NEW: Gorbea Backs Legislation for Overhaul of RI Lobbying Laws

Thursday, May 14, 2015


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RI Sec. of State Nellie Gorbea

Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea has announced legislation that she says will "strengthen, clarify and increase the transparency of Rhode Island’s lobbying laws."

The Lobbying Reform Act of 2015 would replace existing legislative and executive branch lobbying laws with a single comprehensive statute. Rhode Island currently has two separate laws for executive and legislative lobbying that have their own set of definitions, procedures and reporting requirements.

“Our currently lobbying laws are confusing. The Lobbying Reform Act of 2015 provides the tools necessary to ensure that lobbying is properly and transparently regulated, that laws are taken seriously, and that violations are dealt with decisively," said Gorbea.  

Changes Identified

Provisions in the legislation include clarifying the definitions of lobbyist and lobbying, providing a solid framework for investigations and hearings, and authorizing administrative subpoena power in the course of conducting investigations, bringing the Department of State in line with standard practices currently used by other state agencies such as Department of Business Regulations and Department of Environmental Management.

Additional provisions include strengthening and simplifying lobbying reporting guidelines for those involved while making it easier for the general public to access these reports and understand the information being reported, and increasing maximum penalties for non-compliance to more than double the current amounts.

The bills introduced on Gorbea's behalf are H-6178 and S-904)  by Representative Robert B. Jacquard (D-Cranston) and Senator Erin P. Lynch (D-Warwick).


Related Slideshow: Ten Bills to Watch in 2015 General Assembly

The last day for bill introductions in the Rhode Island House of Representatives is slated for February 12, but things should really begin heating up one month following, when Governor Gina Raimondo is due to present her FY16 budget proposal to the chamber -- and members have a new sense of the fiscal realities facing the state, and what the Governor will be pushing for.

With the 2015 General Assembly just underway (and over four months to go), below is a list of 10 of the top bills facing the General Assembly now, or expected to come.   

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Marijuana Legalization

Will marijuana legalization see daylight -- or even success -- in RI in 2015?

Advocates are buoyed by Governor Gina Raimondo's public openness to considering the possibility.  As other New England states weigh the prospects of legalization, and Rhode Island faces a budget deficit, proponents are bullish on the potential.

"[Governor] Raimondo's recent comments — made very early in the legislative session — about marijuana policy reform being something we should "absolutely" look at sends a clear message to the General Assembly," said Jared Moffat, Director of Regulate RI.  "She wants lawmakers to have an open, honest, and serious discussion about this issue."

"Our bill to regulate marijuana like alcohol hasn't been introduced yet, but will be soon," added Moffat. "Polls show a majority of Rhode Islanders are tired of costly and ineffective prohibitionist policies that punish adults for using a substance that is far less harmful than alcohol. With the huge loss in gambling revenue, lawmakers will be looking for a way to close the budget deficit, and marijuana consumers are one of the few groups that wouldn't mind paying more taxes."

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Twin River Hotel

The slots-parlor-turned-casino-with-table games in Lincoln (through voter approval in 2012) wants to take another step towards full fledged destination status with a hotel, in order to compete with looming gambling on the horizon in Massachusetts.  

"We expect there will be a bill, but we've always believed the conversation should start with the town first," said Twin River spokesperson Patti Doyle, about the prospects of a hotel being broached during the session.  
"There's a meeting in Lincoln with residents on [February] 24th.  After the public hearing, we will approach the Lincoln delegation about the possibility of bill introduction."

"We're looking for the repeal of the prohibition of a hotel, which exists in the current master contract between UTGR and the state," noted Doyle.

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Social Security Exemption

The cornerstone of Speaker Mattiello's legislative agenda -- exempting social security from the state income tax --  has already drawn criticism from the state's former Director of Administration Gary Sasse, and a battle of words ensued over the merits (or drawbacks) of the proposal.

Mattiello pointed to RI being just one of 13 states that has an income tax on social security, while Sasse questioned its fiscal impact -- and its impact on job creation.  

Representatives Patricia Serpa and Bob Craven have already introduced legislation push for Mattiello's proposal -- look to see how the rank and file follow suit and if opposition will arise at the Assembly to it.

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Narcan in Schools

The bill recently introduced by State Representative David Bennett -- a psychiatric nurse -- to equip and train school nurses and officials in grades 6-12 to administer Narcan, the antidote for opioid overdoses, was proposed at the same time the RI Department of Health announced that Narcan was administered on youth under the age of 18 over 50 times in 2014.

"RI is on the cutting edge with this, before we congratulate ourselves too much, we're leading the nation in drug and alcohol use," said Dr. Jody Rich, at the Miriam Hospital.  "I haven't checked the stats, but we're up there. We need to try everything we possibly we can.  There were 1000 overdose deaths in MA in 2013, we had 200 in RI.  In this day and age you don't want to see young people doing heroin, oxycontin, vicodin -- much of which is being cut with the fentanyl."

The proposal is slated for a hearing on Wednesday February 4 with the House Committee on Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).

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Ban on Beach Smoking

Will Rhode Island ban smoking at state beaches in 2015?   

"Discarding cigarette butts, cigar butts and tobacco waste on beach sand is not only unsightly and unclean, it can be particularly hazardous to small children, who may handle or ingest this material,” said Sen. Erin P. Lynch (D-Dist. 31, Warwick, Cranston), who noted that cigarette butts contain 200 known poisons, many of which are known to cause cancer, in her legislative proposal. 

The legislation would make smoking or disposing of smoking products illegal on or within 20 feet of all beaches under the control of the Department of Environmental Management. Violators would be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a mandatory fine of between $150 and $1,000 for a first offense, between $500 and $1,000 for a second conviction and between $750 and $1,000 for subsequent offenses. In addition to fines, the court may, as a condition of probation, order violators to spend eight hours collecting litter at state beaches.


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School Construction Funds

The current moratorium on state aid to school construction in Rhode Island set to expire in May, and Senator Ryan Pearson introduced legislation to reform the process through which school construction projects are approved and provide a designated funding stream to meet the needs of modern public education facilities.

“This is a starting point for discussion on the critical issue of school construction aid,” said Sen. Pearson (D – Dist. 19, Cumberland, Lincoln). “This issue is a priority in the Senate for good reason. It is absolutely imperative that we get this right and meet the educational needs of students across the state while ensuring a sustainable funding strategy.”

The legislation, based on the work of a 2014 Senate task force, would enhance the funding, structure and functions of the Rhode Island Health and Educational Building Corporation (RIHEBC). The agency’s board would be reformed, and it would be designated as the financing and administering entity for school construction projects. RIHEBC would allocate funding of annual revenues for projects based on need, priority and cost effectiveness.

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Rhode Map Opt-Out

The controversial state development plan approved by the State Planning Council in December could see legislation to allow cities and towns to decide to opt out.

Spearheaded by House Minority leaders, such a bill would most likely allow cities and towns to not adhere to the HUD standards set forth in RhodeMap.

“Many Rhode Islanders, all of the legislative members of the House Minority and many city and town councils have expressed concern with the impact that RhodeMap RI may have on local comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances. We decided to address those concerns.” said House Minority Leader Brian Newberry.

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Ethics Legislation

After newly elected Governor Gina Raimondo issued an executive order calling for ethics and integrity in state government, members of the General Assembly began following suit -- to put a constitutional amendment question before voters establishing the makeup and powers of the Ethics Commission and specifically its authority over members of the General Assembly.

“The people’s trust in its government is the glue that binds a people to its government,” said Senator James Sheehan. “Restoring the Ethics Commission jurisdiction over legislators has become central to establishing that trust.”

Senator Edward O'Neill announced that he was looking to amend the Rhode Island Constitution to give the Ethics Commission greater jurisdiction over the General Assembly, including acts otherwise protected by the “speech in debate” provisions of Article VI, Section 5 of the Constitution.


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Infrastructure Funding

During the campaign, now-Governor Gina Raimondo said she would create a Rhode Island Municipal Infrastructure Bank as a "one-stop shop" for cities and towns to improve Rhode Island's roads, bridges and other infrastructure.  

It would expand a road and bridge revolving fund she created last year with the General Assembly to provide low-interest loans to municipalities for repairs; establish a road and bridge funding formula; launch a so-called green bank for retrofitting buildings and facilities; and create a school building authority to stimulate capital improvements.

In 2013, then-gubernatorial candidate Ken Block blasted then-General Treasurer Raimondo's infrastructure plan at the time.  Look to see what, if any, discussion and debates arise if Raimondo tries to push the bolder proposal this year. 

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Facing a projected $30 million budget shortfall for the coming year, all eyes will be on Governor Gina Raimondo when she unveils her FY16 budget on March 12.   Little is known at this time of the new Governor's agenda and budgetary priorities, but the first-time budget proposal, which is historically later the first year of an Administration, means for a shorter period of time for the General Assembly to digest -- and respond. 


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