Characterizing Rhode Island’s natural resources as among its greatest strengths, proponents of the Green Economy Bonds see passage of the $35 million referendum as an investment in Rhode Island’s future.
The multi-faceted bonds provide funds for improvements in historic state parks, state bikeway development, storm water pollution prevention, land acquisition, and matching grant programs for recreation development and local land acquisition.
“For Rhode Island to be a successful state economically and socially it needs to play to its strengths and one of our key strengths is the abundance of natural resources,” said Scott Wolf, Grow Smart executive director.
Environmental bond issues have traditionally enjoyed strong support among voters. Since 2004, Rhode Island voters have approved environmental bonds by about 70 percent — $53 million in 2014, $20 million in 2012, $14.7 million in 2010, $2.5 million in 2008, and $70 million in 2008.
Once again there seems to be little opposition to the Green Economy Bonds, with the exception of The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity and three Republican State Senators – Mark Gee, District 35 of East Greenwich, South Kingstown and North Kingstown; Nicholas Kettle, District 21 of Coventry, Foster, Scituate and West Greenwich; and Elaine Morgan, District 34 of Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond, and West Greenwich.
The Center for Freedom and Prosperity have opposed all bond issues that are requiring taxpayer expenditures, with the exception of the Veterans bond. The three GOP senators are opposed to all bonds that require taxpayer expenditures..
What will the bond actually fund?
- Some $4 million for capital improvements at what are called state historic parks. Included in these projects are major improvements to the Goddard State Park bathing pavilion, improvements to the stone barn at Colt State Park, and continued improvements to public facilities at Fort Adams State Park.
- Another $4 million that allows the state to acquire “fee simple interest” or conservation easements to open space, farmland, watershed, and recreation lands. The state says it plans to invest in the preservation of “scenic and sensitive natural and recreational resources.” The explanation specifically mentions Rocky Point in Warwick and the Blue Point Management Area in Hopkinton. These funds are matched by federal, local and non-profit sources “with every state dollar being matched by three other dollars,” according to the state.
- One area that has come under some criticism is $10 million for expansion of the state’s Bikeways Program. On Facebook, a public relations professional has suggested this money would be better spent on improving the state’s infrastructure. Wolf, however, said that thinking is misguided. Hundreds of millions of dollars has been earmarked for infrastructure from other funds. The bikeways program, Wolf said, is important as it improves connectivity among the bike paths. He further suggested that:
- There is an increasing portion of the state’s population that is biking.
- Not only are the bike paths good for recreation, they are good for tourism.
- The bike paths offer health benefits as another opportunity for fitness.
- It helps in retaining and recruiting a skilled workforce, especially appealing to younger workers.
- There are economic development components.
- It is part of what makes the quality of life in Rhode Island exceptional.
- A particularly important economic related provision is $5 million to replenish the state’s brownfields program. Brownfields are aging mills that may be contaminated by hazardous waste or pollution. Brownfields funds, Wolf said, help reclaim those properties for economic use, adding jobs, and reclaiming buildings that may have posed a health threat. The $5 million replenishes a previous $5 million brownfields fund, Wolf said. The funds provide up to 80 percent matching grants to public, private, and non-profit organizations for brownfield remediation.
- There’s also $3 million for a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Program, providing up to 75 percent for public, private and non-profit projects that reduce stormwater pollution that goes into our waterways, causing shellfish closures, threats to drinking water, and other recreational uses.
- Another matching grant program is $4 million, with up to 50 percent funds for municipalities, local land trusts, and non-profits to acquire easements on open space lands. Past projects have helped acquire farm or conservation lands.
The opposition has focused on the state’s rising state debt, among the highest of any state as it relates to gross state product. But Wolf said it’s important to make smart investments that help the state grow, offsetting bond costs. “We can’t afford not to do a lot of these things,” Wolf said. “This is an investment in our key assets. It is wrong to view our debt as inherently evil. If we want our state to grow, we have to make prudent investments in our assets.” He points to Minnesota as an example of a state with high debt and a robust economy. Rhode Island’s debt, according to surveys, is fifth highest per capita, with Minnesota seventh. Another survey lists Rhode Island’s economy 50th, and Minnesota’s fourth. Wolf hopes Rhode Island strives to meet the Minnesota model.
What is the actual cost?
- The $35 million bond will also cost an additional $21,105,481 in interest, for a total cost of $56,105,481. Cost projections assume a 5 percent interest rate, with bonds amortized with level payments over 20 years.