Here are the highlights from news and events that took place in the General Assembly last week. For more information on any of these items, visit www.rilin.state.ri.us/News.
• The Senate and House of Representatives, in cooperation with Gov. Lincoln Chafee, the Rhode Island Foundation, the R.I. State Council on the Arts, Fidelity Investments and RISD, sponsored an "arts charrette" to bring together government, business and non-profit sectors with the arts community to develop a strategy to further the growth of the arts sector and enhance economic development in the state.
• Rep. Scott Slater (D-Dist. 10, Providence) has introduced legislation to "ban the box" on applications for all public and private sector jobs in Rhode Island. The bill, which would eliminate the question or check box on applications seeking information about criminal records, was discussed at a news conference organized by Direct Action for Rights & Equality (DARE) and the R.I. Coalition to Ban the Box. Also taking part in the news conference was Sen. Harold Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence), who is the sponsor of the bill in the Senate.
• East Bay legislators have taken aim at the proposed tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge on a number of fronts. The Senate Finance Committee heard bills sponsored by Sen. Walter Felag Jr. (D-Dist. 10, Warren, Bristol, Tiverton) and Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Dist. 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Newport, Tiverton), respectively, repealing the transfer of the Sakonnet River and Jamestown Verrazzano bridges to the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, and restricting tolls on them and the Mount Hope Bridge while freezing tolls on the Newport Bridge. Senator Felag and Rep. John Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Portsmouth, Tiverton) proposed diverting $10 million of what the governor has proposed for a municipal incentive program toward repairs and maintenance of the state's four major bridges instead of tolls. Rep. Raymond Gallison Jr. (D-Dist. 69, Bristol, Portsmouth), Representative Edwards, Rep. Dennis Canario (D-Dist 71, Portsmouth, Little Compton, Tiverton) and Rep. Linda Finn (D-Dist. 72, Middletown, Portsmouth) sought hearings by the Federal Highway Administration on the plan for tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.
• Saying it is time to have a dialogue on the state's sales tax, Rep. Jan Malik (D-Dist. 67, Warren, Barrington) has introduced legislation to repeal the sales tax effective Oct. 1 this year. The bill also calls for the elimination of the local meals and beverages tax on the same date.
• The Special Senate Commission to Study Emergency Department Diversion received the proposal it requested from the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals for a program to provide more effective and less costly treatment for people with behavioral, alcohol or substance abuse issues than frequent trips to the emergency room. The "Sobering Treatment Opportunity Program," or STOP, would be a three-year pilot outreach treatment program in Providence that would begin in 2014 to give patients initial treatment, short-term assistance and connections to longer-term help. If successful, the state could consider replicating the program in other communities.
• The House Committee on Labor held hearings for two bills related to teachers. The first bill (2013-H 5186), sponsored by Rep. Scott Guthrie (D-Dist. 28, Coventry), would amend the situations where a school board could lay off teachers, moving the date for mass layoff notices due to budgetary constraints from March 1 to May 15. The second bill (2013-H 5340), sponsored by Rep. Anastasia Williams (D-Dist. 9, Providence), would grant public school teachers the right to binding arbitration on all contractual issues, including those that involve fiscal expenditures.
• Sen. Ryan Pearson (D-Dist. 19, Cumberland, Lincoln) has introduced legislation that will make major investments in education while offering opportunities for critical property tax relief to communities. The bill would immediately fund 100 percent of the state education aid to communities due under the state formula. The districts that stand to lose money through the formula would stay on track for being phased out over time. Rep. Mia Ackerman (D-Dist. 45, Cumberland, Lincoln) sponsored the bill in the House.
• Sponsored by Representatives Jared Nunes (D-Dist. 25, Coventry, West Warwick) and Teresa Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett), this bill would allow farmer-wineries and farmer-breweries, under certain conditions, to be licensed to sell wine or beer for off-premises consumption at a farmers market.
• To help veterans interested in starting a business in Rhode Island upon their return from duty, Sen. James Doyle II (D-Dist. 8, Providence) has introduced legislation directing the R.I. Economic Development Corporation to develop a combat veterans' small business loan program. It would make available up to $50,000 to any applicant – up to a total of $1 million annually – to help promote small businesses owned and operated by vets.
• The fourth annual Joint Legislative Black History Month Heritage Celebration was held in the Senate chamber. The event, sponsored by the General Assembly and the Rhode Island Black & Latino Caucus of State Legislators, is held in conjunction with Black History Month, which has been celebrated in the U.S. since 1976. Joan Countryman, who was head of the Lincoln School in Providence until 2005, was the keynote speaker.