Saturday, June 12, 2010

Gambling, school aid top RI Statehouse agenda

June 11, 2010 4:33 PM ET

By ERIC TUCKER

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Gambling, wind energy, pension reform and education aid dominated the agenda of the Rhode Island General Assembly this year, as lawmakers in a state with a double-digit unemployment rate scrambled for ways to find extra revenue and cut costs.

Lawmakers wrapped up business early Friday, capping a busy election-year session and the first under new House Speaker Gordon Fox. It was a year when public policy issues, such as casino gambling and the decriminalization of marijuana, were debated with in the context of the state's economy.

In the frenetic final hours of the session, lawmakers approved a voter referendum on converting the state's licensed slot parlors into full-scale casinos and passed what they said was a predictable funding formula for school aid.

They also revived the prospects of a proposed wind farm off the coast of Block Island and overhauled the income tax structure.

The $7.8 billion budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, passed last week, limits cost-of-living increases for future retirees to the first $35,000 of their pension payments and also slashes aid to cities, towns and school districts. The budget depends on about $100 million in federal money that has yet to be passed by Congress, but allows the governor to make across-the-board cuts if the funds aren't approved.

Republican Gov. Don Carcieri said Friday he would let the budget become law without his signature.

Some of the economic changes were welcome but should have come sooner, given how long Rhode Island has been mired in a recession and its 12.5 percent unemployment rate, said University of Rhode Island economist Leonard Lardaro.

"We had every right to have things done sooner, and they should have been done sooner," he said.

A highlight of the session was the decision to seek voter approval for state-operated casino gambling at Twin River in Lincoln and Newport Grand in Newport. The slot parlors offer video lottery terminals but not table games. Supporters of the bill — which passed over the objections of Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed — argued gambling was a critical source of revenue that needs to be protected, especially at a time when neighboring Massachusetts is mulling casinos.

That bill also heads to the governor.

Other measures that attracted considerable attention ultimately failed, including a bill that would have asked voters to restore the state Ethics Commission's power to investigate and fine state lawmakers for their votes at the Statehouse.

That measure died in the Senate. The commission's authority was hobbled by a state Supreme Court ruling last year that said lawmakers were shielded from ethics complaints based on their votes or other legislative acts. Critics of the ruling said it would weaken the commission's authority to police lawmakers who vote to advance their own financial interests.

"We were disappointed not only that it didn't get out but really disappointed that it didn't even get a fair shake in the Senate," said John Marion, executive director of the good government group Common Cause Rhode Island.

A bill to decriminalize possession of one ounce of marijuana or less — modeled after a similar measure in Massachusetts — also failed to get out of the Senate, where its sponsor, Sen. Joshua Miller, a Cranston Democrat, said he didn't see enough support to override an expected veto from Carcieri.

"With a veto threatening, it had to be wider than that," Miller said of the level of support.

Lawmakers also approved the creation of a funding formula for school districts, which supporters see as critical to the state's hopes of securing $75 million in federal grants in the national Race to the Top education funding competition.

And the state passed a new law aimed at cutting income tax rates for most residents. It also reduces the number of tax brackets and eliminates the flat-tax option for the state's highest earners.

"This is a day when Rhode Island can say it's opening its doors to do business," Rep. Steven Costantino, a Providence Democrat and chair of the House Finance Committee, said at a news conference announcing the changes.

Other bills approved would:

— Legalize the sale of sparklers and ground-based fireworks.

— Remove the word "Retardation" from the state Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals.

— Allow independent candidates for elective office to receive matching funds.

— Suspend for up to one year the license of any driver convicted of four different moving violations within an 18-month period.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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