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RI POLITICS

In Rhode Island, the legislating, deal-making and speechifying reaches a conclusion

This year, on the last night of the legislative session, the bills were driven between the State House and the Senate at Rhode Island College

The Rhode Island State House on Thursday.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — Throughout the years in Rhode Island, the last night of the legislative session has often devolved into a long, hot, chaotic cacophony of last-minute deal making, bleary-eyed legislating, and long-winded speechifying.

But the General Assembly’s finale has not stretched into the wee hours since 2016, watchdogs say, and on Thursday the House and Senate had wrapped up this year’s session by 10:15 p.m.

The Rhode Island House of Representatives meets in the House chambers at the State House for the last day of this year's legislative session on ThursdayEdward Fitzpatrick

Back in the day, the House and Senate chambers ended up carpeted with discarded paper copies of bills and amendments, and a representative who owned a Del’s franchise handed out cups of frozen lemonade as legislators sweltered beneath the white marble dome.

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But on Thursday, lawmakers read the pending legislation on iPads, and while House members relied on desktop fans, the Senate enjoyed air-conditioned comfort at Rhode Island College, where it relocated during the pandemic.

That’s not to say everything went smoothly.

The Senate session Thursday began with a fire alarm. Legislators still bristled amid barbed debates. And there was always the possibility of a deal-breaker, such as the impasse over the “chicken bill” (mandating at least 216 square inches for every hen) that brought the 2015 session to an abrupt halt.

But the House concluded its works by 10 p.m., and the legislative session concluded at 10:15 p.m. when Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, a Providence Democrat, announced that, “I move the Senate stand in recess, until perhaps the fall.”

The House convened at 1 p.m. Thursday, aiming to act on 55 bills, while the Senate tried to start at 4 p.m., with 58 bills on its agenda.

With the two chambers meeting in separate buildings, staff members were assigned to drive bills back and forth between the State House and Rhode Island College. “There will be a path beaten up and back on Smith Street,” House spokesman Larry Berman said.

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Rhode Island House of Representatives clerk Zaire Lambright uses a fan to stay cool during Thursday's legislative session.Edward Fitzpatrick

Berman predicted that this year’s finale would not be as hectic as some past years in part because House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio tried to act early in the session on significant legislation such as the Act on Climate bill, a plan for boosting the minimum wage, and minimum staffing levels for nursing homes.

At the same time, Shekarchi decided to wait until a potential fall session to address unresolved issues, such as competing proposals for legalizing recreational marijuana, proposed changes to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, and a bill to provide driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Of course, it’s easier to push unresolved or controversial legislation off until the fall this year because it’s not an election year. If Election Day was looming, legislators would want to be going door-to-door in the fall rather than heading back to the State House.

John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said that from 2014 through 2106, the Assembly concluded its session with late nights that stretched into the early morning, but it concluded before 11 p.m. from 2017 through 2019, and last year was essentially lost to the pandemic.

Marion said the Assembly has improved in three ways.

First, the House and Senate now suspend fewer rules than they have in the past. “They used to suspend large numbers of their operating rules, which made it virtually impossible to follow the process,” he said. They’ve also stopped pushing sessions into the wee hours, and they have been posting significant amendments to bills 24 hours before votes, he said.

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“The Rhode Island process can still be difficult to follow because, unlike in some other states, every bill is in play until the final moments,” Marion said. “In the not too distant past, we have seen bills introduced and passed all on the same day. To their credit, they have not been doing that in recent years.”

At the outset of Thursday’s House session, Shekarchi asked if there was any new business, cautioning, “If there is any new business, I promise it will not be heard today and there’s no voting on that bill today.” When some legislators laughed, he said, “You laugh, but it has not always been that way historically in this chamber.”

The House then got down to business, voting 60-0 for a bill authorizing $144 million in borrowing to improve Central Falls schools, including $120 million to replace its 94-year-old high school.

The 1.3-square-mile city, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2012, would be responsible for borrowing $5.76 million, or 4 percent of the total. The state, which took over financial control of the city’s school district 30 years ago, would borrow the rest.

Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera applauded as she watched the vote from the gallery of the House chamber. The bill was sponsored by Representative Joshua J. Giraldo, a Central Falls Democrat.

The House engaged in more debate about a bill authorizing the town of West Warwick to join the State Employees’ Retirement System.

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Representative Thomas E. Noret, a Coventry Democrat who sponsored the bill, said the West Warwick pension fund has significant unfunded pension liabilities. Joining the state system would “get them financially solid” in a “professionally managed system,” he said.

Representative George A. Nardone, a Coventry Republican, spoke in opposition, saying, “I am concerned that many pension systems are in trouble and this would create a domino effect.” He said, “It sounds like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic here.”

But the House ended up passing the bill by a vote of 60-7.

The Assembly passed a bill that would expand employee whistle-blower protection and prohibit an employer from reporting or threatening to report an employee’s immigration status because the employee engaged in whistle-blowing.

“We would have some of the strongest whistle-blower protection laws in the country,” said Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat who sponsored the bill along with Senator Meghan E. Kallman, a Pawtucket Democrat.

State Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat, left, speaks with House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, a Block Island Republican, on Thursday.Edward Fitzpatrick

The Assembly gave final approval to legislation authorizing “harm reduction centers” where people would use illicit drugs while supervised. The legislation, introduced by Representative John G. Edwards and Senator Joshua Miller, would allow centers to be located in municipalities only with approval from city or town councils.

“People who are addicted need help and protection from the most dangerous possibilities of addiction,” Miller said. “Having a place where someone can save them from an overdose and where there are people offering them the resources they need for treatment is a much better alternative to people dying alone in their homes or their cars.”

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The Assembly also gave final approval to several gun bills, including legislation banning “straw purchases.”

The legislation, sponsored by Miller and Representative Jason Knight, prohibits the purchase of a firearm on behalf of, or selling or transferring a firearm to someone is legally prohibited from possessing one. “This bill is about keeping guns out of the hands of people who have already shown themselves unfit for gun ownership, reducing gun violence and protecting the lives and safety of Rhode Islanders,” Knight said.

The Senate voted 34-3 for a pay equity bill, which had already passed the House unanimously, so it now goes to Governor Daniel J. McKee to be signed into law.

“While we have always known wage disparity is a problem, the pandemic has forced a disproportionate number of women out of the workforce completely, compounding the inequity women already faced,” said Senator Gayle L. Goldin, a Providence Democrat who sponsored the bill along with Representative Susan R. Donovan. “This bill would go a long way toward addressing the gaping holes in our existing fair pay laws and establishing financial stability for Rhode Island employees and their families.”

Legislators gave final approval to legislation that allows candidates to use campaign funds for child care while they are participating in campaign or officeholder activities. The legislation, sponsored by Goldin and Representative Justine A. Caldwell, codifies regulations adopted by the state Board of Elections.

Legislation passed both chambers to require that any short-term rental property listed on any third-party hosting site, such as Airbnb, be registered with the state Department of Business Regulations. The bill, sponsored by Representative Lauren H. Carson and Senator Dawn Euer, drew attention after a University of Rhode Island student was killed after being stabbed at a rental home in Newport in June.

By a vote of 30-7 vote, the Senate put its stamp of approval on the $13.1 billion state budget, which had previously passed the House.

But the Assembly concluded without acting on the “Let RI Vote” legislation that called for lowering barriers to using mail ballots, expanding early voting, and allowing same-day voter registration. Berman said Shekarchi noted there are no elections this year, “so we have time to work on that and we can always do that next session.”

Both the House and Senate approved legislation aimed at reducing disposable plastic straw use in Rhode Island. The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey and Representative David A. Bennett, would not be a complete ban. But it would prohibit food service establishments from providing single-use plastic straws unless requested by the consumer.

The Assembly also the final OK to legislation that would ban the intentional, simultaneous release of 10 or more balloons into the air. The bill, sponsored by Donovan and Senator V. Susan Sosnowski, aims to protect the environment and wildlife.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.