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State Report: Senate Passes Murder Bill + Estate Tax Elimination

Saturday, March 01, 2014


This week’s State Report centers on the Senate’s passage of a bill that would require individuals convicted of first- or second-degree murder to serve as least 50 percent of a sentence before being eligible for parole. Additionally, we’ll look at new proposals which address a variety of topics—including the estate tax, GEDs, bridge tolls, and cesspools.

Senate Passes Raptakis Murder/Parole Bill

The Rhode Island Senate approved legislation on Thursday that will require individuals convicted of first- or second-degree murder to serve as least 50 percent of a sentence prior to being eligible for parole.

Sponsored by Sen. Leonidas P. Raptakis (D-Dist. 33, Coventry, East Greenwich, West Greenwich), the legislation, 2014-S 2029, will apply the 50 percent sentence requirement to individuals convicted of first- or second-degree murder who have not been sentenced to life in prison.

“Individuals who commit first- and second-degree murder should be expected to serve at least a majority of their sentences and really, I think, they should be serving their full sentences for such a heinous crime,” said Raptakis. “At the very least, they should serve no less than half of their term, which has been the case in some instances.”

“How can we talk about being tough on crime when murderers know they will be getting out of prison after serving only a relatively short amount of time, and much less than the sentence they receive,” he added.

The Raptakis legislation now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. Co-sponsors include Sen. Frank Lombardo III (D-Dist. 25, Johnston), Sen. Frank S. Lombardi (D-Dist. 26, Cranston), Sen. Michael J. McCaffrey (D-Dist. 29, Warwick) and Sen. Dawson Hodgson (R-Dist. 35, East Greenwich, Narragansett, North Kingstown, South Kingstown).

An identical House bill, 2014-H 7101, by Rep. Patricia A. Serpa (D-Dist. 27, West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick), is currently before the House Committee on Judiciary.

Raptakis has introduced two other bills this session dealing with murder and parole. One, 2014-S 2031, would establish a convicted murderer registry and notification process, much like the sexual offender registry. The other, 2014-S 2036, would require individuals convicted of first- or second-degree murder who are sentenced to life to serve at least 30 years of a sentence before being eligible for parole. Both bills are before the Senate Committee on Judiciary.

Parole Board Appointees

In addition to passing the Raptakis legislation, the Senate also approved two pieces of legislation affecting parole board appointments and terms of services this week. Both bills were introduced by Sen. James E. Doyle II (D-Dist. 8, Pawtucket).

One of the bills 2014-S 2099, would require parole board members to be appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. Currently, appointments to the seven-member parole board are made solely by the governor with no legislative oversight.

The other bill, 2014-S 2101, provides that no appointee to the parole board, including the chair, would serve more than three three-year terms. If enacted, the legislation would apply prospectively to all new appointments or re-appointments. (An identical House bill, 2014-H 7300, is currently before the House Committee on Judiciary.)

The bills now go to the House of Representatives for consideration.


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


Related Slideshow: RI State Report: More News of the Week - 3/1/14

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Bill gives lawmakers more time to vet toll proposal

Rep. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Portsmouth, Tiverton) has introduced legislation that would ultimately accommodate a full vetting process for an equitable alternative to Sakonnet River Bridge tolls.

The legislation extends the date that the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) may impose a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge – not to exceed 10 cents – from April 1, 2014 to July 1, 2014.

“This bill gives us the time we need for our colleagues in the General Assembly to review our transportation proposal and, if approved, place it in the state budget,” said Edwards, also the primary House sponsor of the transportation bill. “This needs to be a transparent, thorough process so that we do not have to revisit this issue again. Bridge tolls are still a hot-button issue for my district and the East Bay; although I certainly would not limit this conundrum to just East Bay residents. How we go about maintaining our bridges and roadways is a statewide issue, which we have said from the beginning. We have done our homework, and now it’s time to move forward and address this issue head-on.”

Click here to read the proposal in its entirety.

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New bill would remove GED roadblocks

Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D – Dist. 1, Providence) has submitted legislation that requires the Department of Education to consider alternative, lower cost tests utilized by other states, and to adopt regulations for a waiver of fees associated with the assessment.

As of January 1, the cost to Rhode Islanders seeking to take the General Education Development test, or GED, more than doubled, from $55 to $120. Adding another potential barrier to earning a GED are new regulations which became effective last April and eliminated the option of a fee waiver for those who can prove financial hardship.

“To someone in need of their high school equivalency, $120 may present a real barrier to obtaining the credential,” said Goodwin. “Many Rhode Islanders struggled to afford the test at its previous cost. The higher cost, with no option for a hardship waiver, presents a difficult obstacle for low-income individuals.

To read the bill in its entirety, click here.

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Bill requiring utilities to maintain in-state customer service facility

Legislation introduced by Rep. Raymond A. Hull (D-Dist. 6, Providence, North Providence) could, if enacted, force one of the state’s major cable providers to rethink its recently announced workforce consolidation plan.

Cox Communications has indicated that it will eliminate 234 jobs in Rhode Island as part of a move to consolidate residential customer service operations around the nation.

“Consolidations and mergers and acquisitions and other high-level corporate moves may be good for those businesses, but I’m not sure those moves are always in the best interest of their customers,” said Hull. “Attempts to lower costs and increase profits should never take precedence over the needs of the customers, or the services they provide to those customers.”

Hull's legislation would require every public utility operated and licensed to provide services to the residents and businesses in Rhode Island to maintain a customer service operation physically located within the state, reasonably staffed to meet the expectations of the public.

Click here to read Hull's bill.

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Estate tax elimination bill

State Rep. Doreen Costa (R-North Kingstown, Exeter) announced Thursday that she will introduce a bill to eliminate the estate tax in Rhode Island.

Costa’s bill is part of the House Republican’s “Getting to 25” program, which aims to bring Rhode Island back into the mainstream. The estate tax is yet another case where Rhode Island is considered uncompetitive.  Most of states tie estate taxes to the federal level, where estates below $5.25 million (for tax year 2013) are not subject to estate tax.

Several proposals to change the estate tax have already been introduced this legislative session. Last session, there were nine bills calling for a change to the estate tax in Rhode Island, none reached the House Floor for a vote.

“Rhode Island has one of the most unfriendly estate tax thresholds in the country.” said Costa. Currently, the threshold limit is $921,000, but is linked to inflation. “Only one state has a lower threshold amount than Rhode Island and that is New Jersey. We need to take action this year.”

Costa’s bill comes on the heels of a special report issued by the RI Department of Revenue.  This report tracked the outflow of income tax filers in Rhode Island from 2007 to 2011.  During this period the state experienced “a net loss of 741” filers reporting incomes above $200,000.

“When people leave Rhode Island, everyone gets hurt. My bill will cost money, but consider how our state is losing this population.” On average these 700 residents paid over $20,000 in taxes each year.  Rhode Island lost an estimated $14 million in income tax collections from the flight of these residents, almost half of the expected $31.8 million collected annually by the state. “Some will say that Rhode Island cannot afford to eliminate the estate tax, I ask, can we afford not to take action?”

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Bill looks to begin statewide cesspool phase-out

As a means to protect the public and the environment, Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett) introduced legislation on Thursday to eliminate cesspools in Rhode Island.

Cesspools – buried chambers that receive sewage from a building for disposal into the ground – release untreated human waste into the environment, often in direct contact with groundwater. New cesspool construction was banned in Rhode Island in 1968, and since then new buildings have generally been connected to municipal sewers or built with onsite septic systems that safely treat waste.

Under legislation passed in 2007, by this year all cesspools within 200 feet of coastal waters and public drinking water supplies were required to be replaced either by state-approved on-site wastewater treatment systems or connections to sewer systems. But that still leaves thousands of other cesspools in use across the state that threaten the environment and public health, and Rhode Island needs a plan to eliminate them, according to Tanzi.

“There was nothing magic about the 200-foot limit built into the original law,” said Tanzi. “Over time, a cesspool will affect people’s land and the environment over far greater distances, so it is time for all of them to go.”

As of last year, there were still about 25,000 cesspools in the state, according to Department of Environmental Management estimates.

Tanzi's bill would require that all cesspools in the state, regardless of location, be replaced when they fail, or when the property is sold or transferred to someone outside the seller’s immediate family. The replacement must occur within 12 months of the date of the sale or transfer. The legislation also requires that any property that currently uses a cesspool but has a sewer stub for connection to a public sewer be connected to the sewer by Jan. 1, 2016.

“Since you can’t put a price tag on the value of a cleaner environment, any time is a good time to replace an old cesspool, if only to protect your own well water. However, I also understand that it can be a big expense for a homeowner to replace a septic system. That’s another reason why I believe the most practical approach is to require cesspool replacement to occur when the property is sold," said Tanzi.


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