Saturday, June 27, 2009

Voters Given the Chance to Drop ‘Providence Plantations’ from R.I.’s Name


Journal State House Bureau

Rep. Douglas Gablinske, left, and Rep. Arthur Corvese grab a bite and look over information between votes.

The Providence Journal / Glenn Osmundson

After a furious three-day stretch of voting, Smith Hill lawmakers sputtered toward adjournment late Friday night, fighting to whittle down a mountain of bills that remained. By 10 p.m. the Senate called it quits and went home, but the House continued marching through its calendar without a definitive end point.

Throughout the afternoon and evening, the General Assembly approved scores of bills big and small, the most dramatic of which would ask Rhode Island voters to decide whether they want to change the state’s name from the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations to simply Rhode Island.

Proponents say dropping “Providence Plantations” from the name would wipe away images of the slave trade and help erase years of pain.

By dusk, the full Senate approved the plan, following House passage a day earlier. Unless vetoed by the governor, the new law would permit a statewide referendum in 2010.

“Now, we can really begin the healing process,” said Sen. Harold M. Metts, the bill’s sponsor.

Friday night’s action also included Senate approval of legislation that would create a long-awaited school-funding formula, and another that would give $10,000 tax write-offs to people who donate organs.

On the House side, lawmakers approved plans to allow round-the-clock, seven-day-a-week gambling at Twin River, while requiring the Lincoln slot parlor to continue dog racing; and a bill mandating that foreclosed properties be properly maintained by the banks that take them over.

Following hours of debate in un-air-conditioned –– and sometimes steamy chambers –– the Senate ended its day, vowing to return early next week. But it was unclear whether House lawmakers would continue working their way through the dozens of bills to adjourn for the summer, or break for the weekend and return on Monday.

Exhausted Democratic House leaders waved off questions from anxious observers and lobbyists about when they’d be done.

“We worry about House business. We are still going to continue to work,” House Speaker William J. Murphy said through a spokesman.

The House’s small but steadfast Republican opposition, meanwhile, offered harsh words over the breakneck pace and lack of a schedule. When the day began, the House had 142 items on its agenda, with dozens more added as the hours passed.

“What you’re seeing now is passage of the bills that were previously held hostage by the speaker so he could corral the votes he needed to get the budget done,” House Minority Whip John Loughlin, R-Tiverton said as the sun set.

“… Now there is a very limited time to pay back all of those favors, so you’re seeing this tremendous crush of questionable legislation cramming out all at once. There is no reason why any of these bills couldn’t have been done in March, but for the fact that they were being held hostage by the speaker.”

The day revved into gear by mid-afternoon, with Senate lawmakers unexpectedly passing a bill that would create an education-funding formula for school districts in Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns. The Ocean State is the only one in the nation that does not have what supporters call a “predictable” funding formula.

Funding-formula plans have kicked around the General Assembly for several years, only to lose steam long before the final nights of the session.

“We have procrastinated long enough,” bill sponsor Sen. Hanna Gallo, D-Warwick, said Friday.

Gallo’s proposal, backed by a host of stakeholders ranging from the state’s labor unions to the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, establishes a formula based on a complex equation that guarantees no community would lose money.

Supporters acknowledge that the provision would ratchet up the cost of the plan, which is why they included a clause stipulating that the legislation won’t take effect until the state experiences at least two consecutive years of revenue growth.

“It is an expensive proposal,” said Timothy Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees. “How the legislature is going to fund it with diminishing revenue will be an issue.”

But Friday night the plan appeared headed for a slow death on the House side, where Democratic leaders have said they’d prefer to establish such a formula when there is money to actually fund it.

Even Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, who has sponsored her own funding formula, seemed skeptical. “We don’t have the money this year,” she said. “Nobody’s predicting an influx of money next year. In fact, the prediction is for a larger deficit next year. So my question is: when will we have money to fund this formula?”

In another unexpected move, the Senate passed a bill that would require the part-time reopening of the motor vehicles registry in Westerly, which has been closed since February because of state budget problems. The new budget includes $10,000 to reopen that branch. But the state Department of Administration believes it would cost at least $420,000 to revive it, citing a need to hire three full-time employees and get updated equipment.

On the House side, the action was slightly more frenzied, with bills voted in bundles over ice cream sandwiches and Finance Committee members huddling on a balcony outside the House lounge to curb pensions for a group of state judges who were left out of pension changes adopted in the state budget.

By late evening, tempers had flared, with Minority Whip Robert A. Watson demanding to know why no fans had been brought in to cool the sweltering chamber. Speaker Murphy quipped that it wasn’t hot enough. At least not yet.

Some members took the heat and the uneven pace of business in stride, removing their shoes or taking refuge by the windows in the lounge, occasionally missing votes in favor of a cool breeze.

Lobbyists awaiting the fate of their bills paled as the evening crawled on and the outcome of key proposals remained unclear. The Senate still needed to approve changes to the Twin River dog-racing bill, and the House had yet to take up several contentious proposals, including one that would assess private colleges and universities with a municipal impact fee and another that would give domestic partners the right to make funeral arrangements for their loved ones.

“It could be done better,” said John Marion, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause. “There are 142 bills before the House right now. The typical refrain here is ‘That’s always how it’s been done.’ I don’t think that’s an excuse.”

With reports from Katherine Gregg

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