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.
Assembly approves 2014 state budget
Both chambers of the General Assembly approved and sent to the governor an $8.2 billion 2014 state budget bill (2013-H 5127Aaa) sponsored by House Finance Committee Chairman Helio Melo (D-Dist. 64, East Providence) that includes no tax or fee increases, contains numerous economic development initiatives, fully funds the implementation of the school funding formula, adds funding to higher education and provides additional funding for cities and towns.
Assembly rolls historic tax credit program into budget
With the passage of the Fiscal Year 2014 budget, the General Assembly has restored the state’s historic tax credits program to help jumpstart the economy and support job creation in the severely impacted construction trades. The program includes reporting requirements so the state can track the total number of jobs created, Rhode Island businesses retained for work, qualified rehabilitation expenditures, total cost of materials or products purchased from Rhode Island businesses and other related information. Pieces of the final budget article could be found in a handful of related bills introduced by lawmakers on behalf of House and Senate leadership, as well as the governor.
Workforce development programs included in budget
Two programs aimed at getting more Rhode Islanders working have been included in the state budget. The “Back to Work RI” program will allow job seekers to continue to collect unemployment benefits while participating in job training at companies in the state. The program is based on legislation sponsored by Rep. Joseph M. McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston) and Sen. Erin P. Lynch (D-Dist. 31, Warwick, Cranston). The “Jobs Match Program” will enhance the web-based systems within the Department of Labor and Training to help match potential employees with jobs, to identify skills gaps, to help job seekers obtain training and other resources and to help businesses find competent employees. The program is based on legislation sponsored by Sen. James C. Sheehan (D-Dist. 36, Narragansett, North Kingstown) and Rep. Donna M. Walsh (D-Dist. 36, Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly).
Final budget includes ‘State of the Arts’ proposal
The General Assembly approved a statewide sales tax exemption on the purchase and sale of original art in its passage of the Fiscal Year 2014 budget. The proposal, which President of the Senate M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Dist. 13, Newport, Jamestown) and Rep. Donna Walsh (D-Dist. 36, Charlestown, Westerly, South Kingstown, New Shoreham) introduced as legislation earlier in the year, recognizes that the arts are a valuable economic tool and can help increase tourism, job creation and the revitalization of communities and local entrepreneurship.
Budget eliminates sales tax on wine, spirits beginning Dec. 1
The FY2014 budget eliminates the sales tax on spirits and wine beginning Dec. 1 and running through June 30, 2015, in an effort to assist liquor stores that have been losing business to shops in Massachusetts, which eliminated sales tax on alcohol two years ago. The mid-2015 cutoff date gives the state an opportunity to study the impact of the sales tax elimination over nearly two budget cycles.
Family farms win inheritance victory in budget bill
The budget bill included legislation originally introduced by Rep. Donna M. Walsh (D-Dist. 36, Charlestown, Westerly, South Kingstown, New Shoreham) and Sen. Walter S. Felag Jr. (D-Dist. 10, Warren, Bristol, Tiverton) to assess inherited working farmland at its use value, not its higher cash value, for inheritance tax purposes. The concept is a way to prevent family farms from being driven out of business and sold off in whole or in part because the heirs can’t pay the inheritance tax – often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars – when the farms’ owners pass away.
Assembly OKs minimum wage hike to $8
The General Assembly approved legislation to raise the state’s minimum wage to $8 per hour, beginning Jan. 1, 2014. Rhode Island’s current minimum wage of $7.75 went into effect Jan. 1 of this year, as a result of legislation passed last session. Rhode Island’s minimum wage will become equal to that of Massachusetts and 25 cents lower than Connecticut. Passed and sent to the governor were bills sponsored in the Senate (2013-S 0256Aaa) by Sen. Erin P. Lynch (D-Dist. 31, Warwick, Cranston) and in the House (2013-H 5079A) by Rep. David A. Bennett (D-Dist. 20, Warwick).
Lawmakers approve measure to protect victims of violent crimes
Legislation allowing innocent victims of violent crimes to receive funds for relocation purposes now heads to the governor for action after the Senate and House bills (2013-S 0909, 2013-H 5969) passed the General Assembly. Sponsored by Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket, North Providence) and Rep. Anastasia P. Williams (D-Dist. 9, Providence) on behalf of General Treasurer Gina M. Raimondo, the legislation calls for emergency compensation for relocation costs not to exceed $2,500 through the Crime Victim Compensation Program.
Kelsey Smith Act approved by General Assembly
Legislation to enact the “Kelsey Smith Act” in Rhode Island has been passed by the General Assembly. The law is named in memory of a Kansas teen abducted and murdered in 2007. It provides that, upon request of a law enforcement agency, a wireless telecommunications carrier will provide location information (“ping”) of a user’s device in order for law enforcement to respond to a call for emergency services or in an emergency situation that involves the risk of death or serious physical harm. Approved were (2013-S 0284aa) by Sen. James E. Doyle II (D-Dist. 8, Pawtucket) and (2013-H 5456A) by Rep. Raymond H. Johnston Jr. (D-Dist. 61, Pawtucket).
Assembly approves bills to increase school safety
The General Assembly gave final passage to two companion Senate and House bills that seek to make Rhode Island schools the safest they can possibly be. One bill (2013-S 0801A, 2013-H 5941A) will require all schools to perform a safety assessment in conjunction with local police, fire and school safety teams within 30 days of enactment and every three years thereafter. The other bill (2013-S 0800A, 2013-H 5940) requires the commissioner of elementary and secondary education to certify annually that all school safety plans and emergency response plans have been reviewed and updated as appropriate. The Senate bills were sponsored by Sen. Hanna M. Gallo (D-Dist. 27, Cranston, West Warwick) and the House bills were sponsored by Rep. Joseph M. McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston).
Assembly approves Biodiesel Heating Oil Act of 2013
The legislature has approved a measure that could position Rhode Island as a leader in an emerging biofuels market. The legislation (2013-H 5802Aaa, 2013-S 0816A), sponsored by Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Dist. 18, Cranston) and Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham), would require all No. 2 distillate heating oil sold in the state to contain a specified percentage of a bio-based product.