Ten Biggest Bills Facing the RI General Assembly in 2015

Wednesday, February 04, 2015


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What are the biggest issues facing the Rhode Island 2015 General Assembly?

The session is a nearly a month old, with the last "official" day for House bill introductions next week -- and now Governor Gina Raimondo is slated to present her first budget proposal for FY16 on March 12. 

SLIDES:  See the Ten Bills to Watch in 2015 BELOW

"Since both Governor Raimondo and Speaker Mattiello have beat the drum on jobs and the economy, one can only hope that the 2015 session will produce legislation that supports the revival of RI's economy," said Pam Gencarella, with OSTPA, a "voice for the taxpayers" of Rhode Island.   "In order to do that, very difficult choices must be made."

Leadership on the Record

The Governor's office was broad in its approach to legislative priorities, as the state awaits Raimondo's first budget proposal.

"The Governor’s top priority is creating opportunities for all Rhode Islanders. Her budget will center around building the skills our students and workers need to compete in the 21st century, attracting entrepreneurs to stimulate the economy and create jobs, and fostering innovation in the state," said Raimondo Press Secretary Marie Aberger. "She remains focused on increasing accountability in state government and delivering more value to taxpayers."

Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, starting his first full session at the helm, outlined his top agenda items for the coming year.

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Speaker Mattiello

"Businesses look to locate in states where there are stable budgets and predictable tax policies.  That is why we must address our structural budget deficits," said Mattiello.  "The problem is clear – our expenses are growing at a faster rate than our revenues – so the out-year deficit continues to grow larger each year.  The decisions are going to be painful, but we can no longer start each budget year with a deficit."

"Regarding jobs, a high priority for the House is to expand the Jobs Development Act to small businesses.  As proposed by Representative Joseph Shekarchi, this legislation will provide tax credits to employers that locate or start-up here and commit to providing good-paying jobs," continued Mattiello.  "I will look at any and all suggestions for legislation that will sensibly and aggressively lead to the creation of meaningful jobs for Rhode Islanders."

The state's capital city said Tuesday it has yet to formalize a legislative agenda for the State House. 

"We have not declared our legislative agenda at this time," said Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza's spokesperson Evan England.

Taxpayer Groups Sound Off

"Is there any more important issue than education?  Given the Rhode Island Manufacturers' Association's (RIMA) statement to the Commissioner that RI graduates are unemployable and Electric Boat's recent reference to the skills gap and CVS opening a digital technology center in Massachusetts rather than their home state of RI, have we all received the message - fix the broken education system," said Gencarella. 

"Focus on reforms that put student learning at the center.  Commissioner Gist is no doubt moving on and that leaves a big hole in the RI education system.  Will Lt. Governor McKee step up to push for charter schools and school choice?  Will the Governor and the Speaker push for reforms similar to the ones Massachusetts made 20 years ago?  If so, that would mean reversing what the General Assembly did to gut reform in the 2014 session," continued Gencarella.  "Governor Raimondo's Commissioner appointment will be critical to upholding the gains in reform that have taken place thus far and to move education reform forward."

Larry Girouard with the group RI Taxpayers spoke to the advocacy group's priorities.

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Piecing together tax policy

"Our biggest concern is the fact that businesses and citizens are leaving the state, thereby eroding the tax base.  This can be traced directly to Rhode Island's unfriendly tax and business climate which has created a poor economy," said Girouard.  "Governor Raimondo clearly described Rhode Island’s reality when she stated that in just just the last year, we've had the highest unemployment rate in the country for nine straight months. We've been 49th among states where companies want to do business, and dead last for helping entrepreneurs."

"From the strategic perspective, Rhode Island must improve its national and regional brand if it ever expects to have a sustainable economy," added Girouard. "Accordingly, we would certainly urge the General Assembly to continue the work in this area that they started last session.  We will advocate loudly against bills that do not support the improvement of the reality outlined by our governor.

Focus on Economy

The Economic Progress Institute of RI told GoLocal its top legislative items.  

"The Economic Progress Institute supports a “working families agenda” that would increase the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit from 10 to 20 percent, expand access to affordable child care, and continue the state’s invest in workforce development so that all Rhode Islanders have the skills they need to compete," said Kate Brewster with the Institute.

Of what to expect to dominated discussion and debate at the State House this spring, Brewster offered the following. 

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How will HealthSource RI - with a new head at the helm -- factor in the Assembly session?

"We expect a robust debate about health care including how we maintain our state-based exchange (HealthSource RI) and operate an efficient Medicaid program that can meet the varied needs of the 1 in 4 Rhode Islanders who rely on the program," said Brewster.  "We also anticipate a lively discussion about the equity and adequacy of state tax policy."

The RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity, who was strongly opposed to Rhode Map RI, remained intent on dismantling it.  

"Cutting overall state spending; expanded school choice options for families; antidotes to harmful effects of RhodeMapRI," said Center CEO Mike Stenhouse of their legislative priorities.  "There has been some rumor of multiple bills that would seek to de-fang RhodeMap RI, which our Center would support; especially a bill to protect private property owners from abusive eminent domain loopholes that currently exist in RI law."  

Non-Profits Articulate Agendas 

GoLocal caught up with two nonprofits in the state who also weighed in on their respective legislative agendas for the coming session.

"Our primary legislative priority for 2015 continues to be fully funding Opening Doors RI, the State's Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness," said RI Coalition for the Homeless Director Jim Ryzek.  "Senator Crowley and Representative Slater are introducing legislation at our request that replicates the request of the Housing Resources Commission - reinstating funding for HRC programs in the General Fund to allow the dedicated funding stream to fund vouchers as well as adding $12.5 million in funds for capital development of affordable housing.  We are sure this will be a major area of discussion in times of budgetary shortfall, but we know the only way to save money in homeless system is to spend money to end homelessness."

Save the Bay noted they would be pushing for legislation to address the state's cesspools -- which they have done before. 

"Our priority for the 2015 session is passage of legislation that would require cesspools to be replaced when a property is sold or transferred.  DEM estimates that there are still 25,000 cesspools in the state," said Topher Hamblett.  "They do not provide treatment of the waste we flush down our toilets.   Waste goes into groundwater and into the waters of our swimming beaches, threatening public health.    Cesspool “point of sale” legislation has been introduced the past few session, but has been opposed by the RI Association of Realtors."

Top photo credit: Joe King


Related Slideshow: Ten Bills to Watch in 2015 General Assembly

The last day for bill introductions in the Rhode Island House of Representatives is slated for February 12, but things should really begin heating up one month following, when Governor Gina Raimondo is due to present her FY16 budget proposal to the chamber -- and members have a new sense of the fiscal realities facing the state, and what the Governor will be pushing for.

With the 2015 General Assembly just underway (and over four months to go), below is a list of 10 of the top bills facing the General Assembly now, or expected to come.   

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Marijuana Legalization

Will marijuana legalization see daylight -- or even success -- in RI in 2015?

Advocates are buoyed by Governor Gina Raimondo's public openness to considering the possibility.  As other New England states weigh the prospects of legalization, and Rhode Island faces a budget deficit, proponents are bullish on the potential.

"[Governor] Raimondo's recent comments — made very early in the legislative session — about marijuana policy reform being something we should "absolutely" look at sends a clear message to the General Assembly," said Jared Moffat, Director of Regulate RI.  "She wants lawmakers to have an open, honest, and serious discussion about this issue."

"Our bill to regulate marijuana like alcohol hasn't been introduced yet, but will be soon," added Moffat. "Polls show a majority of Rhode Islanders are tired of costly and ineffective prohibitionist policies that punish adults for using a substance that is far less harmful than alcohol. With the huge loss in gambling revenue, lawmakers will be looking for a way to close the budget deficit, and marijuana consumers are one of the few groups that wouldn't mind paying more taxes."

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Twin River Hotel

The slots-parlor-turned-casino-with-table games in Lincoln (through voter approval in 2012) wants to take another step towards full fledged destination status with a hotel, in order to compete with looming gambling on the horizon in Massachusetts.  

"We expect there will be a bill, but we've always believed the conversation should start with the town first," said Twin River spokesperson Patti Doyle, about the prospects of a hotel being broached during the session.  
"There's a meeting in Lincoln with residents on [February] 24th.  After the public hearing, we will approach the Lincoln delegation about the possibility of bill introduction."

"We're looking for the repeal of the prohibition of a hotel, which exists in the current master contract between UTGR and the state," noted Doyle.

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Social Security Exemption

The cornerstone of Speaker Mattiello's legislative agenda -- exempting social security from the state income tax --  has already drawn criticism from the state's former Director of Administration Gary Sasse, and a battle of words ensued over the merits (or drawbacks) of the proposal.

Mattiello pointed to RI being just one of 13 states that has an income tax on social security, while Sasse questioned its fiscal impact -- and its impact on job creation.  

Representatives Patricia Serpa and Bob Craven have already introduced legislation push for Mattiello's proposal -- look to see how the rank and file follow suit and if opposition will arise at the Assembly to it.

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Narcan in Schools

The bill recently introduced by State Representative David Bennett -- a psychiatric nurse -- to equip and train school nurses and officials in grades 6-12 to administer Narcan, the antidote for opioid overdoses, was proposed at the same time the RI Department of Health announced that Narcan was administered on youth under the age of 18 over 50 times in 2014.

"RI is on the cutting edge with this, before we congratulate ourselves too much, we're leading the nation in drug and alcohol use," said Dr. Jody Rich, at the Miriam Hospital.  "I haven't checked the stats, but we're up there. We need to try everything we possibly we can.  There were 1000 overdose deaths in MA in 2013, we had 200 in RI.  In this day and age you don't want to see young people doing heroin, oxycontin, vicodin -- much of which is being cut with the fentanyl."

The proposal is slated for a hearing on Wednesday February 4 with the House Committee on Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).

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Ban on Beach Smoking

Will Rhode Island ban smoking at state beaches in 2015?   

"Discarding cigarette butts, cigar butts and tobacco waste on beach sand is not only unsightly and unclean, it can be particularly hazardous to small children, who may handle or ingest this material,” said Sen. Erin P. Lynch (D-Dist. 31, Warwick, Cranston), who noted that cigarette butts contain 200 known poisons, many of which are known to cause cancer, in her legislative proposal. 

The legislation would make smoking or disposing of smoking products illegal on or within 20 feet of all beaches under the control of the Department of Environmental Management. Violators would be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a mandatory fine of between $150 and $1,000 for a first offense, between $500 and $1,000 for a second conviction and between $750 and $1,000 for subsequent offenses. In addition to fines, the court may, as a condition of probation, order violators to spend eight hours collecting litter at state beaches.


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School Construction Funds

The current moratorium on state aid to school construction in Rhode Island set to expire in May, and Senator Ryan Pearson introduced legislation to reform the process through which school construction projects are approved and provide a designated funding stream to meet the needs of modern public education facilities.

“This is a starting point for discussion on the critical issue of school construction aid,” said Sen. Pearson (D – Dist. 19, Cumberland, Lincoln). “This issue is a priority in the Senate for good reason. It is absolutely imperative that we get this right and meet the educational needs of students across the state while ensuring a sustainable funding strategy.”

The legislation, based on the work of a 2014 Senate task force, would enhance the funding, structure and functions of the Rhode Island Health and Educational Building Corporation (RIHEBC). The agency’s board would be reformed, and it would be designated as the financing and administering entity for school construction projects. RIHEBC would allocate funding of annual revenues for projects based on need, priority and cost effectiveness.

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Rhode Map Opt-Out

The controversial state development plan approved by the State Planning Council in December could see legislation to allow cities and towns to decide to opt out.

Spearheaded by House Minority leaders, such a bill would most likely allow cities and towns to not adhere to the HUD standards set forth in RhodeMap.

“Many Rhode Islanders, all of the legislative members of the House Minority and many city and town councils have expressed concern with the impact that RhodeMap RI may have on local comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances. We decided to address those concerns.” said House Minority Leader Brian Newberry.

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Ethics Legislation

After newly elected Governor Gina Raimondo issued an executive order calling for ethics and integrity in state government, members of the General Assembly began following suit -- to put a constitutional amendment question before voters establishing the makeup and powers of the Ethics Commission and specifically its authority over members of the General Assembly.

“The people’s trust in its government is the glue that binds a people to its government,” said Senator James Sheehan. “Restoring the Ethics Commission jurisdiction over legislators has become central to establishing that trust.”

Senator Edward O'Neill announced that he was looking to amend the Rhode Island Constitution to give the Ethics Commission greater jurisdiction over the General Assembly, including acts otherwise protected by the “speech in debate” provisions of Article VI, Section 5 of the Constitution.


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Infrastructure Funding

During the campaign, now-Governor Gina Raimondo said she would create a Rhode Island Municipal Infrastructure Bank as a "one-stop shop" for cities and towns to improve Rhode Island's roads, bridges and other infrastructure.  

It would expand a road and bridge revolving fund she created last year with the General Assembly to provide low-interest loans to municipalities for repairs; establish a road and bridge funding formula; launch a so-called green bank for retrofitting buildings and facilities; and create a school building authority to stimulate capital improvements.

In 2013, then-gubernatorial candidate Ken Block blasted then-General Treasurer Raimondo's infrastructure plan at the time.  Look to see what, if any, discussion and debates arise if Raimondo tries to push the bolder proposal this year. 

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Facing a projected $30 million budget shortfall for the coming year, all eyes will be on Governor Gina Raimondo when she unveils her FY16 budget on March 12.   Little is known at this time of the new Governor's agenda and budgetary priorities, but the first-time budget proposal, which is historically later the first year of an Administration, means for a shorter period of time for the General Assembly to digest -- and respond. 


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