Legislators as Mere Landmarks on the RhodeMap

As RhodeMap RI and the state Division of Planning barrel toward approval at tomorrow’s Planning Council meeting, advocates insist that they are required by law to put a ribbon on the plan immediately.  Those getting up to speed on the issue may wonder what they’re talking about.

The legislation that the RhodeMap consortium cite as the source of this mandate came in 2013, as H6069-SubB, introduced on May 1, and S0712-SubA, introduced on March 13.

The two bills started out very different.

The initial bill in the House, with lead sponsors Mattiello, Keable, Tomasso, O’Brien, and Craven, was entirely about economic development and called on every governor to create a council and a plan upon taking office. With each new governor, the members of the council would have to “review the published economic development policy and plan in effect at the commencement of the governor’s term of office,” and no new plan would be implemented by the governor until the House and Senate had “conducted a public hearing” on it.

Additionally, the “strategic plan” would have to “include any major economic development initiatives and programs of the secretary of commerce and any agencies subject to” that section of the law.  Those agencies aren’t clearly defined, but it appears that the intent is to prevent the economic planning council from superseding other agencies’ authority in areas such as elementary and secondary education, transportation, and municipal government.

Almost as an afterthought, the legislation called for an “interim policy and plan,” to be created by the state Division of Planning.  The interim plan also required the House and Senate to hold a public hearing prior to adoption.

The Senate bill, with lead sponsors Ruggerio, Paiva Weed, DiPalma, Pearson, and Walaska, was substantially different.  In the Senate, the “interim” policy actually came first, with the Economic Development Corporation and the Division of Planning developing it with six principles in mind (quoted, here, directly):

  1. a unified economic development strategy for the state that integrates business growth with land use and transportation choices;
  2. an analysis of how the state’s infrastructure can best support this unified economic development strategy;
  3. a focus and prioritization that the outcomes of the economic development strategy be equitable for all Rhode Islanders;
  4. reliance on comprehensive economic data and analysis relating to Rhode Island’s economic competitiveness, business climate, national and regional reputation, and present economic development resources;
  5. suggestions for improving and expanding the skills, abilities, and resources of state agencies, municipalities, and community partners to speed implementation of the plans’ recommendations; and
  6. the inclusion of detailed implementation plans, including stated goals, specific performance measures and indicators.

There were no requirements for the General Assembly to hold a hearing on this plan.  In fact, once the EDC and Division of Planning had submitted it to the governor and legislature, no further action would be taken.  Then the new governor would convene his or her council, and it would begin work, having to “review and consider the published economic development policy in effect.”

Each new governor’s council would also have to “include any major economic development initiatives and programs in effect at the time of the plan’s creation.”  This language appears to go much beyond the agency-specific plans in the House version, requiring each council to continue the major policies of the prior council… and the Division of Planning. As with the initial plans, once a council submitted its revised plan to the governor and the legislature, there would be no further action by the legislature.  

During the legislative process, in 2013, the House essentially adopted the Senate’s bill, but folded the two versions together in a way that may have created a giant loophole.

According to the final legislation that is now law, the initial plan created by the EDC and Division of Planning (the one with “equity” built in) would have to be “submitted,” but with no requirements for public hearings by the legislature or even adoption by the governor.  For all future plans by governor-appointed councils, however, the House and Senate would have to hold hearings, and the governor would have to approve it.  Moreover, those plans would still have to “review and consider the published economic development policy and implementation plan in effect at the commencement of the governor’s term of office” and “include any major economic development initiatives and programs in effect at the time of the plan’s creation.”

In other words, at least according to the language of the law, the unelected agencies that created the initial plan have a free hand to begin “initiatives and programs” without any elected officials’ having to worry about the political ramifications of approving them.  Then, not only would future governors be bound by those “initiatives and programs,” but the legislature would essentially have a pocket veto over any attempts to change it.  That is, if the House and Senate never hold a public hearing, the new plan can never go into effect.

This giant loophole begins to take on a more sinister look than just a careless omission when one considers that the deadline supposedly imposed by Rhode Islanders’ elected representatives just happens to coincide with a timeline published in a 2012 document from the Division of Planning’s HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant.*

Task B under “Addressing Gaps in the Regional Plan” is to “address gaps in Rhode Island’s current planning documents to complete the subject matter required for a RPSD” (“Regional Plan for Sustainable Development”).  Goal number 2 under that task is to “create a Comprehensive Economic Development State Guide Plan Element,” with a timeline of accomplishing all of the “planning work” by winter 2014 — i.e., right now.

So, the legislative deadline appears to have come from the Division of Planning, itself, acting under the thumb of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.  If the Division of Planning is able to implement its plan without legislative approval as the initial policy “in effect” at the end of this year, it’s difficult to argue that elected officials are the ones giving the instructions, and not the other way around.

In that regard, RhodeMap RI is following the pattern that brought Rhode Island 38 Studios, with legislators appearing to be rubber-stamping a plan about which the people of Rhode Island have little information and over which they really have no control.


* Incidentally, this planning grant document used to be housed on the “Sustainable Communities” page of the Division of Planning’s Web site, but that page no longer exists.   It was still there in February of this year, but by July, it was gone.  However, the document is still linked on the “documents” page on RhodeMap RI’s Web site, listed as “RhodeMap RI Work Plan.”

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