PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island’s listless economy remains job No. 1 for state lawmakers as they return to the Statehouse for a legislative session that’s also expected to see big votes on gay marriage, budget cuts and perhaps even a proposal to legalize marijuana.
The General Assembly kicks off its 2013 session Tuesday with a day of ceremonial oaths of office and leadership elections. The fall elections sent 16 representatives and eight new senators to the legislature and reduced the number of Republicans serving in the General Assembly to a mere 11 out of 113.
Legislative leaders say the year’s top challenge remains the same as it’s been for several years: increasing the state’s economic competitiveness and bringing down a stubbornly high jobless rate that at 10.4 percent remains the second-worst in the nation. While there are glimmers of economic recovery, sobering statistics from the federal government show the Ocean State was one of only two in the nation to lose population from July 2011 to July 2012.
‘‘Improving Rhode Island’s business climate is the Senate’s single highest priority this session,’’ said Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport. ‘‘We must improve our image as a place to do business.’’
While no one piece of legislation can arrest the state’s economic problems, Paiva Weed said she wants lawmakers to explore ways to streamline business regulations, boost job training, reinstitute historic preservation tax credits and better market the state’s economic strengths to businesses looking to relocate or expand.
Expect lawmakers to also pursue proposals to make it easier for businesses already in the state. House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, said he hopes tax increases can be avoided, thanks to modest economic improvement and a better state financial position. In the past two years, lawmakers have raised taxes on taxi fares, pet grooming, non-prescription drugs and some computer software.
The Assembly’s tiny Republican minority would like to go further. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry is calling for lawmakers to abolish the state’s 7 percent sales tax. Newberry suggests that spending cuts, coupled with small increases to other taxes, could offset the loss in tax revenue.
‘‘We need to stop playing small ball,’’ said Newberry, R-North Smithfield. ‘‘If we want to improve Rhode Island’s economic climate, we need to think big and bold.’’
The proposal, however, is likely to face big obstacles with Democrats, as the sales tax generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the state each year.
Spending cuts of some kind are almost inevitable as lawmakers confront a $69 million deficit projected for the next fiscal year. While cutting that amount from the budget will pose a challenge, the gap isn’t nearly as large as in previous years, thanks in part to a $47 million surplus projected for his fiscal year. Savings from a sweeping pension overhaul approved in 2011 helped boost the state’s finances. Budget officials had projected a deficit of $130 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
‘‘We’re starting to turn a corner,’’ Mattiello said. ‘‘We've made some difficult decisions and they are beginning to pay off. The recovery is not what any of us would like to see. But we are certainly moving in the right direction.’’
The first big debate of the year is likely to center on gay marriage. House Speaker Gordon Fox has called for an early vote on the topic in his chamber. Last fall’s election saw gay marriage supporters gain seats in both the House and Senate, and advocates hope to build on victories around the nation by passing marriage legislation.
In 2011, Fox, who is openly gay, dropped marriage legislation when it became apparent the Senate wouldn’t pass the bill. Instead, lawmakers approved civil unions for same-sex couples that offer many of the legal rights afforded to married couples. But few couples have taken advantage of the new law, and Fox argues it’s time the state joined the five other New England states in offering gay couples the right to marry.
While advocates are hopeful a bill could pass the House, the Senate remains a question mark. Paiva Weed, a gay marriage opponent, said that despite her opposition she anticipates that gay marriage will get a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee if the House passes the bill.
‘‘I'm guardedly optimistic,’’ said Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Marriage Equality Rhode Island, the lead organization in the fight for equal marriage rights for gay couples in the state. ‘‘Based on the momentum both locally and nationally, we are strategically well-placed to move forward.’’Continued...