PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island lawmakers voted into the night Thursday in what they hoped would be their final acts of a legislative year, focused on the housing crisis and shoring up troubled social services.
The Senate passed the $13.6-billion state budget for next year on a 33-5 party-line vote after shooting down a string of Republican amendments. The House passed the budget last week and it now goes to Gov. Dan McKee, who is expected to sign it.
Among the failed GOP amendments were proposals to suspend the gas tax and spend more money fixing roads.
Democratic Sen. Jeanine Calkin tried to raise the minimum wage to $19 an hour, but Senate President Dominick Ruggerio ruled her amendment out of order before she could introduce it.
Despite some misgivings, Senate progressives voted for the budget along with their Democratic colleagues.
Before the vote, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ryan Pearson said the budget was “buoyed by economic recovery that has been far faster than we expected” with “inflation driving income and sales tax receipts higher” and “unprecedented levels of federal support.”
“We set out to build a budget that cares for Rhode islanders today, but makes key investments in our states future,” Pearson said.
“I think we met the needs of the most needy Rhode Islanders,” House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said of the budget, which included money to hike pay for care workers, raise healthcare reimbursement rates and provide bonuses to retain social service workers.
While the budget passed before the sun went down, other issues dragged on into the night.
The Senate was still expected Thursday night to take up all but one of the 11 bills backed by Shekarchi to deal with the soaring cost of housing.
Compared to some of the aggressive housing laws passed in neighboring states, the House housing package is fairly modest.
The bills would elevate the state housing “czar” to a cabinet level position, set a deadline for decisions of the state housing appeals board, collect housing statistics, and let communities count additional homes toward their 10% affordable-housing target.
The only bill that attempts to directly remove local barriers to building homes makes it easier to create accessory apartments, or “granny flats,” on residential properties.
The Senate changed the bill on Wednesday with Ruggerio and Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey voting in committee to make sure cities and towns retained the power to block accessory units if the property is not owner-occupied.
Sen. Tiara Mack, D-Providence, questioned the rationale for the move.
“My only concern is I have seen in other cities and towns in Massachusetts, when they passed this, cities have required these units to be owner-occupied, which limits the use of [Accessory Dwelling Units,]” Mack said.
Shekarchi Thursday evening said he was “mildly disappointed” the Senate scaled the bill back.
Asked whether his housing package didn’t go far enough to boost the supply of homes, Shekarchi said this year’s legislation is “the beginning.”
“Next year will be the year we move some significant pieces of legislation. This is the foundation,” Shekarchi said. “This is a 30-year old crisis of protectionism, of cities and towns saying they want housing, but not doing anything to break down the barriers or welcome housing.”
The only bill in the House package that did not pass would have counted certain mobile and manufactured homes toward the local 10% affordable-housing target.
When the House passed it earlier in the year there was confusion about what the bill did and concern that it would actually count pre-fabricated “McMansions” as affordable housing.
But the big housing policy was in the budget — $250 million total for housing programs — including $10-million for a public housing pilot program sought by progressive groups who had backed the creation of a state housing developer.
The housing czar will be decide how the public housing pilot works.
What didn’t make it?
For the second consecutive session since the killing of George Floyd brought protests to the streets, a campaign to make it easier for police departments to discipline officers failed to advance.
Shekarchi said negotiations on a compromise on scaling back the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights broke down in the Senate before it made it back to the House.
Lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the issue couldn’t agree on the length of time police chiefs should be able to suspend officers before a formal hearing process and who should be on the panel that decides cases, he said.
“That’s an issue we’re going to leave for next year,” Shekarchi said.
After an exhaustive series of meetings to study the issue last year, the House passed bipartisan legislation that would create a visibly-identifiable boundary of the public shoreline where people could walk along the water.
It couldn’t even get a hearing in the Senate.
Senate President Ruggerio said the proposed changes to shoreline boundaries “was borderline unconstitutional.”
The legislation would have created a 6-foot corridor above the “recognizable high tide line” where people could walk.
“We’ve got so many things going on right now,” he said. “That’s not even on the radar screen.”
Medicaid coverage of abortion
With the U.S. Supreme Court expected to strike down legal protections for abortion access, pro-choice advocates have pushed for abortions to be covered by Rhode Island Medicaid and state employee health insurance.
It didn’t happen.
“Roe v. Wade is the law in Rhode Island, regardless of any rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. The bill introduced by Rep. [Liana] Cassar has a financial impact and the budget has already passed the House,” Shekarchi wrote in an email. “The funding was not included in the budget proposed by the Governor, and he did not present a new budget article including it. We will continue to review this funding next year.”
A hotel bill did pass
The General Assembly approved legislation that would give hotel managers greater leeway to expel guests who berate staff after an unusually close vote in the House.
In response to concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union Rhode Island that the bill could open the door to discrimination, Rep. Edie Ajello, D-Providence, requested language in it be removed that would make “any language which would reasonably be found to be offensive, threatening, or demeaning” ground for expulsion.
The language remained on a rare 34-33 vote.
Lawmakers voted to require people who wear glasses and contact lenses to get an in-person eye exam every two years to refill their prescriptions.
The bill was sought by Optometrists in response to online eyewear companies offering exams through mobile phones.
Online eyewear company 1-800 contacts dropped its opposition to the bill after it was amended to no longer effectively ban remote exams.
Pets for vets
Military veterans in Rhode Island will no longer have to pay a fee to adopt a dog or cat from an animal shelter thanks to a bill headed to McKee’s desk.
A bid to ban fluorescent lights as part of a “mercury reduction” effort – sparked some dark humor.
“Mr. Speaker, this is personal to me,” said House Minority Leader Blake Filippi.
He said he bought 5,000 incandescent light bulbs before they were banned in the drive to get people to use alternatives, such as fluorescents.
To that, Shekarchi said: “I know where to go when I need a light bulb.”
On a more serious note Filippi said the “lightbulb policy of this country is convolunted and counter productive,” because neither LEDs nor fluorescent lights “permit the entire spectrum of visible light. They are bad [for] eyes…and damaging to the irises of children.”
Senate leaders scrambled to save a proposed property tax break for solar energy developers that was narrowly defeated by a Senate committee on Tuesday in the face of strong opposition from the cities and towns.
And they succeeded. By nightfall, the bill was headed to the full Senate for a final vote.
Earlier in the week, the Senate Committee on Housing and Municipal Development defeated the legislation promoted by Green Development, owned by a big political donor, Mark DePasquale, and Revity Energy, a former client of House Speaker Shekarchi, on a 4-to-3 vote.
Senate leaders called for a vote Thursday by a different committee – the Senate Judiciary Committee — on the House-passed version of the bill H8220. And it passed on a 10-3 vote, with Ruggerio and his top lieutenants exercising their power to drop in and vote.
The nub: The solar developers say there is no end in sight to the “drastic” property re-assessments towns like Hopkinton have imposed on them, since they bought and developed solar projects.
A Revity Energy representative spelled out for lawmakers earlier this year what his company wants: … that “all assessments on real property with renewable energy resources … revert to the last assessed value immediately prior to the renewable developer’s acquiring an interest in the real estate.”
The Rhode island League of Cities and Towns objected strenuously to giving preferential tax treatment to this one type of commercial activity and in doing so forcing the “lost revenue” onto other taxpayers.
During Thursday’s unusual, final night hearing, Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, asked and answered this question: “why do we need this?” His answer to ensure equity and equality in assessing and taxing solar projects, so R.I. has a shot at meeting its renewable energy goals.
But Foster Republican Sen. Gordon Rogers railed against the developers who sold cities and towns on the potential finanicial benefits to them, which unnamed politicians and lobbyists are now trying to cut.
“They did what they do. They lobbied and they lobbied,” he said. He predicted moves such as this will discourage towns from saying yes to any new “solar farms,’ which he called the euphemism for “stripping 100 acres clear-cut to ‘famr’.”
I know what it is to farm and it ain’t a solar farm.”
On Thursday, a group calling itself Hopkinton Citizens for Responsible Planning registered its own opposition in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that said, in part:
“Mid considerable controversy, the town of Hopkinton has issued permits to several industrial solar developers to clear cut hundreds of acres of wooded land to install over a dozen utility scale solar projects in our town over the past decade.
“In every instance, the town council members who have promoted and approved these developments have stated that their primary reason for doing so was the opportunity to create a new revenue stream for the town to help defray the cost of our schools.”
On Twitter: @PatrickAnderso_
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This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI Assembly races toward end of session, approves $13.6B budget