Online Voter Registration & Bridge Repair: This Year at the State House

Saturday, June 25, 2016

 

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The General Assembly session has come to an end. Here is a look back at what happened this year at the state house. 

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT/BUSINESS

The General Assembly approved a proposal that will repair more than 150 structurally deficient bridges and make repairs to another 500 bridges to prevent them from becoming deficient, bringing 90 percent of the state’s bridges into structural sufficiency by 2024.

Lawmakers added another reduction in the state’s minimum corporate tax to help small businesses. It was reduced from $450 to $400.

The legislature passed a plan to restructure the unemployment insurance taxes paid by employers, saving them an estimated $30 million.

A proposal to transfer Twin River’s operations at Newport Grand to a new facility in Tiverton was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor. The measure is pending approval from voters statewide and in Tiverton.

ELECTIONS/GOOD GOVERNMENT

Legislators placed a question on November’s ballot asking voters to restore the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction over the General Assembly.

A new law will allow online voter registration.

Lawmakers enacted lobbying reform to increase transparency and make the lobbying reporting and information system more user-friendly.

PUBLIC SAFETY

The General Assembly unanimously voted to make it a crime to electronically track a vehicle without the consent of the owner.  The bill is aimed primarily at protecting victims of stalkers and domestic violence.

Legislators approved legislation which requires the surrender of firearms within 24 hours by anyone who is either convicted of a felony charge of domestic violence or pleads no contest.

Lawmakers passed legislation that would make anyone convicted of sex trafficking be subject to the Rhode Island’s sex offender registration and community notification statute.

JUSTICE

The General Assembly passed legislation that requires training for law enforcement officers on mental health and substance abuse emergencies. 

Lawmakers approved legislation allowing Rhode Island residents who are victims of a domestic terrorist attack outside of Rhode Island, but still within the United States, to be eligible to receive victim’s compensation payments from RI’s Crime Victim Compensation Fund.

The General Assembly passed legislation supporting the “Fitting the Description” movement and requiring law enforcement to automatically destroy all arrest records for those who are victims of mistaken or wrongful arrests.

EDUCATION

 Lawmakers fully funded the education aid formula for the sixth consecutive year, increasing total funding by $49.3 million over this year. Legislators made some adjustments to provide more equity between districts and charter schools, and to provide relief to districts with high concentrations of English language learners.

Lawmakers gave municipalities a say in the approval of new charter schools that are part of a network.

The budget bill includes a tuition freeze at the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island.

Lawmakers added a performance-based component to the state funding formulas for CCRI, RIC and URI.

CONSUMER/QUALITY OF LIFE

The budget provides a state tax exemption for the first $15,000 of retirement income for Social Security-age retirees who make less than $80,000 individually or $100,000 for joint tax filers.

Lawmakers approved the Electric Supplier Consumer Bill of Rights to protect electricity customers.

The budget reduced state beach parking fees to 2011 levels, cutting most by half.

HEALTH

Lawmakers approved a wide-ranging package of bills aimed at addressing the region’s crisis of opioid abuse and overdoses.

The Good Samaritan Prevention Act was reinstated and expanded to legally protect those who seek medical assistance for drug overdose victims.

Lawmakers approved numerous changes to the medical marijuana program, including expanding it to allow its use by post-traumatic stress disorder patients.

A new law expands Rhode Islanders’ insurance coverage for experimental uses of prescription drugs.

CHILD PROTECTION

Lawmakers closed a loophole in abuse reporting laws to ensure that schools report allegations of sexual abuse of children to the Department of Children, Youth and Families. 

Legislators approved legislation requiring DCYF to disclose basic information whenever any child dies or suffers a near fatality as a result of abuse or neglect — whether or not that child was in state care — within six months of the incident.

The General Assembly banned any form of alcohol other than in an ingestible liquid state, such as powdered form.

The Family Home Visiting Act was enacted and calls for the Rhode Island Department of Health to work with the Department of Human Services and the Department of Children, Youth and Families to develop and coordinate the standards for a system of early childhood home visiting services that would meet the needs of the state’s most vulnerable families with young children.

VETERANS

The General Assembly passed legislation which requires healthcare providers to give veterans their medical records at no cost if they are used to apply for any kind of benefits.

Legislation that enhances and protects employment rights for Rhode Island’s veterans and members of the National Guard passed the General Assembly.

Lawmakers approved legislation prohibiting insurers from refusing to insure, limiting coverage available, charging a reinstatement fee, or increasing the premiums for automobile insurance because a person failed to maintain insurance for a vehicle due to active duty in the armed forces of the United States.

ENVIRONMENTAL

The General Assembly passed legislation to expand several renewable energy initiatives by extending the Renewable Energy Fund for five years, making more projects eligible for long-term, fixed rate pricing, exempting residential renewable energy systems and those used in manufacturing from taxation and establishing a statewide tax rate for commercial renewable energy systems.

Lawmakers declared a state policy goal of having 50 percent of solid waste at the state landfill be diverted through diversion, source reduction, reuse, recycling or composting by 2025.

The General Assembly approved legislation that establishes the Rhode Island Clean Diesel Fund, which will save local trucking companies money in freight operation costs while also protecting our environment from needless and harmful diesel emissions.

Lawmakers passed the Rhode Island Local Agriculture and Seafood Act Grants Program to increase the economic competitiveness of Rhode Island-grown agricultural products and local seafood.

ANIMAL PROTECTION

The General Assembly approved legislation that increases the punishment of animal abusers from two years to five years of possible imprisonment and from ten hours of community service to fifty hours of community service.

Lawmakers approved a bill that prohibits the possession, sale or trade of shark fins by those without a permit and would make those in violation of the act guilty of a misdemeanor.

The state legislature passed a law prohibiting the use of bullhooks or similar devices designed to inflict pain for the purpose of training or controlling the behavior of elephants in traveling shows.

 

Related Slideshow: FY17 House Budget—Winners and Losers

The House Budget is passed and there were some last minute and controversial surprises.

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Winner

National Grid

When controversial Article 18 got pulled from the budget on Tuesday, critics had lauded the removal of the provision, which appeared to benefit a single wind farm - and the substantial political donor who owned it. But the real winner here is National Grid, the company owned by the British Energy Conglomerate, who would have had to force electric rate payers to pay millions more to connect renewable energy projects to the power grid and pay a greater share.

The battle is not over, however; Speaker Mattiello said that after having received feedback on Article18 and that he "reached the conclusion there are pieces of the article that do not need to be in the budget."  Given the level of scrutiny is it highly unlikely the measure will see light of day as a stand-alone measure before the session adjourns, but it can't be ruled out. 
 

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Loser

Statewide Tourism Campaign

There was no last minute relief for the Commerce Corp. The often controversial agency is taking a cut.

Following the ill-fated rollout of the statewide tourism campaign this year, House Finance opted to give money back to the regional tourism bureaus that had been slated to go to the centralized effort.

Mattiello said that the House finance budget is taking $1 to $2 million from the $5 million for next year from the statewide tourism office and giving it back to the regional tourism bureaus. “We had a snafu in the effort. We’ll rely on the locals for the year, and then it will transfer back to state initiative,” said Mattiello. 

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Winner

Medical Marijuana Growers, Patients

One of the biggest battles of the 2016 General Assembly session started when Governor Raimondo proposed a tagging fee on medical marijuana plants -- to major pushback. 

The tax as proposed in the Governor's 2017 budget would have imposed a $150 per plant charge on patients lawfully growing marijuana for medical purposes, and a $350 per plant charge for caregivers, for a projected total of $8.5 million in new revenue. 

House finance scaled back the fee-per-plant to $25, to cover the costs of regulating the marketplace. 

“Advocacy works. We listened to folks, no one really liked the proposal we received,” said Mattiello. “[As far as] the need of regulations, we’re probably on the low end of that. But we didn’t want to enhance revenues on prescription medications.”

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Winner

ProvPort

A surprise amendment that resussciated a dead proposal.

A late session effort by the City of Providence to get a $20 million bond question on the ballot for ProvPort in November initiatially hadfallen flat as a line item in the budget. 

Legislation introduced by Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio in late May and now a budget article add-on for a bond referendum of $20,000,000 to fund the acquisition, expansion and infrastructure improvement of up to approximately 25 acres of land and facilities located between Allens Avenue in Providence and the Providence River by ProvPort, Inc. 

While it appears to be a House Finance budget “loser” the battle is not over yet for the year, as Mattiello said there is still ongoing discussions. 

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Winner

Business Owners

Mattiello touted in his “pro-business, pro-economy” budget lowering the minimum corporate tax from $450 to $400. This comes a year after the General Assembly lowered it from $500 to $450 last year, taking away at that time the dubious distinction for Rhode Island being the state with the highest corporate minimum tax.  

“There are no new taxes or fees,” said Mattiello of the House Finance FY17 budget (apart from the $25 medical marijuana tax).

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Loser

School Infrastructure

Raimondo had called for a $40 million school construction and renovation bond to be put on the November ballot, but Mattiello said during a media briefing that the state should wait for the completion of a study expected to show what exactly the construction needs are for the state’s schools.

Mattiello said that there is still funding in the budget for school construction needs, as Raimondo had also proposed an $80 million appropriation for construction and renovation, including of $9.1 million for the school building authority -- but the dedicated bond question that would have increased resources by 50% -- was off the table in the House Finance budget. 

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Winner

Smokers and Mini-Marts

After years of steady increases in the state’s cigarette tax, smokers got a reprieve in House Budget when the committee rejected Raimondo’s proposal to raise the cigarette tax twenty-five cents from $3.75 to $4 a pack.

Make no mistake about it, this is just as much about the convenience stores not wanting the additional tax on their golden goose -  and New England Convenience Store Association lobbyist Brian Goldman just got vetted by Senate Judiciary for his nomination from Raimondo to replace Associate Judge Frank Cenerini, who retired in October 2014.

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Loser

Raimondo’s Minimum Wage Hike

Governor Raimondo once again pushed for an increase in the state’s minimum wage, and it appears she will be once again denied by the legislature.

Speaker Mattiello said that Raimondo’s effort to boost the minimum wage from $9.60 to $10.10 an hour would be a no-go. So while it falls in the loss category for those who were pushing for it, it could have been labeled as a win for business owners who have said they couldn’t incur such a mandatory increase. 

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Winner

Retirees (Pensioners)

“We are giving pension relief to everyone who receives some type of pension income, whether it’s public employees, private, or veterans,” said Mattiello.

Mattiello noted that the tax deduction “will be income tested, [and] you have to be Social Security age to qualify.” The tax exemption is slated to apply to the first $15,000 in retirement income, for those qualifying individuals with incomes of $80,000 or less, and couples up to $100,000.

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Loser

Solar and Wind

While the removal of Article 18 was championed as a win against crony capitalism, there was more at stake than just one developer with strong political ties.  While the article appeared as of Tuesday looked to be gone from the budget, that did not mean the legislative proposal could not stand alone. EcoRI was quick to point out however all that the article did for provide for a number alternative energy incentives including: 
Article 18...would allow loans for projects using net metering and virtual net metering, as well as those priced through the Renewable Energy Growth Program.

Article 18 also includes a five-year extension of the state Renewable Energy Fund, which provides grants for small- and medium-sized solar projects. The funds are collected through a monthly surcharge on electric bills and the pool of funds, currently about $6 million, is distributed to solar developers and installers through the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation.


Article 18 also exempts residential and commercial manufacturers from paying local property taxes. It also establishes a statewide property tax rate for commercial renewable-energy systems. The new tax rate will be determined by the Office of Energy Resources.
 

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Winner

Beach Visitors

Beachgoers get a win.

Everyone who loves the beach gets a win with the the House budget. Speaker Mattiello touting that “beach fees are reduced to the 2011 level” for the coming year.

A season pass for residents would be slashed from $60 to $30, non-residents from $120 to $60, and Rhode Island senior citizens from $30 to $15. Plus,  one-time entrance fees would be lowered for residents from $10 to $6 (and senior citizens, down to $3).

 
 

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