Good, bad and ugly from this year’s General Assembly session
Once again, it’s time to grade the just-concluded General Assembly session on the quality of its actions regarding some of the bills it passed and some it failed to pass. First the good, followed by the bad, then the ugly.
Repaying 38 Studios Bondholders: Our state made a commitment. For our honor and our future credit-worthiness, we have to make good on that commitment. In this case, the old saying clearly applies: “Our word is our bond!”
Gun Control Passage: We passed sensible gun legislation. Unlike some other states that jumped to judgement after Newtown and severely restricted Second Amendment rights, Rhode Island took a measured approach and passed laws that will actually help prevent a recurrence by giving police more power over criminals and by reporting relevant mental illness to the national gun-tracking database.
Gun Control Rejection: Our legislature, though bombarded with spurious information from Second Amendment opponents, had the good sense to reject the more draconian measures some of our anti-gun legislators supported. Banning many hunting rifles, sporting guns, and home defense weapons failed to pass. Once again, Rhode Island showed it still has the courage shown by Roger Williams to buck the popular trend of the times.
Same-sex Marriage: Government should not be in the business of regulating marriage. That institution should be strictly between a couple and their families, churches or other non-government social support entities of their choosing. Government’s only role should be to sanction and enforce civil unions as the contracts between individuals that they are. While not perfect because of government’s excessive involvement, Rhode Island at least made government’s unnecessary involvement more equitable.
General Assembly Ethics: Should our General Assembly have an organization that oversees its ethics? Yes! But, like the U.S. Congress, it should be an internal organization with substantial powers to subpoena and punish ethical violators. Separation of powers doctrine mandates that the executive branch cannot exercise control over the legislative branch. This bill would have violated that doctrine and our legislators acted properly by rejecting it.
Income Tax: Our legislators sensibly rejected a proposal to increase the income tax rate for professionals, especially professional couples, in Rhode Island. It would have applied to many, perhaps most, doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants, small business owners, and many other professionals who form the backbone of whatever economic success we now enjoy. We just lowered the overall income tax rate a couple of years ago. We can’t be seen as wishy-washy on this issue by businesses’ operations in the Ocean State.
Voter ID: Thankfully, our legislators saw through the specious arguments presented in favor of eliminating the voter identification requirement. Opponents of the requirement argued that little evidence exists of voter fraud; thus, the requirement is not necessary. It is a circular reasoning at best. Of course there is little evidence of fraud because there has been no mechanism to detect it. The voter ID requirement will do exactly that – detect fraud or, more likely, deter it.
Sales Tax on Wine and Spirits: To make our liquor stores more competitive with those in Massachusetts, the General Assembly eliminated the sales tax on wine and hard liquor. It will be a boon for our liquor stores that are near the state’s borders. Eliminating the sales tax on all sales, or at least reducing it substantially, would have been better. But this is a good start.
Roads and Bridges: Gina Raimondo came up with an idea on how to finance local road and bridge repairs with low-interest loans from a state revolving fund. With Speaker Fox’s help, she got it passed by our legislature. While it will initially have only $7 million, it is also a good start toward helping municipalities fix some of their badly deteriorated roads and bridges.
Bi-Weekly Payroll: After years of being stuck in antiquity, our state has finally joined the rest of the nation in allowing most companies to pay their employees every two weeks instead of weekly as previously mandated. It saves our businesses loads in payroll costs and just makes sense!
Anti-Abortion License Plates: The legislature approved “Choose Life” license plates. There are arguments on both sides of the abortion issue that sound reasonable to believers on each side. However, the issue is way too political for the state to get involved in supporting either side through something as volatile as license plate slogans. We should be reserving such license slogans for things the vast majority of our citizens agree upon, such as sports, nature, education, veterans’ appreciation, etc. Let’s keep state-sanctioned political slogans off our cars.
Bridge Tolls: A 10-cent toll was approved for the Sakonnet Bridge to keep the option open for higher tolls in the future. Bridge tolls penalize regular bridge users by, in essence, double-taxing them; they already pay the same statewide taxes as those who never use the bridges. The only fair way to support bridge building and maintenance is through a statewide, broad-based tax on everyone who uses our roads, such as an increase in the gasoline tax or licensing fees.
Extended Temporary Disability Insurance: Due to the action of this General Assembly, workers will be able to take more time off from work to care for family members. Sounds good, right? The problem is that the absences are financed entirely by workers’ taxes. If a worker doesn’t use the paid time off, he or she pays anyway – but for someone else to take time off. So, of course, all employees will take “their” paid time off. Not only will our businesses and economy suffer with this additional loss of productivity, the lowest income workers will be taxed the most since TDI is a flat tax rather than progressive on all wages below about $61,000.
Job Applicants’ Criminal Records: Thanks to this legislative session, no longer will a business owner, small or large, be able to ask on an employment application about an applicant’s criminal history. Yes, the question can be asked at the first interview and applicants with criminal records will be able to explain their misdeeds and possibly convince employers to hire them. Regardless, it will cost employers more in the hiring process and is an inappropriate intrusion on an employer’s freedom to run his or her business without government interference.
Use of Electronic Benefits Cards (EBTs): The General Assembly failed to pass a bill that would have prevented welfare recipients with EBT cards from using them for alcohol, lottery tickets or tobacco products. While misuse of EBT cards is hard to measure, it is a problem whether large or small. No one should object to preventing the cards’ use on such non-food, non-essential products – neither taxpayers nor welfare recipients who are trying to make a decent life for themselves and their families.
Tax Reform: Except for the elimination of sales tax on wine and spirits, the General Assembly failed to pass any other tax reform. Governor Chafee’s proposal to reduce the corporate income tax rate was rejected along with a legislative proposal to repeal the 7 percent sales tax. And, as mentioned above, the TDI tax was increased. Until we see some substantive tax reform in Rhode Island, our economy will continue to falter.
Invasion of Social Media: Even with the nationwide furor over the Obama administration’s intrusion into the private phone records, e-mail and Internet activities of law-abiding citizens, our General Assembly still failed to pass legislation that would have outlawed employers and schools from requiring access to applicants’ social media accounts. Our legislature is promoting an Orwellian “Big Brother” society.
Keeping the Master Lever: Over the objections of the vast majority of the public and all good-government organizations, our General Assembly chose to keep the master lever in Rhode Island ballot booths. It allows a voter to make one mark and vote for all candidates from a specific party. It represents a corruption of democracy, promotes voter illiteracy and voter fraud, and was designed solely to keep the majority party in power. It is a travesty that only 13 other states allow. Do we really want to remain in that backward, undemocratic minority? Apparently Speaker Fox and Senate President Paiva-Weed are eager to continue wallowing in such mud.
Amending Non-Profit Tax Exemption for Bryant University: In a move that is unequalled in its stupidity and its vast overreach into municipal affairs, the General Assembly amended the state law that exempts non-profit organizations from local property taxes. It added a clause that only applies to Bryant University. The law is nothing less than legislative blackmail since it specifies that unless Bryant agrees to pay fees to the town of Smithfield, the town is authorized to disregard state law and levy property taxes on the university. We have far too many tax-exempt organizations in our state. However, the legislature cannot pick and choose which non-profit it punishes and which municipality it rewards. Governor Chafee should veto this bill!
Allowing State-Subsidized Babysitters to Unionize: It’s reminiscent of “One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest.” The inmates are in charge. Our legislature has passed a law that allows home childcare providers that receive taxpayer subsidies for babysitting low-income children to form a state union. It will allow them to negotiate benefits and taxpayer subsidy rates, and to change rules and regulations that govern the state’s low-income childcare program. Would we allow welfare recipients to unionize so they could negotiate for larger assistance checks and set the welfare rules? Of course not! This legislative “kissing up” to state employee unions is abhorrent and will result in far larger taxpayer subsidies to childcare businesses.