Here are the highlights from news and events that took place in the General Assembly this year. This will be the final edition of summaries from the General Assembly this year, as the Assembly has recessed. For more information on any of these items, visit www.rilin.state.ri.us/News/.
The Fiscal Year 2013 state budget provides $33 million in additional funding for education aid, restores $9.6 million to programs for the developmentally disabled, and restores funding for nursing homes. The budget proposes $209 million in capital investment to be considered on the November ballot, including funding for affordable housing, a new state Veterans’ Home, improvements at Rhode Island College, and clean water and open space projects. Lawmakers rejected the governor’s proposals to increase the meals tax from 8 percent to 10 percent, and his proposal to extend the sales tax to car washes and warehouses. The enacted budget does not include the governor’s proposal to expand the hotel tax to vacation rentals and bed-and-breakfasts.
The budget includes $22 million to fully fund the second year of the state education aid formula, as well as an additional $11 million to accelerate the implementation plan as proposed by the governor. The budget also gives cities and towns a break on “maintenance of effort” – a requirement that their local contribution to schools not fall below what it was the year prior. The relief allows municipalities to exclude the local share of specific non-recurring expenses that no longer exist and not be penalized for reducing funding to school districts. Contingent upon appropriation for the 2013-2014 school year, the Assembly passed a law to jumpstart up to four full-day kindergarten programs in the state. The governor signed the legislation in June. The legislature passed a law preventing children from receiving out-of-school suspensions for absenteeism.
The Revenue Protection Act was enacted to protect state revenues, maintain the competitiveness of the state’s two gaming venues and safeguard jobs at the two facilities. The legislation establishes a tax structure, regulatory framework and enforcement system prior to consideration by voters in November to allow table games at the two facilities. Legislation was passed and signed into law to update the state fire code and increase flexibility and options for businesses that must comply with the code, aimed at reducing the burdens placed on small businesses while ensuring that public safety is still paramount. Funds were included in the Fiscal Year 2013 budget to fund the purchase and operation of a web-accessible software system to be used by the state and municipalities, offering a uniform building plan review, permit management and inspection system.
Public Safety and Justice
Rhode Island became the 15th state to decriminalize marijuana, eliminating the criminal charge for carrying 1 ounce or less and instead imposing a civil penalty of a $150 fine, plus forfeiture of the drug. A third offense within 18 months would revert to a misdemeanor. Legislators enacted Jason’s Law to prevent those serving time for particularly serious crimes from earning time off their sentences for good behavior. The law was introduced in response to the potential release last year of Michael Woodmansee, convicted of killing 5-year-old Jason Foreman in 1975 in South Kingstown. The governor signed legislation instituting mandatory license suspension for those convicted of leaving the scene of an accident resulting in serious injury.
Elections and Good Government
New district lines have been drawn for General Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives’ seats that will be in effect with the upcoming elections. The redistricting is required by law every 10 years to adjust the state’s political boundaries to account for population changes in the U.S. Census. The General Assembly approved legislation to make significant changes to the Access to Public Records Act (open records law), including making public various records that were not previously public, such as employment contracts, and requiring availability of police arrest records within 48 hours of an arrest. The Transparency in Political Spending Act (TIPS) approved by the legislature will require individuals and organizations that engage in independent expenditures and electioneering communications to report donors and expenditures to the Board of Elections.
The legislature dealt with concerns about the state’s medical marijuana compassion centers with a piece of compromise legislation. After the governor halted the issuing of licenses to three proposed medical marijuana facilities last year, the bill will allow the facilities to open later this year. Lawmakers altered the Hospital Conversion Act to eliminate a prohibition on for-profit companies acquiring more than one hospital in the state in a three-year period. The law will enable Steward Health Care Services of Massachusetts to complete its purchase of Landmark Medical Center in Woonsocket, which is in receivership, and can be utilized for subsequent hospital conversions. Legislators approved a bill requiring all food-service establishments to have a food protection manager on staff and allergy-awareness posters in staff areas. The law also mandates notices on menus and menu boards asking customers to make servers aware when placing their orders if someone in the party has a food allergy.
Consumer/Quality of Life
Legislation calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $7.75 beginning Jan.1, 2013 has received approval from the General Assembly and the governor. The current minimum wage, $7.40, has been in place since 2007. Adopted by the General Assembly, the “Homeless Bill of Rights” is the first of its kind in the nation, guaranteeing that no person’s rights, privileges or access to public services can be denied solely because he or she is homeless. Under the newly enacted law, the Public Utilities Commission and Division of Utilities and Carriers will require electric utilities to conduct stray voltage detection surveys and complete timely repairs of faults. The bill was prompted by an incident last year when a puppy died after stepping on an electrified manhole cover in Providence.
Legislators approved a law giving paint companies in Rhode Island responsibility for collecting and properly reusing, recycling or otherwise disposing of the products they sell here. It also calls for consumer education and outreach, and the establishment of convenient collection sites around the state. In light of the odor issue at the Johnston landfill this year, the legislature passed laws to create a citizens advisory board to the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation and to set up an offsite ambient air-monitoring network for the Johnston landfill. It is now also unlawful for RIRRC facilities to use construction debris or organic items as cover material. A new law allows municipalities and other authorized public entities to dispose of abandoned boats if their attempts to contact the owners fail. It is also lawful for those entities to recoup value from those vessels, if possible.
Veterans and Military
Legislators approved a question to be placed on the November ballot to borrow up to $94 million for the construction of a new state Veterans’ Home in Bristol. A new law creates a veterans’ designation for driver’s licenses and state identification cards. Legislation was enacted to prevent foreclosure on the home of any member of the military during active duty or deployment, and for nine months afterward.
The governor signed legislation into law that creates a State House Visitors Center and Gift Shop in the State Capitol. The Office of the Secretary of State will operate the new additions to the State House. Bills have been signed to allow the director of DEM, or a representative of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to act as an animal advocate in any court before which the custody or well-being of an animal is at issue. Rules for the proper care and treatment of dogs kept outdoors, including guidelines for tethering, feeding and providing veterinary care, have been adopted by the General Assembly.