from the audience when Dupree mentions the governor’s going on TV talking about supporting small businesses.

4:12 p.m.
Dupree calls out Governor Lincoln Chafee for not being here. She says the toll will be a hit to the whole state.

“The alarms are blaring, and for some reason, he keeps hitting the ‘sleep’ button.”

“Rhode Island’s not going to get anything from these tolls; we’re just going to get hit.”

4:19 p.m.
O’Dell: “I told the governor, ‘change your moniker to killing Rhode Island one small business at a time.‘” Though it might sound “antagonistic,” he vows never to pay the toll.

4:24 p.m.
Rick Hodges, of Hodges Badge Company in Portsmouth, says multiple Fall River mill owners have already approached him, trying to sell him on the idea of moving his business there. Tolls might push him over the edge to that, in part for the benefit of his workforce living on the other side of the bridge.

4:28 p.m.
Tiverton resident, Roger Bennis, says he and his wife go over the bridge 50 times in a given week. Silva paused him to say they’re going to have to go up to the floor in a moment.

4:29 p.m.
The committee is at recess. They’re about halfway through the testimony list.

4:32 p.m.
Overhearing a lot of statements of disappointment about how this whole operation runs. Folks feeling taken advantage of.

6:08 p.m.
With battery and scheduling issues, it would have been challenging for me to stay. A parking ticket from the City of Providence that I found when I went out to move my car was decisive. I wasn’t alone among those who left.

I see on Capitol TV that the committee is back. Chairman Helio Melo (D, East Providence) is in his seat.

The frustration of a Mrs. Martin speaking right now is so palpable it’s coming through the computer screen. She doesn’t understand what gives the state the right to let bridges fall apart and then rebuild them, promising no tolls and then implementing tolls. Do people understand, I wonder, that the legislators are part of the “they” whose authority to waste money Mrs. Martin is questioning?

6:23 p.m.
The woman who just testified said she’s the last of her family living in Rhode Island. Her sister left. Her father, a retired policeman, moved to Florida. Her brother, a retired policeman, moved to Texas.

6:30 p.m.
Somebody from the state Transportation Advisory Committee is arguing that they need new funding streams. Name-checks the sequester.

6:32 p.m.
He says he lives in North Providence. The audience erupted in “awwws.” Melo stopped the man and threatened: “That’s a very good way to end this hearing.”

6:38 p.m.
With no more testimony, Melo began to make a motion to “hold all bills for further study,” which (for those who don’t follow the legislature closely) means it goes into an un-voted-on limbo for deal making and legislative leaders’ personal discretion.

Recently, Representative Patrick O’Neill (D, Pawtucket) roiled the State House when he disrupted that process by leading a surprise vote to move an ethics bill forward to the floor of the House for a vote against leadership’s wishes. In that case, House Speaker Gordon Fox (D, Providence) came up with a (we’ll just say) interesting interpretation of the House rules to force the committee to undo that vote.

Back to the present: realizing that the bills had already been sent into back-room limbo, Melo ended the hearing by thanking everybody who came to testify. “That’s what makes Democracy work.”

A poignant way to end a rushed hearing, much of which was conducted with 12 of the 15 members of the committee not even in the room.

6:55 p.m.
I’ll end with a plea to everybody who is upset about these tolls: Please, please take the opportunity to consider whether the bad governance visible in the process of implementing tolls (and in the tolls themselves) is deeper than just the circumstances leading to this case. Reflect on whether, maybe, you’ve kinda sorta supported some variation of the mindset that brings a state to this point — from the spend-first-find-money-later method of budgeting to the political structure that turns community involvement nasty in order to get people in office who will further narrow political goals.

If you felt like the people who took time out of the middle of their days to testify were speaking to empty chairs, it’s partly because, well, they were.  But it’s also partly because these decisions are made on other floors and in other buildings, away from the committee rooms.  That’s only possible because of the political atmosphere that we tolerate in this state, in our apathy and fear.

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