Lawmakers hear from economic experts


Rhode Island lawmakers turned to business leaders and economic development experts from Massachusetts and Connecticut on Thursday for constructive criticism on the state and its longstanding economic problems.

What they heard provided a long list of areas to improve: the state fails to work with business owners and entrepreneurs looking to locate or expand their businesses in the Ocean State; Rhode Island has an uncertain tax climate; its regulations are burdensome; and its schools are struggling.

“I don’t think we’ve got a really good handle on what economic development is,” Karl Wedensten, a board member of the state’s Economic Development Corp., said.

Rhode Island and Vermont were the only two states to see their populations decline between July 2011 and July 2012. The state routinely ranks toward the bottom of national business climate rankings, and its unemployment rate remains in double digits at 10.2 percent.

House lawmakers canceled their daily session for the five-hour summit, which was open to the news media but closed to the general public. House Speaker Gordon Fox said it was imperative to hear from the experts as lawmakers craft legislation to address what he said is the General Assembly’s most pressing challenge.

“The state of our economy is the central issue that we have to deal with,” he said. “We know the public is clamoring for answers now, for fast action.”

Several panelists told lawmakers the state needs to do a better job educating children and training workers for jobs in health care and technology.

Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Gregory Bialecki and Commissioner Catherine Smith of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development discussed their state’s economic development policies.

Bialecki said Massachusetts tries to build on the state’s strengths rather than encourage industries that might not be a good fit for the state.

“We believe that the most effective economic development strategies are those intended to have long-term results,” he told lawmakers. “For us in Massachusetts, this has meant basing a growth strategy on long-term investments in education, innovation and infrastructure.”

Smith said it’s important to listen to the business community and constantly revise policies to compete in a global economy. She noted that Connecticut celebrated the groundbreaking of a new research laboratory on Thursday.

“In this day and age, if you stand still, you’re actually losing ground,” she said.

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