In recent weeks Beacon columnist Lonnie Barham has scrutinized Rhode Island newspapers for stories about bills before the current General Assembly and come to the conclusion there are more bills in the hopper than the ones that merited recent news stories. Looking only at those highlighted by the news media Barham categorized them as Good, Bad or Ugly - in accordance with his admittedly subjective thoughts on whether they are good, bad or truly atrocious for Rhode Island. Barham said ‘was mildly surprised to find that I agree with more of the current bills than I thought I would.” Here’s his list of the good, bad and the ugly:
1. A bill that would outlaw the use of handheld cell phones by drivers. Our roads are dangerous enough already. Distractions by cell phone use greatly increases the danger, especially when the phone is used for texting - which is as dangerous as drunk driving. The only way to stop texting is to prohibit the use of handheld cell phones, period!
2. A bill to legalize marijuana. The so-called "war on drugs" has been a dismal failure and has actually caused a huge increase in related violent crimes, and has cost taxpayers untold amounts in increased police and prison costs. It's time to de-criminalize marijuana and reduce the profits and violent impact of drug cartels.
3. A bill to allow courts to consider an offender's prior arrests for sex offenses when considering bail for a current sex offense. It's a no-brainer. Surely no one can reasonably oppose it.
4. A bill to allow same-sex marriage. Passed long ago by the House but allowed to languish in the Senate and now being heard before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Passage of this bill will represent major progress toward full civil rights in our state so long as adequate safeguards are included to protect religious organizations and religion-affiliated organizations from service requirements, but without exempting other businesses.
5. A bill to reduce mandatory testing of businesses' fire, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors from four times a year to two. The overreaction to the Station Nightclub fire is finally being rectified to reduce the cost to RI businesses.
6. A bill that makes drunk driving with young children in the car a felony. A must pass. Our children are indeed our future. We can't allow adults to jeopardize these tender, young lives.
7. A bill that requires those convicted of first- or second-degree murder to serve at least half their sentences before being paroled. It should be even stiffer - perhaps requiring at least 75 percent of the sentence to be served. Though weak, it is better than the current situation and should be passed.
8. Barely falling into the "good" category is a set of Senate bills intended to "help improve Rhode Island's business climate". They seek to strike a balance between investments in education and other government services, and business interests that call for lower taxes and less government bureaucracy. The bills range from creating a long-term strategic plan, to allowing unemployed to experience trial employment while still collecting, to restoring tax credit for historic redevelopment projects. The good parts of the set of bills outweigh the bad.
9. A bill to prohibit public school teachers from distributing political campaign literature to students in the classroom. An obvious must pass. Students are captives in a classroom. We can't have their teachers propagandizing for a political party.
10. A bill to eliminate the "master lever" from our ballot booths. The master lever allows a voter to vote for all members of a party with one "vote". It is designed to keep the majority party in power, is confusing to voters, and, in come cases, disenfranchises local office seekers. Unfortunately, both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees have voted to hold the bills - thus, virtually killing them for this session. Citizens must call their representatives and senators and demand the bill be sent to the floor for a vote. The current system is an anathema to the democratic voting process and must go.
11. A bill that would require the state to divest state pension funds from companies that do business with Iran, and would prohibit state contracts with such companies. A good bill that will help alienate the corrupt Iranian government from world affairs.
12. A bill to cut in half the amount of corporate income tax that can be avoided through the Jobs Development Act. The company that has received over 90 percent of the Act's benefit, CVS, will no longer be able to pay only half what other corporations pay. Any tax designed to so disproportionately benefit only one company is inherently unfair.
13. A bill to allow "father-daughter" dances and other gender-specific events in public schools so long as reasonably comparable activities are provided for the opposite gender. It just makes sense! We've been "politically correct" on such issues for way too long. Let's get over it!
14. A bill to allow non-citizen RI students brought to the U.S. as children who spent at least three years in a RI high school and who graduated to pay in-state tuition rates at R.I. state colleges. These children are here not of their own volition; they were brought here by parents. They were good students and most likely will eventually become citizens. Regardless, they are Rhode Island residents seeking to become more productive members of society. We paid for their high school years with the tacit admission that they are one of us. They should be allowed to go to our colleges at the same cost as other residents.
1. A bill to impose sales and property taxes on many boats. Our marine industry was almost dead when taxes on boats were eliminated years ago. The industry is now thriving even with the recent recession. Boating on our waterways is a huge tourist attraction. Let's not cause the industry to become bedridden again.
2. A bill to make calamari Rhode Island's official appetizer. Bills like this tell the rest of the country that we're not really serious about changing the business climate to improve our economy. If this is the best we can do to promote business, we will continue to be the laughing stock of the country.
3. A bill that would reduce some fire inspections for businesses to once every ten years - far too long to guarantee public safety.
4. A bill to shift sole responsibility for issuance of concealed-carry firearms permits from police chiefs to the Attorney General's office. State law currently says police chiefs "shall" issue such permits so long as the applicant passes a background check designed to detect previous acts of violence or mental illness. Conversely, the Attorney General has discretion to determine whether a law-abiding applicant's request is "justified". Arbitrary discretion to approve or disapprove an act that is otherwise legal runs contrary to our system of justice. Permits, whether issued by police chiefs or the AG's office, should be based on uniform procedures that do not leave approval decisions up to someone's subjective discretion.
5. A bill that would make it illegal for an employer to ask a job applicant whether or not he has ever been convicted of a crime. Business owners must have the ability to protect their investments. Not knowing whether a prospective employee has a criminal history robs the business owner of essential information she needs to protect her assets, her customers and her other employees. This is a bad bill that must not become law.
1. A bill that would require our citizens to register and pay fees for all firearms. History is replete with instances of countries requiring gun registration only to follow it with confiscation. That danger notwithstanding, should we have to register and pay a fee to exercise a right embedded in the Constitution? Would anyone agree with a mandate that citizens have to register before exercising First Amendment rights? Should one have to register before sending a letter to the editor? Should a citizen have to pay a First Amendment registration fee before speaking to a public audience? This bill is about a un-American as any introduced in years and must go down to defeat!
2. A bill to raise the state income tax rate to 7.99 percent for those earning over $250,000 per year. This attempt is a perfect example of the majority mob trying to "steal" from the minority. And worse, it will help further destroy our economy when those we "legally" steal from finally refuse to allow it and leave our state.
3. A bill to put a constitutional amendment before voters that would restore power to the State Ethics Commission to prosecute legislators for their votes in the General Assembly. Such authority would constitute a clear violation of the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers since the commission is appointed by the Governor but would exercise power over the legislative branch. Further, it places tremendous power in the hands of an unelected body. It must be rejected.
4. A bill that would force the same-sex marriage issue to a state-wide voter referendum. The bill would pass responsibility for legislation from legislators who were elected for that purpose to a public voting majority, a practice that allows majority suppression of minority rights. Further, the bill would legalize discrimination by non-religious organizations. It would be both unconstitutional and a very bad precedent for Rhode Island.
5. A bill to mandate binding arbitration for teacher contract negotiations when the union and elected city officials have reached an impasse. Should this become law, a terrible disservice to Rhode Island taxpayers would result. Not only would everyone's taxes increase to accommodate the demands of teacher unions that are approved by union-leaning arbitrators, it would remove financial decisions from locally elected officials and give it to these unelected, union-leaning arbitrators - taxpayers be damned. We can't let this happen!
6. A bill that would prohibit our state from repaying investors who bought bonds to finance 38 Studios. These "moral obligation bonds" must be paid! Should our politicians and the EDC have exercised better discretion in guaranteeing the bonds? Yes! But, since our state gave its word to bond holders, we are morally obligated to pay up. Otherwise, we set an extremely bad example for our children and frighten off future investors.
7. A bill to repeal the Voter ID Law. Anecdotal evidence is widespread of voter impersonation in order to get the votes of lazy, drunk, or apathetic voters who won't go to the polls themselves. The identification requirement disenfranchises no one. We need the law to remain on the books.