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The 10 Most Important Bills Facing the General Assembly

Monday, February 25, 2013

 

Following a brief recess, the Rhode Island House of Representatives and Senate return to the State House this week to resume the 2013 Legislative Session with a wide variety of bills to comb through and discuss.

Below are the 10 most likely to have a swift and immediate impact on residents throughout the Ocean State and the ones most likely to take up the majority of the General Assembly’s time. 

1.) Same-Sex Marriage (2013-H 5015 Sub. A)

The RI General Assembly will have its hands full with a number of hot-button topics when it returns to the State House this week.

Ever since the House of Representatives passed a bill by Representative Arthur Handy to legalize same-sex marriage in Rhode Island last month, proponents both for and against the measure have shifted their focus squarely on to Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed.

When will Paiva Weed schedule a discussion within the Senate Judiciary Committee? Is she holding the vote as a political maneuver or waiting to trade its passage for something she wants?

Regardless of the final outcome of the discussions in the Senate Judiciary Committee-where most agree the bill faces its toughest test—it will be difficult for the General Assembly to move onto any of the other bills on this list, or proposed in general, until the matter of same-sex marriage is decided one way or another.

Ray Sullivan, executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), said recently that his organization is patiently waiting for the next discussion on the legislation.

“There’s a process,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to respect that process and continue to play by the rules. The Senate has said there will be a hearing on this and we take them at their word and look forward to continuing having thoughtful and productive conversations with all 38 members of the Senate and hopefully move forward with passing this important legislation.”

House Speaker Gordon Fox said he would make it a priority to get the legislation passed early in the session and, once he and the House did just that, it became clear that it was up to the Senate to move on the matter or it would become a bigger and bigger distraction to both sides of the General Assembly with each passing week.

2.) The Legalization of Marijuana (2013-H 5274)

From the moment Representatives Edith Ajello, Brian Newberry, David Bennett, Peter Martin and Larry Valencia put forth a bill that would remove state criminal penalties for adults who use, obtain, purchase, transport or possess up to one ounce or less of marijuana, the pros and cons of the measure sparked a great debate.

Could Rhode Island become just the third state in the country to legalize marijuana? What effect would decriminalizing possession of a “small amount” of the drug for adults over 21 years of age have? Is it in the state’s best interest, from a revenue-generating perspective, to try a new approach to the war on drugs?

Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation’s largest marijuana policy organization, said legalizing marijuana has been met with “more public support than ever before,” and praised Rhode Island for considering the measure.

“Most Americans are fed up with laws that punish adults simply for using a product that is objectively less harmful than alcohol,” he said earlier this month. “The bill introduced in Rhode Island presents a smarter, more responsible approach to marijuana.”

State Senator Donna Nesselbush, meanwhile, said she intends on introducing the measure in the Senate.

“Taxing and regulating the sale of marijuana will rob drug dealers of one of their reasons for being,” she said. “Taxing and regulating would also create the potential for much-needed state revenue that could be used for treatment and education about the consequences of drug use and the promise of healthful living.”

As with any debate centered around the legislation of marijuana, the General Assembly will likely have to consider a number of factors—from a public health standpoint to establishing where the drug can and can not be used to how much of the drug is legal to a tax structure—before drafting a final bill legalizing marijuana but the topic isn’t one likely to flame out anytime this legislative session.

3.) Reducing/Removing the State’s Sales Tax (2013-H5365)

A move by Massachusetts to a 4.25 percent sales tax might put pressure on RI to lower, or outright repeal, its own sales tax.

One of the many priorities of this, and any, General Assembly in this economy has to be on what Rhode Island can do to fully pull itself from the throws of the current recession and better align itself to compete against neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut.

And while one radical idea proposed by Representative Jan Malik to completely remove the state’s sales tax might not pass the muster—opponents say it creates more questions than it answers regarding the potential $887 million annual hole it would create in the state’s budget—the bill he introduced this month may lead to a compromise that dramatically impacts every Rhode Islander every time they make a purchase in the Ocean State.

“There are three top revenue generators in the state of Rhode Island,” Malik said. “No. 1 is income tax, No. 2 is sales tax, and No. 3 is the lottery. Well, two out of those three we have looked at. We changed the income tax, have lowered it and have tried to raise it. Last year with the casinos, we had put a casino bill to try to be competitive with Massachusetts and the only time we ever look at the sales tax is basically to broaden it, not to lower it.”

Malik, the owner of a liquor store in Warren, said he wants to create a discussion at the State House that gradually lowers the seven-percent sales tax current in place in RI and he’s already gotten a commitment from Fox to hear his proposal out.

“The House Finance Committee will hold a hearing on Representative Malik’s proposal and there will be ample opportunity for testimony to be taken from the public,” House Communications Director Larry Berman said. “Speaker

Fox welcomes this discussion, while also monitoring the sales tax debate in neighboring Massachusetts. The overriding question remains: how do you replace more than $900 million that the sales tax is expected to generate in next year’s budget?”

Given that Massachusetts is currently debating action on lowering its sales tax from six percent to 4.25 percent, the General Assembly may not have long to debate the measure before feeling the pressure from taxpayers to act in response.

4.) The Sakonnet River Bridge Toll (2013-H 5137)

When the Rhode Island Department of Transportation made a move to turn over control of the Sakonnet River and Jamestown Verrazzano bridges to the Rhode Island Transportation and Bridge Authority, it seemed like a toll on the former would be all but inevitable to keep up with rising maintenance costs and a depleted infrastructure budget.

And almost as fast as the RIDOT announced its plans, members of the East Bay cities and towns affected furiously vowed to fight the move.

It’s no surprise then that the General Assembly has in front of it a number of bills aimed at shutting down the proposed toll but it’s the first bill, proposed by Representative John Edwards, that will get the discussion going.

Edwards’ legislation, which has a companion bill sponsored by Senator Walter Felag on the other side of the State House, would repeal the RITBA’s power outright and effectively kill the toll before it’s put in place.

“If the governor and the General Assembly truly want economic development, they must rescind this toll so that businesses will not stay away,” Felag said.

This measure, and similar bills that adjust the state’s license and registration fees to make up for the current lack of funding for bridge maintenance and repair, are likely to create a battle between the needs of the state as a whole and the needs of residents close to the bridge who will be most affected by a toll and the debate will likely be one of the most passionate of the session from individuals on both sides of the fence regardless of how it ultimately turns out.

5.) Banning the Box (2013-H 5507)

Does a criminal history put job applicants at a disadvantage? Proponents of "banning the box" think so and their efforts could be rewarded this legislative session.

Should employers be allowed to ask potential employees about their criminal records or does the mere question itself put some applicants at a competitive disadvantage?

That’s the question being posed by Representatives Scott Slater and Senator Harold Metts and their measure to “ban the box” has picked up steam quickly.

Scheduled for a hearing on March 5 in the House Committee on Labor, Slater is hoping Rhode Island commits to doing statewide what its capital city has done for years, namely providing residents with “basic protections from discrimination” by eliminating questions asking whether or not an applicant has been previously convicted of a misdemeanor or felony.

The legislation would also give applicants who are otherwise qualified for a position a chance to explain their previous convictions when interviewed and would only allow employers to deny applicants because of their criminal history if there is a direct relationship between a job and the crimes that person committed.

“In a state with a very high recidivism rate, an individual who has committed a crime and paid for that mistake needs stability to move on with his or her life, and a job provides that stability,” Slater said. “Impediments to those individuals getting a job for which they are otherwise qualified just help continue the cycle of repeat incarceration.”

6.) E-Verify (2013-H5236)

While the ‘Ban the Box’ bill would, in theory, put all potential employees on equal footing when applying for a job, one highly controversial piece of legislation seeks to remove the ability of a portion of Rhode Island’s population from finding work at all.

Representative Peter Palumbo, a democrat from Cranston, introduced legislation earlier this month that would establish an E-Verify compliance chapter in state law and require employers in the state to participate in the hut-button program meant to deter undocumented immigrants from finding work.

And at a time when President Obama and Congress as a whole have been passionately debating immigration reform, Palumbo’s bill is sure to cause quite the debate at the State House.

“U.S. law requires companies to employ only individuals who may legally work in the country,” Palumbo said. “Ensuring that Rhode Island employers employ persons eligible to work in the state is an issue of statewide concern.”

Representative Grace Diaz has already gone on record to say she opposes mandating the change and would prefer to see a system in place where companies can choose whether or not to participate in the program.

Representative Doreen Costa, meanwhile, says the time has come to bring the debate to the General Assembly.

“To say this kindly, the only resistance we’ve had using an E-Verify system is Speaker Fox and Governor Chafee,” Rep. Doreen Costa said earlier this year. “It’s always up to Speaker Fox what bills come to the House floor, he chooses not to let that bill out even though there’s much, much testimony in favor of it in the committee hearings.”

7.) An End to the Master Lever? (2013-H5496)

RI voters may soon lose the "Straight-Party" ticket voting option.

Perhaps second only to the debate over same-sex marriage, the discussion over whether or not to eliminate the so-called ‘Master Lever’ has dominated the first few months of political talk at the State House.

Moderate Party President Ken Block has spearheaded the efforts to remove the straight-party ticket option from the ballots, saying it stymies any chance of establishing a true third party in Rhode Island and he has gotten a number of prominent politics to come and support his efforts.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that actual legislation was introduced by Representative Spencer Dickinson to move the idea forward.

Block’s campaigning behind the scenes has had a simple message: that the Master Lever has had “a good run” but that “times have changed.”

“The years of this state being governed by insider deals and self-interested driven lawmaking, with a resistance to the type of changes other states adopted long ago, have caught up with Rhode Island. All of the rankings prove it,” he said in a recent commentary on the subject. “It is time to show we can change, keep pace with other states, are not permanently locked in self-serving legislative priorities, and most of all, that we care about the integrity of the vote by our own citizens. Let’s start with the Master Lever.”

8.) Motor Vehicle Excise Taxes (2013- S0135)

Anytime you increase taxes on residents, you’re likely to hear complaints and nowhere was this truer than in Warwick when that city lowered its exemption on motor vehicle excises taxes to $500.

Suddenly, residents were seeing skyrocketing tax bills for their automobiles and they weren’t happy.

Wasting little time, State Senator William Walaska crafted legislation that would change the way the state as a whole views car taxes, basing the value of a vehicle on its trade-in value rather than the current system in place.

Walaska says the measure would create a “fair and balanced” system across Rhode Island. As with any issue related to taxes, however, the bottom line will be all about the bottom line.

For his bill to get anywhere, Walaska will have to show that the change to a fair-market-value system won’t have a negative effect on the budgets of local municipalities and, as it currently stands, most will lose large chunks of revenue if they’re forced to make the switch.

“We value cars at their highest retail value which is unrealistic,” Walaska said. “That’s like saying when you drive the car out of the parking lot, it doesn’t depreciate at all when, in fact, we all know it does. If you use the ashtray, it now is no longer in pristine condition so the way that we value vehicles is unrealistic and it’s unfair to the taxpayers.”

9.) Preventing the Next 38 Studios (2013-H5463)

Worried about the state guaranteeing another failed business loan, one lawmaker is making a move to severely reduce the power of the RI EDC.

One of the biggest stories of last year was the collapse of 38 Studios and nearly every current General Assembly member campaigned on the pledge to help change the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation to ensure that taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill for another bad loan by the state.

But Representative Joseph Shekarchi became the first one to outright say the quasi-public agency should never guarantee another loan on behalf of the state when he proposed a bill last week that would completely strip the EDC of that power.

“The legislation is not about 38 Studios, specifically, but we certainly learned, painfully, from that situation what the financial implications can be when a quasi-public agency guarantees loans on behalf of the state,” Shekarchi said. “EDC has a role to play in the economic well-being of Rhode Island, but I believe there needs to be boundaries regarding fiscal matters beyond which the corporation is not allowed to go.”

Shekarchi’s bill will likely be one of a number of ways in which the General Assembly tackles the much-debated agency but its adoption could pave the way for the organization’s outright dismantling.

10.) Binding Arbitration (2013-H5340)

When Representative Anastasia Williams introduced a bill mandating binding arbitration for teachers in Rhode Island, the reaction was swift and fast.

Opponents argued it would strip local municipalities of their power to control their school budget, which in some communities is where most if not all of their money goes, and said it would unfairly empower unions to make unilateral demands in the hopes of going to an arbitrator who would “most likely” side with them.

But Williams’ pitch was that she was looking out for students who shouldn’t be put in the middle of a labor negotiations and that binding arbitration would force both sides to come to an agreement for fear of losing out in mediation.

“I got to the point where I said enough is enough,” she said. “Binding arbitration in this particular instance doesn’t necessarily mean a completely bad thing. For me, it’s like a tool or a conversation piece, it’s like listen, these two parties need to get together and agree to disagree and come up with a compromise before having to go to an arbitrator. It’s in the best interest of the kids and the teachers and the administration.”

The bill has already been discussed by the House Labor committee and will be “held for further study” but how far it gets this session will prove, for now at least, which lobbying group has more power in the State House: the unions who have argued for years that it’s in the best interest of taxpayers to prevent long, drawn-out public battles or the local school boards and elected officials who have adamantly opposed the measure as a potentially devastating blow to the will of voters.

 

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