What Will (and Won’t) Get Accomplished in RI General Assembly in 2016

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


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What will -- and won't -- determine the end of the 2016 RI General Assembly session?

The 2016 Rhode Island General Assembly session is entering its final weeks. What will and won’t get accomplished this year?

From the controversial RhodeWorks truck toll legislation approved earlier in the session to the recent introduction of ethics reform legislation, the Assembly has tackled a number of hot button issues and still has to go through continued budget deliberations — as lawmakers seeking reelection are well aware of the ramifications of votes come November. 

SLIDES:  What’s Been Approved, What’s Likely, and What’s Not Likely - BELOW

“I am focusing my attention on the passage of a budget that will continue to support job creation and assist the business community and other sectors of our state’s economy,” said Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello on Monday. "Last year, the House passed an historic and unanimous budget in record time because of our care and deliberation and focus on jobs and the economy.  We will do the same this year by continuing to look at further tax relief and other tax reductions for Rhode Island’s middle class.” 

House Deputy Minority Leader Patricia Morgan said that the state’s structural deficiencies would be hard to overcome in her opinion, however. 

“I keep referring to our economy as the Charlie Brown Christmas tree,” said Morgan. “It’s starved, the roots are bad, and the Governor has proposed all these beautiful ornaments. Rebuilding RI! Let’s pay companies to come here!  Let’s repay kids’ student loans!  Meanwhile, what we need is for the tree to be healthy, but that would take political effort and capital to get it done. We don’t want to keep paying companies to come here. Anytime you give something to someone —  and when you have to take it back, they’re not going to be happy.  It takes a lot of effort"

Republicans, Taxpayer Groups

The House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on the recently introduced ethics reform legislation, that has the backing of House and Senate Democratic leadership (as well as former Common Cause Director Phil West), but some critics are not happy with the carve-out of oversight of the General Assembly during campaign time. 

“I have high hopes for the restoration of Ethics oversight over the General Assembly.  The RI GOP is hoping for a version that isn't watered down as presented last week,” said RI GOP Chair Brandon Bell. “On the proposed 2/3 vote of Ethics Commission to adopt a new ethics regulation, only in RI would it be easier to impose new burdensome regulations on businesses (simple majority) than to strengthen the ethics code governing public officials.”

“On the proposed black out period, the Ethics Commission should not be prohibited from doing its job during the campaign season,” said Bell. “They should be able to initiated complaints and the law currently prohibits members of the public from the filing of frivolous complaints.”

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Deputy Minority Leader Patricia Morgain

Taxpayer advocacy group OSTPA outlined their priorities, and acknowledged those they said they did not see happening.

“OSTPA would like to see a strong, good-government agenda move forward by the end of this legislative session, including real ethics reform, elimination of the legislative grant program, the governor’s line item veto, legislation that addresses Medicaid and EBT fraud and, if it’s not too much to ask, legislator term limits,” said Pam Gencarella with OSTPA. “Although we don’t see it happening, we would like to see the toll legislation reversed and support for funding bridge repair through spending reprioritization, most notably, beginning with the savings from elimination of the legislative grants.”

The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity was not optimistic on the session's outlook when reached on Monday. 

"Although we would love to see some of our initiatives pass through, such as the Bright Today school choice scholarship program, the likelihood is that this session will be like most sessions... leaving us hoping that some of the worst legislation does not pass," said Justin Katz with the Center. "In those terms, we're hoping that legislation to expand renewable energy mandates, stifle innovation by imposing regulations on ride-sharing services, and usurping the rights of employers by forcing them into arduous systems for employee payments."

Progressive Dems Bolstered

The state’s Progressive Democrats, bolstered by a win by Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Presidential primary last month, said they hoped they had the momentum to counter the more conservative faction of the party in Rhode Island. 

“The elimination of the proposed estate tax cut in the budget -- which would have been yet another giveaway to millionaires — would be a major win for the progressive movement,” said Sam Bell with the Progressive Democrats. “With the defeat of the stadium deal, Bernie's huge win, and a strong slate of primary challengers, this is shaping up to be a comeback year for true Democrats in Rhode Island. I believe that momentum has resulted in a budget that is more ideologically moderate than last year’s.”     


Related Slideshow: What Will (and Won’t) Get Accomplished in RI General Assembly in 2016

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Truck Tolls: Adopted

The highly contentious, much-debated RhodeWorks legislation was approved by both chambers in the middle of February, after a heated start to the session which saw RIPEC say the plan would raise too much money, Job Lot to threaten to hold an expansion plan hostage, and truckers all but promise a federal lawsuit upon implementation. 

Truck tolls had been one of the lingering questions at the end of the 2015 General Assembly session, and rather than wait to deal with it in the waning days of 2016, House and Senate leadership tackled it head on right away.  The big question now is whether the issue will have traction come November, when the opponents who said “remember the tolls at the polls” see if voters turn out in numbers to unseat incumbents. 

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Tiverton Casino on Ballot: Adopted

With expanding gambling opportunities, and gaming receipts, ramping up in Massachusetts, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved legislation to put it to voters in Novembers whether they want a casino (and hotel) in Tiverton — or not.   The measures passed overwhelmingly — 33 to 2 in the Senate and 69-4 in the House. 

Now, the state is banking on voters supporting the move of Newport Grand, which failed to get table games on multiple attempts on the ballot, to Tiverton, where it will have to gain approval both in the town, and statewide.  An anti-Tiverton casino group had popped up when the proposal was first made, and while quiet for a stretch, is jump-starting its social media presence once again.  

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Ethics Reform: Likely

Both House and Senate leadership joined forces on May 10 to put forth legislation to restore the Rhode Island Ethics Commission oversight over the General Assembly — with the support of the former and current head of Common Cause.  If approved, the measure will go before Rhode Island voters on the ballot in November. 

The House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on Tuesday May 17 on the legislation. “This resolution does, in fact, restore the full jurisdiction of the ethics commission despite the speech in debate clause.  Common Cause argues that the controversial [campaign] moratorium should be set aside and placed in a separate statute. This is an important piece of the puzzle of good government in the Ocean State,” said Mike Stenhouse with the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, one of the nearly two dozen groups part of the new Clean RI coalition. 

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Community Service Grant Reform: Likely

In the wake of the resignation of former House Finance Chair Raymond Gallison, whose nonprofit Alternative Educational Programming has received nearly $2 million in community service grants from the General Assembly in ten years, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said that he would be taking a look at how the legislative body directed funding to them.

“Right now we’re doing an audit of them,” said Mattello when he announced Gallison’s resignation in early May. “Some of the smaller organizations that don’t have the necessary administrative systems, I have concerns with. You’ll see grants being cut out, the smaller ones I might get rid of.”

Most likely, the changes will be in the form of the Speaker announcing new grant policies and procedures rather than legislation, but there is a good chance that there will be a shake-up in the way that community service grants are distributed — and who gets them — in 2016. 

Image: Flckr - Giang Hồ Thị Hoàng

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Tax Relief: Likely

Speaker Mattiello has signaled that he will be looking at tax reductions as the General Assembly nears the end of session, although not specifying what that will look like at this time. 

"Last year, the House passed an historic and unanimous budget in record time because of our care and deliberation and focus on jobs and the economy," said Mattiello on Monday. "We will do the same this year by continuing to look at further tax relief and other tax reductions for Rhode Island’s middle class. "

In 2015, GoLocal put small businesses on the budget “winner” list as the budget reduced the corporate minimum tax from $500 to $450 placing Rhode Island between Massachusetts and Connecticut and fast-tracked the phase out of the sales tax non-manufacturing businesses pay on electric, natural gas, and heating fuel bills. 

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Lobbying Reform: Likely

Speaker Mattiello has indicated that he is keen on pursuing lobbying reform this session, as has Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. 

"We are finalizing an important lobbying reform bill to close loopholes that existed in the 38 Studios matter," said the Speaker on Monday. 

Gorbea, who issued a statement in support of the ethics reform legislation recently put forth by leadership, signaled that the offices were working together on her lobbying reform bill.

"This legislation, along with my proposed lobby reform legislation, are historic steps toward restoring Rhode Islanders confidence in their government," said Gorbea following the ethics announcement. 


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Line Item Veto: Unlikely

While Speaker Mattiello has addressed two of the biggest political abuses that have plagued Rhode Island for years by overseeing the removal of the master level and advocating for once again placing the General Assembly under the purview of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, he has not signaled that he is open to giving the Governor the power of a line-item veto, despite mounting political pressure. 

Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell recently called out the Speaker on the issue.

“The Gallison scandal has exposed how the grant programs controlled by Mattiello and the General Assembly and the General Assembly leadership can be misused,” said Bell in a recent statement. “A line-item veto could be utilized to stop grant money from being wasted or used for corrupt purposes.  No one can call themselves a reformer who does not support a line-item veto here in Rhode Island.”

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Marijuana Legalization: Unlikely

Proponents of marijuana legalization in Rhode Island once again introduced legislation — the fifth year now in a row — to allow Rhode Island to become the first New England State to legalize recreational marijuana, but once again, it looks like the proposals will fall flat.

“I think this year more than ever the conversation has been when it should be legalized, as opposed to if it should be done,” said Jarren Moffat with RegulateRI. “We continue to see that we get more and more folks to show up [to testify], whereas you tend to hear from the same three or four opponents.  You see our coalition growing while the opposition does not.

Moffat said that he is optimistic that the Speaker might be open to consideration if marijuana is legalized in Massachusetts this November.

“I think the most interesting public comments the Speaker has made was that if Massachusetts moves forward, then the legislature could take it up in early 2017,” said Moffat. “He says he’s neutral, but he’s under public pressure with what’s happening in Massachusetts.”

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Superman Building: Unlikely

At a recent press conference held inside the vacant Superman Building downtown in Providence, Rhode Island business, labor, and political leaders turned out to express their support for “saving the building” - but the owner refused to put a price tag on the ask of the city and state, saying a proposal would be forthcoming shortly. 

The same ownership group had tried to exact $39 million from the state in 2014, but was unsuccessful in its effort.  The 11th hour proposal in 2016 looks as thought it will face the same fate, as neither the Speaker nor Senate President was present at the press conference, nor was Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor. 

Despite the lack of information on a proposal, Senate Republicans quickly came forth to say they would oppose any taxpayer funded rehabilitation; community opposition groups cropped up as well. 

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Licenses for Illegal Immigrants: Unlikely

Governor Raimondo campaigned on the promise of providing licenses for undocumented immigrants (via executive order), but Speaker Mattiello in 2015 warned Raimondo not to do an end-run around the General Assembly on the issue. 

In 2016, license supporters once again upped the pressure at the State House to make it happen, with multiple rallies taking place during the session, but it appears there is little political capital pushing the issue forward during an election year. 


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