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State House Report: Budget Passes, Campaign Finances & Minimum Wage

Saturday, June 09, 2012


For the second week in a row, the state’s 2013 budget dominated the news coming from the State House. Aside from the new House-approved budget, the House and Senate passed separate legislation that decriminalizes marijuana. Additionally, the General Assembly passed a bill that aims to rejuvenate the local economy by speeding up the building permit process. Also worth mentioning is the Senate’s passage of a minimum wage increase. Last on the docket this week is a piece of legislation that looks to lift the veil from super-PAC campaign funding.

House approves 2013 state budget

One week after the House Finance Committee approved the 2013 state budget, the full House of Representatives has approved the same bill. The House approved the $8.1 billion state spending plan with a 57 to 15 vote. The bill’s highlights are the restoration of previous cuts made to developmental disability funding, acceleration of the new school aid formula, and the avoidance of multiple tax hikes proposed by Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

As for funding increases, the new budget reinstates $9.6 million in state and federal aid to developmental disability programs. Although $9.6 million is a substantial figure, it is much less than the $24 million that was cut from disability funding last year. The legislation also preserves dental coverage for adults on Medicaid, which was on the chopping block earlier this year. Also notable is the budget’s $22 million in funding, which will go to Rhode Island’s new state education aid formula. Aside from the initial $22 million, the budget also includes an extra $11 million designed to speed up the process.

“This budget is excellent news for education and for our struggling cities and towns,” said Rep. Helio Melo, chairman of the House Finance Committee. “In an era when we’ve often struggled to even maintain funding for many of our programs, we were able to get more money to schools sooner than expected, and also speed up money for distressed communities.”

In addition to program funding, the 2013 budget also addresses the numerous tax increases proposed by Gov. Chafee. The House approved budget has removed the governor’s pitch to increase the restaurant meal tax from 8 percent to 10 percent. The legislation also rejects the expansion of the hotel tax to incorporate vacation rentals. Lastly, the budget rescinds last year’s tax on scenic tours and transportation services. Despite the numerous tax dismissals, the House did see eye to eye with the governor on his proposed cigarette tax increase from $3.46 to $3.50 per pack.

The legislation will now make its way to the Senate.

House, Senate pass marijuana decriminalization bills

Now that Gov. Lincoln Chafee has signed legislation authorizing state-licensed medical marijuana compassion centers in Rhode Island, the General Assembly is addressing the decriminalization marijuana. This week, the full Senate and House approved legislation to eradicate the criminal charge for carrying 1 ounce or less of marijuana. Rather than imposing a criminal penalty, the new law would impose a civil fine of $150, plus forfeiture of the drug. Although the legislation removes criminal charges for first and second offenses, a third offense within 18 months of a previous offense would be treated as a misdemeanor.

Presently, the possession of very small amounts of marijuana is considered a misdemeanor under Rhode Island law and is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $500 fine. The legislation would reportedly save the state millions of dollars annually, according to lawmakers. “The state is going to save a little money from this because we won’t be incarcerating as many people,” said Rep. John G. Edwards.

Aside from saving money, decriminalizing marijuana would also give the youth of Rhode Island a second chance for their adolescent indiscretions. “I don’t think people should have a charge on their record that stays there forever because of a bad decision made during their teen years,” Rep. Edwards added.

Sponsored by Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Warwick) and Rep. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Tiverton, Portsmouth), the legislation passed the Senate 28 to 6 and passed the House 50-24. Each bill will now travel to the opposite chamber in order to become law. If enacted, Rhode Island would become the 15th state to decriminalize the drug. The law would go into affect on April 1, 2013.

House passes bill aimed at disclosure in political spending

On Tuesday, the House approved legislation, which would require disclosure by individuals or groups who raise and spend money on political advertising in Rhode Island. Sponsored by Rep. Christopher R. Blazejewski (D-Dist. 2, Providence, East Providence), the bill is specifically directed at “super-PACs,” which have flourished since the Supreme Court Citizens United decision that protects the First Amendment Rights of corporations to fund political messages.

Titled the Transparency in Political Spending Act (TIPS), Rep. Blazejewski’s bill mandates that individuals and organizations engaging in “independent expenditures” must report donors and expenditures to the Rhode Island State Board of Elections. Individuals and groups must also include disclaimers on media and Internet ads.

According to Rep. Blazejewski, the legislation is vital in removing the secrecy associated with super-PACs and the immense behind-the-scenes influence they possess. “Citizens United said corporations can influence elections by funding messages, but that doesn’t mean we have to let them do it anonymously or under the cloak of some shell organization formed to advocate for a particular issue,” said Rep. Blazejewski.

The legislation was submitted on behalf of the governor and was developed in conjunction with Common Cause Rhode Island. The law would apply to groups spending more than $1,000 in Rhode Island in support of a candidate or political issue.

General Assembly passes small business legislation to speed up permitting process

Although most people will agree that small business growth is vital to the economic recovery in Rhode Island, there are numerous hindrances that currently stand in the way of local entrepreneurs. In an attempt to remove obstacles to small businesses and foster economic growth, the General Assembly has passed legislation that would stop postponements in the issuance of local building permits when cutting into curbs. The legislation is a component of the Senate’s 2012 “Making it Easy to do Business in Rhode Island” bills packet.

“As the chairwoman of the House Committee on Small Business, I am pleased to see this bill through,” said Rep. Patricia A. Serpa (D-Dist. 27, West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick). “We don’t want unnecessary building delays in the state’s time of economic need. Now is the time for growth, and introducing a streamlined process is going to speed up expansion and development.”

In short, the legislation mandates that the lack of a physical alteration permit will not be cause for building officials to delay examination of a building permit application.

Senate passes bill to hike minimum wage to $7.75

Even though Massachusetts and Connecticut have both raised their minimum wage in recent years, Rhode Island’s minimum wage has remained stagnant for the past five years. The state’s $7.40 per hour wage is markedly less than Massachusetts’ $8.00 per hour and Connecticut’s $8.25. In an attempt to amend the situation, the Senate has passed a bill that would increase the state’s minimum wage to $7.75 per hour.

“Individuals who are working minimum wage jobs in the state, jobs that absolutely need to be done to keep many businesses open, need to earn a fair wage,” said Sen. Erin P. Lynch (D-Dist. 31, Warwick). “A lot has happened with the economy in the past five years and what may have been fair in 2007 is no longer adequate today. People are struggling and those making the least are struggling the most.”

Sen. Lynch, the bill’s sponsor recognizes that $7.75 is not enough to support a family, but believes the five percent increase is a step in the right direction. We’re just looking to allow them to make just a little bit more money so they can make ends meet,” said Sen. Lynch.

The current minimum wage of New England’s other states are: Vermont, $8.46; Maine, $7.50; New Hampshire, $7.50.


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