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R.I. Assembly approves $14b state budget, iGaming bill in end-of-session marathon

The General Assembly wrapped up this year’s legislative session with a flurry of speeches and voting, but several key pieces of legislation -- including housing, gun control, and bottle bills -- did not get a vote

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, center, begins what is expected to be the final day of this year's legislative session.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — In a final burst of speechifying and voting, the Rhode Island General Assembly wrapped up this year’s legislative session at about 1:45 a.m. Friday, voting to send the $14 billion budget to the governor’s desk and pass a historic shore access bill, but failing to vote on an assault weapons ban and a bottle bill, among other legislation.

At the outset of Thursday’s legislative action, the House ran into a 90-minute pitched battle against a bill that would allow online casino gaming, or “iGaming,” in Rhode Island. Opponents introduced a series of amendments that were shot down before the House voted 57 to 11 to give final approve to the bill, which has already passed the Senate.

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“This is by far the most dangerous piece of legislation I have seen since I’ve been here,” said Representative Brandon C. Potter, a Cranston Democrat. “I see no benefit other than enriching large corporations.”

Potter predicted it would prove “devastating to working-class people,” and he predicted it would face a constitutional challenge because the state Constitution says “no act expanding the types or locations of gambling” shall take effect until such an expansion is approved in statewide and local referenda.

But House Majority Leader Christopher R. Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat, defended the bill, saying opponents were attempting to “relitigate the last 30 years of discussion about gambling in this state.” He said Rhode Island voters have supported gaming proposals over the years because they provide a recreational activity and revenue for important state programs.

Representative Jon D. Brien, a Woonsocket independent, backed the bill, saying, “Gambling is here to stay. For once Rhode Island is being proactive.”

Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, had championed the iGaming proposal along with Representative Gregory J. Costantino, a Lincoln Democrat.

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Bally’s Corporation, the Rhode Island-based casino giant, announced a “major legislative initiative” for iGaming in February. A study commissioned by Bally’s concluded the state could generate an estimated $93.3 million of gross gaming revenue in the first year, and $210 million in taxes for the state over a five-year period.

No assault weapons ban

A proposed ban on “assault-style weapons” received a high-profile push in May from Governor Daniel J. McKee and the executive director of the national group Moms Demand Action, Angela Ferrell-Zabala.

But that legislation is not expected to come to the House or Senate floor for a vote. During “Rhode Island Report Live,” an event marking the Globe podcast’s 100th episode and highlighting the collaboration with Rhode Island PBS, Ruggerio said he opposed that bill, saying, “If you’re going to ban assault weapons, you have to ban it nationally.”

Senate approves $14 billion state budget

The Senate voted 32 to 4 for the $14 billion state budget, which had already been approved by the House.

“We’re putting our resources where they are most needed — helping small businesses with relief from the tangible tax, preserving and expanding important programs for early childhood and supporting a wide variety of initiatives to tackle the housing crisis — while also guarding our future with a new supplemental rainy day fund,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Louis P. DiPalma said.

But Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, opposed the budget, saying, “The record spending in this budget sets a dangerous precedent, particularly with little relief in sight for high inflation and the potential of a looming recession. We had a rare opportunity to use surpluses and federal funds to supplement our budget, decrease spending, and send money back to taxpayers – like other states have done. Instead, the budget increased to a new historic high.”

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Again no action on Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights

Once again, time has run out on efforts to revise a decades-old police accountability law.

A new Senate version of the bill revising the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights emerged Tuesday night. But House Deputy Speaker Raymond A. Hull, a Providence Democrat and police sergeant, said he could not support those changes. He said the main sticking point was the makeup of a disciplinary panel that would decide officers’ punishments.

“I’m disappointed,” Hull said Thursday night. “People want something done. What do we want – for another incident to happen?”

This marks the third year that the Assembly has failed to pass legislation despite calls for reform following an outcry over the killing of George Floyd.

Black Lives Matter RI PAC President Harrison Tuttle said, “The inaction displayed by our General Assembly as a collective entity over the course of the past three years regarding the extensively debated matter of LEOBOR is an alarming testament to the state of Rhode Island’s handling of issues concerning police accountability. This lack of progress is not only disappointing but also brings great embarrassment, considering the widespread discussions held among community members, local city/town councils, and state-level officers on this very subject.”

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A new line in the sand for shore access

The Assembly passed a bill to improve public access to the shore, a historic measure that seeks to address a longstanding source of tension in the Ocean State.

“I do think this is historic,” said state Representative Terri Cortvriend, who shepherded the bill through the House.

The legislation got its final passage from the House of Representatives on Thursday, expected to be the last day of the legislative session. The Senate had previously passed it.

The bill now goes to Governor Dan McKee for his approval or veto, although it passed by veto-proof margins. Brian Amaral has more on the legislation and the legal challenges it may face.

Bottle bill kicked down road

A proposed bottle bill never made it to floor vote in either chamber, but the Assembly created a study commission on the issue.

Jed Thorp, Rhode Island state director of Clean Water Action, said the group would have preferred to see the bill pass this year. “I believe there is strong support in the House and Senate, but short of having the bill pass, having a strong study commission is the next best outcome.”

He noted Representative Carol Hagan McEntee, the South Kingstown Democrat who introduced the bottle bill, vowed to produce legislation from the study commission.

Marijuana shops can now advertise

The Assembly gave final approval to legislation that will let the state’s recreational marijuana stores advertise.

“The prohibition on advertising for our state’s cannabis products has put this young and growing industry at a significant disadvantage when competing against our neighboring states’ cannabis operations,” Senator Jonathon Acosta, a Central Falls Democrat. “Seeing advertisements for Massachusetts cannabis products right in the middle of Providence is an inequality that this bill will rectify, allowing our own state’s businesses to grow and flourish.”

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Payday lending bill falls short

The House voted for 66 to 2 for a bill that would cap the interest rates charged by so-called payday lenders. But the Senate did not take up the legislation.

Representative Karen Alzate, the Pawtucket Democrat who introduced the bill, said, “It shows we have momentum. This is the first time it’s been passed by the House after 13 years of trying. The stores are often in low-income urban communities, often catering to people for whom English is not their first language. It’s predatory.”

Styrofoam food containers now banned

The Assembly approved bills banning restaurants from using polystyrene foam for food packaging or preparation.

“Even though it is not biodegradable, it easily breaks apart into tiny pieces that can be toxic to a range of wildlife and food chains in our Narragansett Bay ecosystem,” said Senator Josh Miller, a Cranston Democrat. “Fortunately, today there are so many significantly better alternatives. I’m glad the Ocean State is joining the growing number of states and cities that are saying no to foam.”

No Senate vote on accessory dwelling units bill

A bill that was supposed to help homeowners develop accessory dwelling units on their properties was not scheduled for a vote in the Senate Thursday night.

The legislation, which was part of Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi’s 14-bill housing package and sponsored by Representative June Speakman, would have allowed homeowners the right to develop these “in-law apartments.” Senator Victoria Gu told the Globe that she was pushing for a compromise between the House and Senate on the bill, but they were still far apart. She said she has also heard concerns that property owners would build these ADUs to become short-term rentals even though the provision in the legislation bars them from doing so.

“I’m being told that the provision might not be enough,” said Gu. “I was hoping to have a solution. ADUs are a way for housing and rental units to come online a whole lot faster than rental construction.” A spokesman for Ruggerio could not be immediately reached for comment.

Eliminates rental application fees

But the Assembly did pass other housing bills, including one that would eliminate housing rental application fees. “We have heard from families who have spent thousands on rental application fees – without being able to secure an apartment,” said Representative Cherie L. Cruz, a Pawtucket Democrat. “Eliminating these burdensome fees will help our struggling residents and families during their already frustrating pursuit of housing.”

Lead pipe bill passes

The Assembly approved legislation championed by Ruggerio and Representative William W. O’Brien, a North Providence Democrat, that will create a lead water pipe replacement program for public and private service lines, with a requirement that all affected pipes be replaced within 10 years.

Juneteenth declared state holiday

As midnight approached, the Senate gave final approval to legislation, introduced by Senator Tiara Mack and Representative Brianna E. Henries, that makes Juneteenth a state holiday, beginning next year. The holiday, called the “Juneteenth National Freedom Day,” will commemorate the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States.

Electric bike bill stalls

The House passed a bill that would regulate electric bicycles as bikes rather than as motor vehicles. But the Senate version of the bill never came up for a vote.

This is a developing story and will be updated as voting continues. Alexa Gagosz and Brian Amaral of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


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