Saturday, June 12, 2010

Race to finish pulls along major bills

By steve peoples AND RANDAL EDGAR

Journal state house bureau

Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed talks with Senate Majority Leader Daniel Connors while the Senate was in recess for committee hearings Thursday.

The Providence Journal / Connie Grosch

PROVIDENCE — Having had little to show for its first five months of work, the General Assembly was poised to finish its 2010 session Thursday night after a 72-hour sprint to finalize high-profile laws on public education, gambling, a wind farm, taxes and dangerous drivers.

It was a frenzied pace at times for part-time lawmakers already looking toward their reelection fights this fall.

But officials from across the political spectrum praised the Democrat-dominated Assembly for a flurry of heavy lifting that began Tuesday afternoon as committees raced through hundreds of bills touching on everything from fireworks to municipal bankruptcy.

“I think that over the session they have dealt with a lot of issues,” said the Republican Governor Carcieri, citing the passage of an education-funding formula, an income-tax overhaul, a measure to help create a wind farm off Block Island, and another to ward off municipal bankruptcies. “They always get criticized because it all happens at the end. Unfortunately, that’s just the nature of the beast.”

Indeed, Thursday was the third consecutive day that lawmakers were expected to conclude their business after midnight. There was little public notice of votes, and agendas changed minute to minute, as top lawmakers brokered private deals to help shepherd bills to passage.

Government watchdog groups applauded the decision to end Wednesday’s business –– initially set as the Assembly’s last of the year — shortly after midnight, instead of forcing through dozens of new laws while most of Rhode Island was sleeping.

But they questioned the wisdom of continuing to rush to meet a self-imposed deadline to adjourn for the year.

“It’s only June 10. There’s plenty of time to keep working on these things,” said Common Cause Executive Director John Marion, noting that his organization’s two priorities — an ethics bill and another to improve access to public records — were likely dead for the year.

Senate leaders refused to allow a vote on legislation sponsored by House Speaker Gordon D. Fox to reinstate the state Ethics Commission’s authority, which was stripped by a recent Supreme Court decision.

Specifically, the proposal would have placed a question on the November ballot asking voters whether to allow the Ethics Commission’s to investigate and prosecute state legislators who use their positions to benefit themselves, their relatives or their business associates.

Without the change, “we’ve got a whole group of people exempt from ethics rules,” said a “disappointed” Carcieri.

Fox acknowledged earlier in the week that the ethics bill was not a priority, however. The governor had other priorities this year as well.

The term-limited Carcieri used what political leverage he had to ensure the passage of a bill — also backed by organized labor — to set the Deepwater Wind offshore-turbine project back on course.

The private company wants to spend $200 million to erect eight turbines off Block Island to serve the island. Deepwater describes its plan as a demonstration project that could lead to a $1.5-billion wind farm farther offshore.

But opponents, including Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, argued the legislation is a special-interest bill designed to benefit one company at great cost to many ratepayers.

Once signed into law by the governor, the new law would send the power-purchase agreement to the Public Utilities Commission for another review.

Carcieri referred to the deal as “huge for the state long-term,” and AFL-CIO President George Nee agreed.

“This may have been one of the more significant years for economic development in the history of the state,” said Nee, citing the Deepwater measure, in addition to the likely passage of a measure creating a November ballot question on whether to allow a full-scale casino in Rhode Island.

Carcieri personally called Fox when the House followed the Senate’s lead in approving the Deepwater bill late Wednesday.

The governor waited until after the vote to say whether he would veto the $7.8-billion state budget approved by the legislature last week. A veto would have inconvenienced lawmakers by forcing them to return next week for an override session.

“Nothing’s ever perfect,” Carcieri said of the budget, noting that he would “most likely not” veto the package, but that his office would issue a formal statement Friday.

Meanwhile, in the rush to adjourn Thursday night, lawmakers were also expected to approve a bill to increase penalties for “habitual traffic offenders.”

Drivers convicted of four moving violations within an 18-month period would have to attend 60 hours of driver training and perform 60 hours of community service. They would also face fines of up to $1,000 and the loss of their license for up to two years.

Rep. Donna Walsh, D-Charlestown, said the bill would help to prevent accidents like the one that killed 27-year-old Colin Foote. Foote, a Charlestown resident, was on his motorcycle when he was hit by a Westerly woman who had more two-dozen moving violations.

“He was struck by a repeat offender,” Walsh said. “His mother and his brother were in the car behind him, and it was a heartbreaking thing.”

The Assembly was also poised to help the financially ailing Landmark Hospital in its bid to merge with Caritas Christi Health Care, a hospital chain based in Massachusetts. The measure would exempt any for-profit corporation that acquires Landmark from sales taxes for 12 years.

Rep. Peter Kilmartin, D-Pawtucket, said the bill was not perfect but would help to maintain Landmark Hospital for people in northern Rhode Island.

“We need to preserve those jobs, we need to preserve that hospital,” he said. “This is not the best way to do it … but for the legislative system, this is the best that we have.”

Local officials were among the largest constituency left wanting.

The legislature largely refused to enact measures introduced by the governor to help cities and towns cut costs.

While the budget approved last week allows cities and towns to reduce school spending by 5 percent for the coming year, other proposals — such as mandatory minimum health co-pays for municipal employees — were considered dead.

The only good news, according to Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, is that communities don’t have to fear future cuts because there’s almost nothing left to lose.

“We’re almost down to zero,” he said.

With reports

from Bruce Landis

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