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State Report: GOP Unveils New Program, Term Limits + Lobbyists

Saturday, January 11, 2014

 

The Rhode Island General Assembly reconvened Monday in what would prove to be the beginning of a busy week for lawmakers. Not only did the Rhode Island GOP unveil the foundation of its 2014 legislative session, numerous lawmakers also introduced bills addressing many topics—including legislative term limits, budget surpluses, hit-and-runs, lobbyists, and pension funds. Aside from new legislation, this week’s State Report will also look at new grants designed to help the South County.

GOP Unveils ‘Getting to 25’ Plan

On Thursday, House Republicans unveiled a legislative program for 2014 aimed at getting Rhode Island “back into the mainstream,” according to House Minority Leader Brian C. Newberry (R-Burrillville, No. Smithfield).

“ ’Getting to 25’ is the broad theme of the GOP agenda, and it speaks to moving Rhode Island up toward 25th place among states rather than settling for 49th or 50th,” said Newberry.

Primary goals

In development since summer, the planned legislative package focuses on improving taxpayer protection, stimulating job growth and economic development, and putting in place smarter approaches to state spending.

A fourth goal, characterized as ‘Stop Digging,’ aims to reform government practices that work against job growth and deprive the state of needed infrastructure investment.

Behind the eight ball

“Among all 50 states, Rhode Island is an “outlier,” said Newberry.

“We lag behind most of the country not on just one or two measures, but across the board. We’re upside down: on the list of good things, we rank at the bottom, and on the list of bad things, we rank at the top.

“It’s far more comfortable to look at the bright side, but we have been whistling past the cemetery for years. The fact is we have the nation’s worst unemployment, the 49th-ranked business environment, the 46th worst tax climate, and the 42nd worst per capita tax burden. The list goes on. It is getting harder and harder to deny the deep hole Rhode Island is in, and we need to take aggressive steps to get ourselves out,” said Newberry.

Getting to the middle of the pack

According to Newberry, it would be overly ambitious to set out to be #1 in the country, but reaching the middle of the pack is a reasonable goal.

“If we were 25th in unemployment, unemployment would be 6.5 percent instead of 9 percent.

“If our business environment were ranked 25, we’d be in the mix with New Hampshire and South Carolina instead of ranked with high-cost states such as California and Hawaii.

“If our tax climate ranked 25th, we’d be more like Massachusetts and less like Connecticut.

“If our per capita tax burden had us ranked 25 instead of 42nd, that tax hit would drop by nearly $1,000 for every man, woman and child in Rhode Island.

“We believe using ‘Getting to 25’ as a goal would serve us well both as an objective as well as a test of the relevance of new legislation. It would force us to ask, ‘Will this move us nearer the rest of the country?’ And it would allow us to measure the success of our legislative efforts,” said Newberry.

Proposal details

One of the initiatives is a requirement that every bill receive a fiscal evaluation before it can be heard by committee, better insuring that legislators know the real cost of the legislation they are acting on.

Another proposal would exempt social security income from RI state income tax, making Rhode Island more tax-friendly for our seniors and keeping them here rather than migrating to more tax-friendly states

Newberry said the minority caucus will be releasing details on the 16 separate initiatives as they are ready, with the first expected the week of January 20 as the legislature picks up speed.

“These proposals will be coming out as the legislative session progresses, and we expect to see broad public support. Rhode Islanders can expect to see a program built around ideas, not politics, and quality rather than quantity.

“Strong action is way overdue here. Nearly 60% of Rhode Islanders now believe that the state is headed in the wrong direction. We think they’re right, and our central goal is to get it turned around,” Newberry said.

Check out more news from the past week in the slideshow below. 

 

Related Slideshow: RI State Report: More News of the Week - 1/11/14

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Term Limits

Twelve consecutive years of serving in the House of Representatives or Senate would be the limit for legislators if a ballot referendum proposed by Rep. John J. Lombardi goes before voters and is adopted.

Lombardi (D-Dist. 8, Providence) has again introduced legislation that would place before voters at the next general election – this year – a proposal to amend the state constitution to change legislators’ terms and lengths of service. The proposal calls for legislators, who currently serve two-year terms, to be elected to four-years terms, for a maximum of three consecutive terms. If approved by voters, the change would take effect with the 2016 election.

“I think legislators serving two-year terms can spend a good deal of that time, especially during their second year, running for re-election rather than concentrating on the people’s business,” said Lombardi. “I believe four-year terms would ensure that legislators spend the majority of their time in office working to effect good government and improve the lives of the state’s citizens.”

The legislatures of 15 states currently have term limits for their members, with most setting eight years as the limit while four allow a total of 12 years in office.

To read Lombardi's proposal in its entirety, go here

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Political Contributions

Rep. John J. Lombardi has introduced legislation that would bar lobbyists from making any political contribution to members of the General Assembly between January 1 and July 1 of every calendar year – the six months that the legislature is normally in session.

“Lobbyists are storehouses of important information that legislators need as they consider and act on various pieces of legislation,” said Lombardi. “Providing that information, working for or against certain bills, is a lobbyist’s job and a part of the political process. What I don’t think is appropriate is for lobbyists to use money to try to sway legislator opinions.”

“Buying a ticket to a legislator’s fundraiser may be done with the best intentions, but perceptions are important and there should never be the impression that a political contribution is a means to a special favor or special treatment,” said Representative Lombardi. “Approval of my legislation will still leave six months of the year when individual and groups can make political contributions, but not during the six months of the year when the legislature is in session and while work is being done on bills and the budget,” added Lombardi.

The bill (2014-H7022) has been referred to the House Committee on Judiciary. 

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Budget Surpluses

Rep. Joseph Shekarchi introduced legislation on Thursday requiring that 50 percent of any surplus be distributed to cities and towns and that the municipalities use those funds only to pay for unfunded liabilities, bond debt or pension programs. The other 50 percent would be distributed to the state’s general fund.

"I feel that any time the state has the opportunity to do so, it must help municipalities as they continue to struggle with their own budget concerns,” said Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick). “When we see better days, we need to share that growth with cities and towns, which have been suffering through these tough fiscal times right alongside the state. If things get better financially, every city and town should get a little relief.”

“I believe this money should go back to cities and towns, but I also believe it should not be used for new goods or personnel,” said Shekarchi.

Shekarchi added that he believes his proposal “is a way to increase aid to cities and towns without raising taxes or cutting services.” The 50 percent of any surplus that would go to municipalities would be distributed under the current aid to cities and towns formula.

The legislation (2014-H7035) has been referred to the House Committee on Finance. 

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Pension Funds

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Dominick J. Ruggerio announced that he will introduce legislation (2014-S 2009) to prohibit the use of retirement system funds to pay the state’s legal cost in its defense of the unions’ court challenge of pension reforms enacted into law in 2011, or similar cases that may arise.

“It is a sad irony that, under current law, the state must use money from the pension system to defend the new law in court,” said Ruggerio (D-Dist. 4, Providence, North Providence). “That is essentially using future pensioners own money to fight against a suit they brought, and that’s just not right or fair. Of course the state must pay its legal bills, but it should find the money elsewhere and not take it from the pension funds.”

Legislation to be introduced by Ruggerio would add new language to the existing law related to the restricted receipt account used to pay expenses of the retirement board and the cost of maintaining and administering the retirement system. The new language provides “that any litigation costs paid from the account shall be limited to defending those actions that arise as a result of decisions made by the retirement board.”

The pension reforms adopted in 2011 were a result of new law passed by the General Assembly, and not as a direct result of any action by the retirement board, said Ruggerio.

“Taking money out of a pension system that so desperately needed the reforms enacted in 2011 makes little, if any, sense, and might result in further financial damage to a system we are trying to fix,” said Ruggerio.

According to one recent report, the cost of defending the General Assembly’s pension reforms hit nearly a half-million dollars by the end of 2013 – the bulk of the money for a law firm hired by the state and the remainder for actuarial consultants. Two lawsuits challenging the new law have been merged into one in Rhode Island Superior Court, where Judge Sarah Taft-Carter has ordered closed-door negotiations in an attempt to reach a settlement. 

“Since the state enacted the law, the state should defend it with state money,” said Ruggerio. “Pension funds are not being used to support the union challenge of the law, and they should not be used to defend it. Pension funds should pay for pensions.”

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Museum Grants

Sen. James C. Sheehan (D-Dist. 36, Narragansett, North Kingstown) has presented a $1,300 legislative grant to the USS Saratoga Museum Foundation, Inc., and a $900 legislative grant to the Quonset Air Museum.

The Saratoga Foundation is an all-volunteer group working to convert the retired Navy aircraft carrier into a nonprofit floating museum, attraction and technology center at the Quonset Point Naval Air Station.

The foundation intends to use the legislative grant obtained by Senator Sheehan to help offset consultant costs for technical and engineering work necessary for the group’s application to the U.S. Navy on the analysis of aircraft carrier relocation project.

The Quonset Air Museum was founded in 1992 and is housed on three acres in an original Naval Air Station hanger built in 1945. The museum was established to educate the public about the state’s rich aviation legacy and to display collections that document Rhode Island’s contributions to the growth and development of aviation and space exploration.

The museum operators intend to the use the legislative grant for ongoing repairs and restoration work at the facility.

“These two institutions are working to preserve important aspects of our state’s history and to bring that history alive for our citizens,” said Sheehan. “I am happy to be able to obtain these grants to support those efforts.”

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Preserving History

In other grant news, Sen. James C. Sheehan presenting a $1,000 grant to the South County Museum and a $1,000 grant to Smith’s Castle earlier this week.

“South County has a rich history and it’s important that the past be preserved so it can be enjoyed and studied by today’s residents,” said Sheehan. “I am happy to have been able to obtain these funds to support these two historic jewels in South County.”

The South County Museum was founded in 1933 and its collection recalls the rich historical heritage of rural and coastal life along the coast. The legislative grant will be used to help offset the museum’s liability insurance coverage.

Smith’s Castle in Cocumscussoc near Wickford was built in 1678. One of the oldest houses in the state, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993. The grant money will be used to complete fencing around the Graham Greene Garden and for fencing restoration along parking areas.

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Hit-and-Run Bill

Sen. Edward J. O’Neill (I-Dist. 17, Lincoln, North Providence) has pre-filed a bill that would create harsher penalties for leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident and says he is more dedicated than ever to protecting victims on the road.

“After gaining the support of my colleagues in the Senate last year, I am hopeful that this issue can come to the forefront in the 2014 session,” O’Neill said. “Frankly, I don’t understand why people aren’t more outraged with the number of hit-and-runs we are still seeing in our communities. We had an incident as recently as two weeks ago on Front Street in Lincoln, where a young woman was hospitalized after being run over by a motorist. If people have the mentality that allows them to drive away from someone who is struggling for his or her life, then we need to take a serious look at the efficacy of this law.”

O’Neill said increased penalties should make drivers more accountable for their actions and fearful of the consequences if they drive away. Those found guilty of leaving the scene would face longer jail sentences, huge fines and, in one case, permanent loss of their licenses with the enactment of this legislation.

Click here to read the full list of proposed penalties. 

 
 

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