Tuesday, October 27, 2009

R.I. General Assembly to reconvene over long list of issues

By Steve Peoples

Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The General Assembly returns to Smith Hill this week after a four-month hiatus that left uncertain the fate of scores of bills touching everything from taxes, cell phones, license plates and fishing to even the state’s official name.

Related links

Your Turn: What issues do you want the R.I. Assembly to prioritize?
There will be little time for warming up.

Legislative leaders have scheduled hearings or floor votes for 196 individual proposals between Tuesday afternoon and Thursday night. And that number is expected to grow.

What was initially planned to be a narrowly focused two-day gathering may become a likely clearinghouse for legislation that has, in some cases, lingered in political limbo for years.

The coming days may be dominated by news of lawmakers’ attempts to outlaw indoor prostitution, but they may also ban text messaging by drivers, require saltwater fishing licenses of Ocean State residents, allow mixed martial arts fighting and ask voters to decide whether to eliminate the word “Plantations” from the state name.

Other proposals, also expected to pass, include the creation of a New England Patriots license plate, the re-shaping the state’s Economic Development Corporation, the re-opening of the Westerly branch of the Division of Motor Vehicles and a measure stripping from Governor Carcieri the power to appoint a replacement in the case of an unexpected vacancy in the U.S. Senate.

“They’re still fine-tuning some of the legislation, but this is the bulk of it,” Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker William J. Murphy, said of the 128 bills posted on House calendars for public hearings or votes before Friday. The Senate listed another 68 as of Monday evening.

State Republican Chairman Giovanni Cicione said that Democratic lawmakers, who dominate the Assembly, are wasting taxpayers’ time.

“Nothing good can come of this,” he said. “They should not be coming back to tinker. If they’re coming back, they should be doing something substantial to address the economic disaster facing this state.”

This week’s gathering comes three months later than Murphy intended when he abruptly left the rostrum in the early morning hours of June 27. Suggesting that circumstances required Rhode Island’s part-time lawmakers to become a full-time Assembly, the speaker said he would schedule a July session.

That never happened. And subsequent efforts to reconvene ultimately failed. Until now.

The public first learned of the specific plan for the week when legislative leaders began to post committee agendas Friday afternoon. Most of this week’s plans, however, were posted throughout the day Monday.

The scope of the agenda apparently surprised several political observers.

“I thought it was going to be more targeted,” said John Marion, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause. “It seems like they’re going to try to finish the bulk of what was left on the table the morning of June 27.”

He said that most proposals have been debated already, but suggested the narrow timeframe may complicate efforts to properly review changes or new legislation that may surface.

“There’s been a lot of rhetoric that they consider themselves a full-time legislature,” Marion said. “There’s no need to rush through this in two days.”

The bills posted on the agendas enjoy the support of the House and Senate leadership and are likely to pass both chambers by the end of the week, according to Berman. Once the same version of a bill passes the House and Senate, it becomes law absent a gubernatorial veto.

“You can never predict for sure,” Berman said of the likely passage of this week’s agenda. “Nothing is 100 percent.”

Legislative leaders have suspended the rules, which normally require 48-hour notice of all committee and floor action. That means committee hearings can now be held with a few minutes notice in unusual places, such as State House balconies and hallways, just as has happened in the final days of recent Assembly sessions.

“We’re trying to abide by the rules as much as possible, but we may need some leeway,” Berman said.

Among the high-profile bills excluded from the agenda is a proposal to allow binding arbitration for teacher’s unions.

The contentious issue pitted taxpayer groups against organized labor in a special House labor committee hearing last week. It has also become a battle on the radio and television airwaves in recent days.

The state’s largest taxpayer group, the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, budgeted $4,000 for a “public education campaign” consisting of 30-second radio advertisement warning that, “An unelected person could get the final say, locking your town into contracts it can’t afford.”

The National Education Association, meanwhile, refused to disclose how much it spent on a separate radio and television advertising campaign that described binding arbitration a different way: “Your homework assignment is to call your legislators and ask for their support in binding arbitration for teacher contracts,” says Jodi Olivo, a fifth grade Pawtucket teacher in one of two television advertisements, adding that binding arbitration would end teacher strikes, “work to rule,” and excessive legal fees.

NEA executive director Robert A. Walsh said he was “concerned, but not panicked” that the binding arbitration bill wasn’t posted on any agendas.

“You never know what’s going to come up at the very last minute,” he said.

The legislature also plans to address legislation that would:

•Allow police to force chemical tests on drivers involved in serious accidents

•Reduce the minimum sentences for some drug offenses

•Destroy the record of any crime for which an admitted criminal has been given a “deferred” sentence, regardless of the nature of the crime, as long as the offender stays out of trouble for five years