PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus on Friday unveiled 13 priorities for this year’s legislative session, focusing on areas such as health care, criminal justice, and the minimum wage.
This year’s General Assembly is the most diverse in Rhode Island history, with 21 people of color in the 113-member legislature. And the new chairwoman of the caucus, Representative Karen Alzate, said the members are looking to convert the power in those numbers into legislative victories to help communities of color.
“Our communities continue to confront another pandemic – racism,” Alzate said. “We are hurting, we are scared, and we are tired of being treated as second class.”
Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat, said one important goal has already been accomplished: On April 19, Governor Daniel J. McKee signed into law the Fair Housing Practices Act, which prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to people because they receive government housing vouchers.
The bill – introduced by Representative Anastasia P. Williams, a Providence Democrat, and Senator Meghan E. Kallman, a Pawtucket Democrat – “ensures that our community will have the opportunity to find a place to live and no longer are subject to being turned away by their source of income,” Alzate said.
The caucus identified 13 other bills as priorities, including:
Health care for children, regardless of immigration status
A bill – introduced by Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat, and Senator Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat – to ensure that all children, regardless of immigration status, qualify for health insurance under the state’s “RIte Track” healthcare program program.
“We are looking to restore this benefit,” Alzate said. “COVID-19 has shown us the importance of health care for all Rhode Islanders, including our undocumented community.”
Amending the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights
A bill, introduced by Williams, that would amend the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights to increase the amount of time an officer can be suspended without pay. The bill would increase the hearing committee responsible for discipline to five members and rename the law to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Accountability Act.
Alzate said that while some want to repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, the caucus has identified proposals to amend the law. “This starts the conversation, and brings us to the table,” she said. “We are starting the uncomfortable conversations that have been avoided for far too long. We invite all change agents to join the conversation.”
Requiring body-worn cameras
A bill – introduced by Representative Jose F. Batista, a Providence Democrat, and Senator Jonathon Acosta, a Central Falls Democrat – would require body cameras and outlaw certain methods of restraint, such as choke holds, and using the foot as a weapon. The bill, titled the Rishod K. Gore Justice in Policing Act, is named for a man that a Providence police officer was convicted of assaulting in 2020.
The Providence police civilian oversight board fired Batista as its executive director after he released video of the incident. An internal affairs investigation showed Sgt. Joseph Hanley III had punched, kicked, and ground his knee into the head of Gore, who was handcuffed and lying face-down on the pavement. In March, a judge found Hanley guilty of misdemeanor simple assault. Hanley has appealed the ruling.
Increasing minimum wage to $15
A bill – introduced by Senator Ana B. Quezada, a Providence Democrat, and Representative David A. Bennett, a Warwick Democrat – that would increase the state’s minimum wage from $11.50 per hour to $15 per hour over four years. The first step would be raising the minimum wage to $12.25 per hour on Jan. 1, 2022.
Quezada said she has worked for the minimum wage at factories, as do many of the people she represents. “It’s something very close to my heart,” she said.
Now is the time to raise the minimum wage, Quezada said. Many businesses are having a hard time finding workers because people are getting more from unemployment benefits, she said. “We want people to go back to work,” she said. “They need to make more money.”
Medical assistance for expectant mothers
A bill – introduced by Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, a Providence Democrat, and Quezada – that would provide medical assistance for expectant mothers and establish reimbursements rates for prenatal doula services.
“We know that most pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, and we also know that Black women over 30 are dying four to five times as high as it was for white women,” Alzate said. “These findings suggest that the disparity observed in pregnancy-related death for Black and women of color is a complex national problem. This is a public health crisis that the caucus needs and want to address with this legislation.”
Reducing prison sentence for drug dealers
A bill, sponsored by Batista, that would reduce the imprisonment of drug dealers from life to 20 years and make the possession of certain controlled substances a civil violation.
“These are the steps that we are taking to stop the war on drugs in our communities,” Alzate said. “Our prisons are filled with our brothers and sisters for offenses that will follow them for the rest of their lives, even years after they have become productive members of our society.”
Increasing parental leave
A bill – introduced by Cano and Representative Joshua Giraldo, a Central Falls Democrat – that would increase the amount of parental leave or family leave available to an employee from 13 weeks to 26 weeks in any two calendar years.
“With so much division and fear within our society today, these bills represent a positive step in the right direction for so many of our residents, especially those of color, who are simply trying their best to stay afloat and provide for themselves and their families,” Alzate said. “We urge our colleagues to support these important bills that will foster equality, fairness, and diversity, which in turn will make our state stronger and more unified.”