October 31, 2014
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My take on the news
Rating the General Assembly's performance
Lonnie Barham

Our General Assembly has recessed in order for legislators to begin their re-election campaigns. Did they accomplish anything good for Rhode Island? Let's grade their major actions, with each grade based on how the bill will impact the daily lives of the majority of our citizens and the prosperity of our state.

(A+) Pension Reform: Old news because it was passed during the 2011 session of this Assembly. It is, nevertheless, the most important piece of legislation passed by any General Assembly in recent memory. It represents the clearest, brightest hope for our state budget to eventually recover from the financial chaos caused by years of political giveaways to strong-arming unions.

(F) Governor's Municipal Assistance Bill: Failed to pass. In an election year, it was apparently too much to ask our legislators to again defy public employee unions and give cities and towns the same powers given to the state and that would have enabled them to curb union influence and regain control of their budgets. The taxpayers will pay for this legislative cowardice.

(B) Casino Table Games' Revenue: Passed. Establishes a fair state take from table game revenues should voters approve such games in November. Many legislators wanted the state’s take to be higher; they were wrong. This bill allows casinos to prosper and gives them the profit-leeway to return more winnings to slot players – which means more players and more state revenue.

(F) Gay Marriage: Failed. Just because our legislators can't muster up the intestinal fortitude to buck religious interests, doesn't mean gay relationships are going away. From every other perspective – scientific, social and individual liberty – the arguments in favor of gay marriage far outweigh those opposed. There is no reason whatsoever to deny the full protection of our laws to two people of the same gender who are in a loving and committed relationship.

(F) Campaign Finance Rules on Donations to Independent Groups: Passed. While it promotes campaign funding transparency, it eliminates constitutionally-protected, anonymous free speech by those who contribute over $1,000. It also contains extremely onerous reporting timelines. A blow to individual liberties.

(C+) State Fire Code: Changes enacted. Businesses, non-profits and schools have suffered tremendous financial loss due to the knee-jerk and unnecessary overreaction by our legislators to the Station Nightclub fire in 2003. The changes in this bill should be only the beginning.

(C-) Minimum Wage Increase: Passed. The $14 per week increase will benefit few and harm many. Infinitesimally few families depend on the salary of a minimum wage earner, and those who do will likely find the wage-earner's hours cut because of this bill, resulting in less money to live on instead of more. Most minimum wage jobs are held by students and workers supplementing another income. Many of these jobs will now disappear. This is just another example of government interference with the free market.

(B+) Decriminalization of Marijuana: Passed. Finally, the first step has been taken to recognize that the so-called "war on drugs" has been an abysmal failure that has resulted in increased crime, increased violence, increased costs to taxpayers and to the destruction of many young lives.

(D-) Magistrate Appointments: Circumvents judicial merit law and defies constitutional separation of powers.

(C-) Homeless Bill of Rights: Passed. As the only state in the union that accepts homelessness so much it needs a "bill of rights" to protect the homeless, we are now the national poster child for actually promoting homelessness. We're making it an acceptable lifestyle. There were already laws covering every protection the bill means to ensure. We already had problems attracting new businesses to our state; this will make it worse. Who wants to relocate to a state that seems proud of its homeless people and may force employers to hire them.

(A) Drug Overdose Immunity: Passed. Overdoses can happen to first-time drug users as well as to drug addicts, and they seldom occur in places where a passing good Samaritan can call an ambulance. If a misguided son or daughter suffers from an overdose, all parents would want his cohorts to feel free to call rescue rather than running and leaving the child to die.

(F) Lowering Payday Lenders' Interest Rate: Failed. The usurious 260-percent annual interest charged by payday lenders will continue for those poor, unfortunate folks who can least afford it.

(A+) Raising Income Tax Rates For The Wealthy: Failed. The top 10 percent of earners in this country already pay 50 percent of our nation's taxes – more than "their fair share." To make them pay even more would hasten their departure from our state and would make R.I. even less attractive to those considering relocating within our borders. Business development and overall tax collection would decline.

(C-) Teenage Tanning Bill: Passed. This is just more silly, nanny-state legislation that infringes upon individual liberties and parental responsibilities.

(A-) Animal Cruelty Advocates: Appoints veterinarians and RISPCA as advocates for animals that have suffered cruelty at the hands of owners. Long overdue.

(B+) Repeal of Welfare Time Limit: Failed. It may seem heartless, but there has to be a limit to how long someone can live on the earnings of others. There has never been a civilization that lasted when one class survived solely on the backs of another class.

(D-) Auto-body Companies Can Sue Insurers: Passed. A ridiculous bill. Insurance companies contract with car owners, not with auto-body shops. An unhappy car owner can sue or change insurance companies. Body shops are famous for boosting the cost of repairs and returning the "extra" insurance payment to car owners so they don't have to pay their agreed upon deductible. This bill will cause insurance rates to increase dramatically for every car owner in R.I. This bill should be vetoed.

(B+) For-Profit Purchase of Hospitals: Passed. Almost invariably, for-profit organizations produce outcomes and products that are of higher quality, are more effective, and are produced at lower cost than those produced by their non-profit and government counterparts. This is a win-win for R.I. and for private enterprise, and it saves Landmark Hospital from having to close its doors.

(C-) Increased Surcharge on Rental Cars: Passed. This bill is yet another anti-business, anti-tourism measure that will harm Rhode Island.

(B+) Accelerated School Funding Formula: Schools in almost every district in the state have been severely underfunded for years compared to funding for municipal services. Additionally, the most underfunded schools are in cities with very low property tax bases. This bill will go a long way toward helping struggling schools recover some financial stability. More has to be done.

(C) Open Records Law: Some improvements made. Transparency in government is essential for a successful democracy so long as it doesn’t trod too heavily on individual privacy and is not overly costly for taxpayers. This bill, especially its “balancing” provision, makes sense.

(C+) Tax and Spending Increases: This session resulted in both tax and spending increases. Neither is good at a time when our economy is in such doldrums. Taxpayers have bled enough while state services remain fairly robust. Although the increases were relatively small, the point is that we should be cutting taxes and spending – not increasing them.

This General Assembly's grade? Most of the higher grades were in very important areas that affect us all; thus, a fairly good grade should be called for. However, failure to pass two key pieces of legislation – the governor’s municipal assistance bill and the gay marriage bill – and passage of the campaign contributions bill restricting free speech reduces the grade. Still a solid "B" would be granted were it not for legislators' continued bending to the wishes of special interest groups. Senator Joshua Miller of Cranston said it all in his description of why the payday lender bill failed, "...by the time everybody (legislators) checked in with whoever they were supposed to check in with (special interest lobbyists), that compromise evaporated..." This tells us that many, perhaps most, legislators just don’t have the backbone to vote with their conscience instead of kowtowing to special interests. Far better than most previous assemblies, this General Assembly gets a passing grade of "C+.”


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