Lawmaker calls for state investment at military facilities

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A Democratic Rhode Island lawmaker wants the state to put money into an empty fund created to support its military facilities and defense industry.

Sen. Louis DiPalma of Middletown said the state needs to invest in improvements at its military facilities but can't because lawmakers never put any money into the fund. He wants funding to be considered as part of the budget process.

DiPalma, whose district includes Naval Station Newport, said the state should be proactive because he thinks Congress eventually will authorize the Pentagon to again identify military bases across the country that can be shut down.

"When the next round happens — not if but when — we'll see the return on investment right in front of us," DiPalma said.

Republican state Rep. Patricia Morgan, of Coventry, said it's the federal government's responsibility to improve bases, and she thinks DiPalma is calling for the investment to get re-elected.

"This is not something for the state taxpayer to get involved in," said Morgan, the deputy minority leader. "People all over Rhode Island are having a hard enough time maintaining the infrastructure in their own cities and towns."

The fund was created after the 2005 round of military base closings to help sustain and grow military facilities and the defense industry in Rhode Island before another round of base closings.

The Pentagon continues to tell Congress it has surplus infrastructure. Lawmakers are fiercely protective of bases in their district or state and have so far dismissed any push to close them.

Naval Station Newport grew after the 2005 round because a school relocated there from Georgia. DiPalma said that doesn't guarantee that it, or other military commands in the state, will fare well in a future round.

The number of states willing to spend taxpayer money to fix infrastructure in military facilities, and the scale of the projects, has increased steadily in recent years. Neighboring Connecticut has invested millions of dollars in the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, which was nearly closed in 2005 but spared.

DiPalma said Rhode Island hasn't invested because lawmakers had other pressing issues to address as the state's economy suffered during the recession, such as budget deficits. The state's economy is faring better now and the military supports thousands of high-paying jobs in Rhode Island, adds to the state's economic output and generates tax revenues, said DiPalma, who is the co-chairman of a legislative commission formed to preserve and expand defense-related businesses.

The state expanded the scope of the infrastructure support fund in 2014 so it could be used for things such as lowering utility costs for military facilities, but lawmakers didn't put money in it.

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