State Report: Marijuana Legalization Bill + Tax Hike Proposal

Saturday, February 15, 2014


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This week's State Report centers on new legislation that could pave the way for Rhode Island becoming the next state to legalize marijuana. Aside from marijuana legalization, we'll also take a look at six other bills that address various issues such as income tax elimination for retirees; tax hikes on the wealthy; elementary and secondary education; road and bridge maintenance; early voting; and sex offender registration.

Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Regulate, Tax Marijuana

Rhode Island could potentially be one of the next states to legalize marijuana. Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Joshua Miller and House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Edith Ajello introduced legislation this week to make marijuana legal for adults 21 and older and establish a system in which marijuana is regulated and taxed similarly to alcohol.

“Marijuana prohibition has been a long-term failure,” said Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Providence). “Forcing marijuana into the underground market ensures authorities have no control of the product. Regulating marijuana would allow the product to be sold safely and responsibly by legitimate businesses in appropriate locations.”

The measure would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to two marijuana plants (only one may be mature) in an enclosed, locked space; establish a tightly regulated system of licensed marijuana retail stores, cultivation facilities, and testing facilities; enact an excise tax of up to $50 per ounce on the wholesale sale of marijuana flowers applied at the point of transfer from the cultivation facility to a retail store (a special 10-percent sales tax will also be applied at the point of retail sale); and require the Department of Business Regulation to establish rules regulating security, labeling, health and safety requirements.

“Most Rhode Island voters agree it is time to end marijuana prohibition and start treating the product like alcohol,” said Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence). “Regulation allows us to create barriers to teen access, such as ID checks and serious penalties for selling to those under 21. Taxing marijuana sales will generate tens of millions of dollars in much-needed tax revenue for the state, a portion of which will be directed towards programs that treat and prevent alcohol and other substance abuse.”

A majority of Rhode Island voters (53 percent) support changing state law to regulate and tax marijuana similarly to alcohol, according to a survey conducted by Public Policy Polling on Jan. 14 and 15. Only 41 percent were opposed. The full survey results are available at

Miller and Ajello discussed the bill on Wednesday at a news conference hosted by Regulate Rhode Island and the Marijuana Policy Project. They were joined by Dr. David Lewis, founder of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University; Michelle McKenzie, Board member of Protect Families First and Director of Preventing Overdose and Naloxone Intervention; former Providence police officer Beth Comery; and former Warren High School and Mt. Hope High School teacher Pat Smith.

Click here to read the Senate bill, and here to read the House version.


For more news from the past week, check out the slideshow below.


Related Slideshow: RI State Report: More News of the Week - 2/15/14

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Sex Offender Legislation

On Wednesday, Peter G. Palumbo (D-Dist. 16, Cranston) introduced legislation to enact the Sexual Offender Registration and Community Notification Act (SORNA), striking existing language in state law and replacing it with a statute the sponsor says will provide greater protection for Rhode Island citizens.

“As long as there is one sex offender out there that we cannot account for, there is the potential for great harm, the potential for another victim,” said Palumbo.

The bill was introduced in conjunction with the Office of Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin. For Kilmartin, passing SORNA is not only about a more comprehensive law that implements the provisions of the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, it is also about greater protection for Rhode Island citizens.

“It is a priority of the Office of Attorney General, and me personally, to advocate for laws that better protect our community and, more so, laws that better protect our children from child sex offenders,” said Kilmartin. “The SORNA legislation will give greater protections for the citizens of Rhode Island and will give law enforcement the information to keep sex offenders accountable.”

“This is a significant piece of legislation, a comprehensive bill that encompasses a number of issues regarding sex offenders and public information about them. But it is really about just one thing – keeping people, and especially young people, safe from sexual predators,” said Palumbo.

Palumbo also spearheaded Rhode Island’s enactment of Megan’s Law, which requires the state’s parole board and courts to evaluate all sexual offenders leaving prison and determine the risk posed to the community, and also Jessica’s Law, which requires first-degree child molesters and Level 3 sex offenders to wear a global positioning system monitor.

To read the detail of Palumbo’s new proposal, click here.

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Early Voting Proposal

Sen. Erin P. Lynch (D-Dist. 31, Warwick, Cranston) has introduced a bill would make in-person early voting available for all Rhode Island elections, except for any special elections.

“If our goal is to encourage qualified voters to exercise their right and privilege to cast a ballot, to increase the turnout on election days, it should also be our goal to make it as convenient as possible for the electorate to do so,” said Lynch.

Under the Lynch bill, in-person early voting would begin on the 21st day before a general election and end on, and include, the Saturday before the scheduled election. In-person early voting would also be allowed to begin on the 13th day before a primary election and end on, and include, the Saturday before the primary.

During the pre-election day voting period, voting would take place at locations to be determined by each local board of elections, approved by the state board. Voting would be allowed from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday and from noon to 8 p.m. on Thursday or Friday. The ballots cast by early voters would be kept under lock and key by the local offices and collected periodically during the early voting period by the state board.

Vote totals from the in-person early voting precincts would not be printed under any circumstances prior to the scheduled closing of the polls on the regularly scheduled Election Day.

Of the New England states, Vermont currently has an early-voting option.

Click here to read Lynch’s bill in its entirety.

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Road and Bridge Maintenance Funding Legislation

A group of East Bay legislators introduced legislation this week to create a predictable statewide funding source for roads and bridges without a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

The legislation creates a new Infrastructure Trust Fund using a number of existing revenue streams to create a predictable pool of funding for the maintenance of all state-controlled roads and bridges as well as adding funding to the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

“Rhode Island’s transportation infrastructure is the responsibility of all Rhode Islanders. Our transportation infrastructure needs to be a priority of the entire state and needs the entire state’s support. We can do this. We must have the resolve to seize this opportunity and address the challenge once and for all. The time to act is now,” said Sen. Louis P. DiPalma (D-Dist. 12, Middletown, Newport, Little Compton, Tiverton), the lead sponsor in the Senate.

The Infrastructure Trust Fund established by the legislation would be funded through several sources. First, the legislation would decrease the total of anticipated state revenue that can be budgeted from 97 to 95.5 percent, and dedicates the difference to the fund. (The rest would continue to go to the state’s rainy day fund or the capital fund, as is the case under current law.) All new funds from the uninsured motorist fund are also to be dedicated to the fund, as is any gas tax revenue that becomes available as the state assumes the Department of Transportation debts.

Beginning in 2020, all gas tax revenue would go directly to the trust fund. Currently the gas tax money has been going to pay off the bonded debt that the state incurred to meet the federal match for transportation projects.

For the first five years of the new funding system the fund will be augmented by a temporary 5-percent surcharge in Division of Motor Vehicle fees. This increase is eliminated in 2020.

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Elementary and Secondary Education Commission

In an effort to address educational funding in Rhode Island and what he calls “a major and growing cost for our cities and towns,” Rep. Scott J. Guthrie has introduced a resolution calling for a legislative commission to examine funding elementary and secondary education through the state income tax.

The legislation would establish a 17-member study commission that would report its findings and recommendations to the General Assembly next January. The commission would be composed of five members of the House of Representatives, three members of the Senate, the president of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, the president of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, the president of the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association, the president of the RI Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, the president of the RI chapter of the National Education Association, the president of the Rhode Island Independent School Association, and two members of the public.

“Education is one of the most expensive propositions for states and local communities,” said Guthrie. “I am one of many who question the method we now use to fund education, and I think it would be appropriate to study and determine if funding education through the income tax would be a more equitable and dependable way of doing it.”

Click here to read the bill in its entirety.

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Income Tax Elimination for Retirees

Rep. Joseph Trillo (R-Warwick) has introduced a bill to eliminate the personal income tax for all Rhode Island retirees.

“There are Rhode Islanders who are leaving our state because of the burdening tax code. Changes are needed before more of our population relocates. We are exporting people from our society and importing people who need to be taken care of. By eliminating the personal income tax on retiring Rhode Islanders, we will stop the mass exodus to other more tax friendly states. Keeping these individuals will increase personal spending in Rhode Island, which will have a substantial effect upon our economy,” said Trillo.

“Rhode Island has one of the highest tax rates in the country.” said Trillo. According to the Tax Foundation, Rhode Island ranks as the 8th highest taxed state in the nation.

“People are mobile and will leave for better opportunities and lower taxes. We must provide a reason for them to stay in our state. Once they leave, they take with them their spending, property taxes, and contributions to our economy.”

The bill specifically targets Rhode Islanders who have reached full retirement age as determined by the Federal Social Security Office. There are a number of states which already exempt some form of retirement income. Rhode Island is at an economic disincentive to these states.

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Tax Hike on Wealthy

Rep. Scott J. Guthrie (D-Dist. 28, Coventry) has introduced legislation calling for a restoration of general revenue sharing, funding the program with the added revenue that would result from hiking the tax rate on high-income earners.

The bill would increase from 5.99 percent to 7.99 percent the tax rate of Rhode Islanders’ personal income over $250,000. It is estimated such a tax rate increase would generate about $60 million dollars, money Representative Guthrie wants the state to share with cities and towns beginning with the FY2015 fiscal year.

“The arguments that we should not expect the wealthy to pay a fair share come not from people in my income bracket, or those of most of my neighbors – regular Rhode Islanders who struggle to make ends meet,” he said. “Seeking more from those who have prospered – many of them as a result of the labors of lower-income workers – is not going to send the rich running from the state. It will, instead, mean that the very poor get more support than they receive now and that the middle class can, perhaps, stop staggering under the mounting tax load.”

The tax rate hike would only apply to any income over $250,000. In other words, an individual with personal income of $250,000 or less would be taxed at the current rate of 5.99 percent. An individual making $300,000, for instance, would be taxed at 5.99 percent on the first $250,000 and at 7.99 percent for the remaining $50,000.

Additional revenue generated by the proposed tax rate hike would be distributed to cities and towns on the same bases as the original enactment of general revenue sharing in FY2009.

To read the bill in its entirety, click here.


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