Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Major issues left to last minute

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

By Steve Peoples, Randal edgar and Katherine gregg

Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE — A flood of legislation moved through the General Assembly Tuesday, but the fate of many high-profile bills was unclear just 24 hours before lawmakers hope to adjourn for the year.

Casinos, a wind farm, ethics, marijuana, education funding, criminal records and taxes are a small sampling of the issues still confronting Rhode Island’s part-time legislators. Some may simply be left to die.

Very few were decided Tuesday, despite a chaotic pace.

When the afternoon began, 18 legislative committees were set to review and perhaps vote on 206 pieces of legislation. Dozens were passed and sent directly to the House or Senate floors where rank-and-file lawmakers were asked to act on laws that some hadn’t read. A computer failure in the Senate prevented specific votes on 40 bills from being recorded.

Noticeably absent from any agenda was an ethics bill that some say is all but dead.

Senate leaders have refused to allow a vote on a provision overwhelmingly approved by the House last week that would allow voters this fall to reinstate the Ethics Commission’s power to investigate and prosecute state legislators who use their positions to benefit themselves, their relatives or their business associates.

That power was stripped by a state Supreme Court ruling last year.

Roughly 40 protesters gathered in the State House rotunda earlier in the day to push for Senate action.

“Inaction will only leave a cloud over the Senate,” said Larry Valencia, president of the rally’s organizer, Operation Clean Government.

A handful of elected officials joined the protest, including Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, Sen. Edward J. O’Neill, I-Lincoln, and Sen. Michael J. Pinga, D-West Warwick.

“I have little faith that it will be heard,” Pinga said of the bill. “If leadership doesn’t want to hear it, it’s not going to be heard … They want to police themselves. What a joke.”

When asked later in the afternoon whether she would allow a vote, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed said, “No comment,” and added that it was not her immediate focus.

The fate of the bill, like dozens more pending before the legislature, won’t become clear until lawmakers formally recess for the year. That’s expected late Wednesday, but could stretch to later in the week.

The chaotic pace has become commonplace in an Assembly that gives final approval to just a handful of bills in the first five months of the year and regularly approves hundreds of new laws in its final days.

But there is one difference this year, according to John Marion, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause.

“There are probably more issues of greater substance left hanging,” he said. And “they’re leaving earlier than they usually do. We’re not bumping up against the Fourth of July here. It’s June 8. It doesn’t seem like there’s good reason to be rushing.”

Should the Assembly adjourn for the year Wednesday, as currently planned, it would be its earliest departure since 1988.

Other highlights Tuesday included:


A proposal, approved by the full House and full Senate, would allow the sale, possession and transportation of “non-aerial fireworks” for anyone at least 16 years old.

Specifically, the bill would legalize such things as “fountains, illuminating torches, wheels, ground spinners, flitter sparklers, sparklers” and “party poppers, snappers, toy smoke devices, snakes, glow worms, wire sparklers and dipped sticks.”

The new measure could become law in the coming days, long before the July 4 holiday.

Municipal tools

A committee Tuesday completely ignored legislation that would help cities and towns cut costs.

Despite recent declarations that relief was on the way, and despite another reduction in state aid to cities and towns, lawmakers as of Tuesday night had not passed any of the so-called municipal tools — such as a minimum health-insurance co-pay for municipal workers — that local officials wanted. And there was no indication that legislation will pass before the session ends.

“We’re not sure yet,” said House Speaker Gordon D. Fox. “There’s a lot of stuff still percolating.”

Estate tax

The same day Governor Carcieri signed into law an Assembly proposal that makes Rhode Island’s income-tax structure more competitive, the Senate approved a measure long considered a priority for conservatives that goes even further.

The act would raise the exemption of Rhode Island’s estate tax, sometimes referred to as the “death tax,” from the current level of $850,000 to $1.5 million beginning Jan. 1, 2012.

Approximately 271 tax filers would benefit from the change, and state government would lose estimated revenue of $2.78 million should the House approve the measure, according to the state Department of Revenue.


A bill to allow many more convicted criminals to legally tell their prospective employers and landlords they have never been convicted of a crime cleared the House and Senate.

Rhode Island judges are already allowed to permanently seal the records of nonviolent crimes by first offenders 5 years after completion of their sentences for misdemeanors, 10 years after the completion of sentences for felonies. Headed to the governor, who vetoed a similar measure in 2008, the bill calls for the automatic sealing of 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 he or she stays out of trouble for that five-year period.

This would apply only to those who have plead guilty or no contest.


•While the Senate passed a bill last week that would require all roll-call committee votes to be posted on the General Assembly Web site, the House Finance Committee had not as of Tuesday night scheduled a hearing on the proposal. Separate legislation that would force all legislative votes to be posted online in a user-friendly format was ignored.

•Lawmakers gave final approval and sent to the governor’s desk a bill that would require the police to record confessions to crimes that carry a potential penalty of life in prison. The bill, which applies to confessions made when a suspect is in police custody, allows for some exceptions, including cases where a defendant refuses to be recorded and cases where the accused makes a spontaneous statement.

•While the subject of much discussion this session, legislation that would decriminalize marijuana possession is likely dead for the year.

“There’s some ideas still floating around on how to resurrect it,” said its sponsor, Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston.

With reports from

Philip Marcelo

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