Deal Flow

Short changing kids

The state budget approved by the House Finance Committee deleted an item designed to improve the state’s most significant lead poisoning prevention laws, without an explanation

A page from an educational booklet produced by Dutch Boy in the 1920s showcasing all the "benefits" of lead in products.

By Laura Brion and Richard Asinof
Posted 6/19/17

A new budget section, which would have improved the state’s lead poisoning prevention efforts, was deleted in the version of the budget approved by the House Finance Committee, without explanation. Advocates are now attempting to get the budget item re-inserted into the budget.

Why was the budget item deleted? Who was responsible for recommending its deletion? Did Gov. Gina Raimondo agree to its deletion as part of the last-minute negotiations? Will Sen. Josh Miller recommend its re-insertion as part of the Senate version of the budget? Will advocates be able to rally the public in support of efforts to re-insert the budget item? Will Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the R.I. Department of Health, speak out against the elimination of the line item? Will physicians involved with the Hassenfeld Child Innovation Institute, such as Drs. Patrick Vivier, Phyllis Dennery, and Maureen Phipps, be willing to speak up? Will Brown economist Anna Aizer be given an opportunity to brief the R.I. General Assembly about the findings of her latest research?
Much of the conversation around promoting economic development initiatives in Rhode Island has been engaged around efforts to improve the workforce, to improve the educational outcomes for Rhode Island students, to invest in luring companies to relocate to Rhode Island, offering tax incentives, and to build new innovation campuses to support entrepreneurial partnerships with academic centers within the state’s innovation ecosystem.
Left out of the conversation, for the most part, is the role that childhood lead poisoning plays as a man-made scourge with a promise of potential irreparable brain damage over a lifetime. The recent research, based upon data following Rhode Island students, confirms that childhood lead poisoning is a leading causative factor in lower third-grade reading levels and in increases in school suspensions, detentions and delinquency.
One of the best investment in the future of Rhode Island’s education, economy and workforce, as measured by both ROI and avoided costs, would be an innovative program to remove lead paint from the housing and soil of Rhode Island neighborhoods. Such an investment, by improving the state's quality of life, its housing, and its population health, may bring with it the potential to serve as a magnet to attract new talent, companies and investment to Rhode Island.

PROVIDENCE – When the state budget for FY 2018 was voted out of the House Finance Committee meeting early on Friday morning, June 16, a proposal to improve and consolidate the state’s lead poisoning prevention laws, Article 22, had been deleted, without explanation.

The proposal had been developed in a collaborative process with the state’s Office of Management and Budget to improve the state’s most significant lead poisoning prevention laws – the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act and the Lead Hazard Mitigation Act.

As described in the executive summary of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposed FY 2018 budget, the budget item included: “The transfer of $590,618 in restricted receipt financing from the Executive Office of Commerce to the Department of Health for lead-related issues.”

The new budget item would have:

Paved the way for the R.I. Department of Health to simplify and clarify lead safety certificates for housing, which were seen as confusing and complicated.

Improved the state’s ability to enforce lead safety laws statewide, with a much-needed increase in funding and staff at the R.I. Department of Health.

Closed loopholes, such as the one that exempted owner-occupied properties with two-three units or less, in the current law requiring lead safety certificates for pre-1978 rental housing.

Addressed the confusing and often ineffective division of closely related but not identical lead regulation responsibilities between the R.I. Department of Health and the Housing Resources Commission by consolidating those responsibilities at the Department of Health.

To accomplish this, the budget item called for dedicating a portion of the existing tax on real estate transfers to support this revenue-neutral move.

The modest budget item represented an unprecedented moment of multi-agency agreement on how the state’s approach to lead poisoning prevention could be improved. It was not a bold program of statewide lead removal that our communities need and deserve, but there is no question that it would have helped to protect more children from lead poisoning in the immediate future.

Although most of the details of the proposed budget item appeared to be uncontroversial and received positive testimony during a hearing before the House and Senate Finance Committees, including support from Rhode Island Kids Count, the Childhood Lead Action Project and the Rhode Island Association of Realtors, a number of groups urged legislators to address potential flaws in the budget article before passing a final draft.

One such flaw identified was the proposed source of funding: the budget item called for dedicating a portion of the existing tax on real estate transfers to support the R.I. Department of Health's immediate need for more staff to implement the improved law.

Although enough additional funding from this source currently exists for at least one year of the expanded program, it is not a stable funding source from year to year, and funding to support the R.I. Department of Health would have been taken from a portion of the tax already dedicated to lead abatement, housing vouchers and homeless prevention programs.

[This dedicated funding stream for housing was created just a few years ago, the successful outcome of a campaign supported by the R.I. Coalition for the Homeless, the Childhood Lead Action Project, and more than 80 additional groups.]

Stretching these dollars further could set up a dilemma in years to come, pitting complementary and important housing programs against each other when there is less money to go around.

An additional flaw in the proposal was the removal of key lead safety protections for foster children.

What happened? Why was this item deleted? Was it part of a last-minute compromise in negotiations between the House, the Senate and the Governor, seeking additional revenue cuts? Could the House still put the item back into the budget? Will the Senate stand up to protect Rhode Island children and families from the man-made scourge of lead poisoning?

Leadership on lead
Rhode Island’s laws to prevent lead poisoning, which require children to be tested and mandate lead safety inspections and certificates, are considered among the best in the nation. As a result, the incidence of lead poisoning among children has fallen dramatically during the last two decades, a public health achievement.

But those good efforts have not halted the continued lead poisoning of children in Rhode Island: more than 900 children are still being poisoned for the first time every year, according to the R.I. Department of Health, bringing with it the potential for irreparable brain damage lasting a lifetime.

[Recent research by economists at Brown University and Princeton University, studying Rhode Island children born between 1990 and 2004, looking at the relationship between lead exposure, criminal activity and cognitive development, found that there was a strong correlation in how childhood lead poisoning affected school suspensions, detentions and delinquency. As one of the co-authors, Anna Aizer of Brown University, said, talking about the takeaway of the study: “Crime is just an incredibly expensive outcome for a state, and lead mitigation is so much cheaper relative to that.”

Previous research had found that improvements in third-grade reading scores by African American students directly correlated with a decrease in childhood lead poisoning in Rhode Island.]

Vigilance
The reasons for the continued incidence of childhood lead poisoning in Rhode Island are numerous. They include: the lack of political will to adequately enforce the laws already enacted; weaknesses and loopholes in our current laws; and the reality that housing policies and laws alone are not enough to protect families who are poor or politically vulnerable.

The new budget language in Article 22 had been an attempt to correct some deficiencies in the current laws, including the way that the regulatory work had been divided up between state agencies, causing confusion for the public and proving frustrating for government officials.

The deletion of this not-very-expensive budget item is hugely disappointing, because it would have created needed improvements to the lead poisoning prevention system in Rhode Island to halt preventable, permanent brain injuries to the state’s youngest citizens.

Wake-up call
From the community advocates’ perspective, the deletion of Article 22 from the House Finance Committee version of the FY 2018 budget serves as a wake-up call: perhaps we were not babysitting this closely enough. What does it mean when these kinds of smart reforms to make the work of government more effective cannot happen without advocates there to connect the dots and push?

It also means there is a need to increase efforts to demand answers and actions from municipalities who often turn a blind eye to rental housing conditions that leave families at risk, to make sure that the state is making the most of its funding to help homeowners abate lead hazards and aggressively explore ways to increase these funds.

The one piece of good news in the compromise budget approved by the House Finance Committee is that lead safety protections for foster children will not be weakened.

Next steps
From an advocacy perspective, this is a heartbreaking missed opportunity. It also underscores the importance of putting the laws we already have to good use.

In the coming days, the Childhood Lead Action Project and other children’s health and housing advocates will be attempting to get the budget item re-inserted into the FY 2018 budget.

Laura Brion is the executive director of the Childhood Lead Action Project. For more information, you can reach her at 401-785-1310.

Comments

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Sarah Gleason

This is a really important story. The fact alone that lead safety protections for foster children was even considered is shocking evidence that the least powerful can be trampled ion in RI. I worked with the very successful lead action project at St. Joseph's Hospital in the 1990s. It is so within reach that we can successfully treat the 900 identified children with lead poisoning and assure them better lives (and possibly less incarceration) for a mere half million dollars should be a top priority of the legislature.

Monday, June 19

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