Special election to determine fate of proposed bond issues for combined $400M

PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island voters will be going to the polls on March 2 to vote in the special referenda election on a series of proposed bond initiatives.

The seven bond initiatives that voters will consider combine for $400 million in principal, making it the largest bond referenda in state history. The proposed bond issues would pay for improvements related to the environment, infrastructure, education, housing, child care and the arts.

Rhode Island’s Board of Elections said that as of Feb. 26, 64,128 mail ballots have been received, 57,287 via the post office, 6,535 via 39 Board of Canvassers dropboxes, 306 via the Board of Elections dropbox, and 5,435 in emergency in-person ballots.

Here are the initiatives:

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  • Question 1 is a vote to authorize $107.3 million of borrowing for improvements to higher education facilities, including the University of Rhode Island Fine Arts Center ($57.3 million); Rhode Island College Clarke Science Building renovation ($38 million); and Community College of Rhode Island renovation and modernization ($12 million).
  • Question 2 is a vote to authorize $74 million of borrowing for the beach, clean water, and green bond, including state beaches, park, and campgrounds ($33 million); Interstate 195 Park ($4 million); local recreation projects ($4 million); natural and working lands ($3 million); clean water and drinking water ($15 million); municipal resiliency ($7 million); Providence River dredging ($6 million); and Woonasquatucket River watershed ($2 million).
  • Question 3 is a vote to authorize $65 million of borrowing for the housing and community opportunity bond that would be used to increase the availability of affordable housing and support community revitalization through the redevelopment of existing structures, new construction, and property acquisition.
  • Question 4 is a vote to authorize $71.7 million for a state match of federal transportation infrastructure funds for planned improvements to the state’s ports, highways, roads, and bridges.
  • Question 5 is a vote to authorize $15 million for the Early Childhood Care and Education Capital Fund for physical improvements and development of licensed early childhood care and education facilities.
  • Question 6 is a vote to authorize $7 million for a cultural arts and state preservation bond that includes $6 million to be allocated for the Cultural Arts and the Economy Grant Program for one-to-one matching grants, including for Trinity Repertory Company ($2.5 million); Rhode Island Philharmonic ($1.5 million); other funds to be allocated by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts ($2 million); and the State Preservation Grants Program ($1 million).
  • Question 7 is a vote to authorize $60 million for industrial facilities infrastructure improvements through the Quonset Development Corp. for industrial site development ($40 million) and Port of Davisville infrastructure ($20 million).

The total amount for financing the capital improvement projects includes $400 million in principal, the largest bond referenda in state history. The total cost is estimated on 20-year loans and an interest rate of 5%.

The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council supports borrowing for the seven bond initiatives. A RIPEC report on Feb. 19 said Rhode Island’s proposed debt falls under the state’s debt-affordability guidelines, and the ratio of debt service to revenues was 5.1%, ranking No. 18 for highest in the country, and above the national average of 4.2%. RIPEC said it believes it is a suitable time for the state to take advantage of the historically low interest rates for borrowing to accelerate economic recovery during the pandemic.

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Shuman@PBN.com.