PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island lawmakers are heading into a long day and night of final votes Thursday on dozens of bills – including the $13.1- billion state budget, a trio of gun bills and even an 11th-hour police and firefighter pension bill – before closing down for the summer.
Both the House, meeting at the State House,?and the Senate, still meeting in leased space on the Rhode Island College campus, are each starting their days with more than 50 bills on their calendars.
Those still requiring one last vote will then need to be shuttled back-and-forth, adding a logistical hurdle to the traditional final-day vote-a-thon.
At this point, there are no hitches expected when the Senate takes up the record-high state?budget for the fiscal year that begins Thursday, and runs from July 1, 2021 through June 30, 2022,
The proposed new budget?includes $3.7 billion more in total spending than 2019, with most of the increase coming from federal pandemic aid and stimulus dollars. ?The tax and spending also revises expenditures for the current year up to a COVID-fueled?record $14.3 billion.
Passing a budget when the state is awash in money may be one of the easiest votes the Senate takes.
But if the senators are as divided as House members on the merits of banning a?proposed high-heat?medical waste burning plant anywhere in Rhode island, sparks could fly.
The House approved the bill, sponsored by Rep. Justine Caldwell and others, on a 44-to-22 vote, after a lengthy debate that pitted lawmakers enthused by the potential economic benefits of Rhode Island’s hosting the first such plant in the nation against those fearful of the potential health?effects.
As a lawyer at one point for MedRecycler,?the company pitching the proposal in West Warwick, ?House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi recused himself from the debate and voting and physically left the rostrum. House Majority leader Christopher Blazejewski led the floor fight for the proposed ban.
As the heated debate played out, some lawmakers quietly questioned how much of the attack on this?bill was directed at Caldwell?who,?days earlier on Twitter,? blamed the “three rich white guys”‘ who run Smith Hill for leaving her bill to limit high-capacity magazines out of the gun-package headed for votes..
The ban on high-heat waste?burning plants is listed under “additional business” on the Senate calendar.
On the gun front, the Senate calendar calls for final votes on House-passed bills to prohibit?guns on school grounds,?prohibit “straw purchases” of guns by intermediaries for people banned from buying them, and have the attorney general create an annual?report on all gun charges.?
The only question: Are the Senators all talked out on the gun-bills which produced lengthy debates in the House and Senate on Wednesday. (One of the first House actions Thursday was passage of the matching Senate gun bills, as part of a bundled package.)?
The straw gun ban has been a top priority for R.I. Attorney Gen. Peter Neronha, who? cited a recent case involving the purchase of 89 lfriearms by an intermediary for turnaround sale.
But opponents in the House characterised the bill as a “trap” for law-abiding gun owers who might say ”here try this” to someone ?at a gun-range,unaware the individual was ineligible to purchase or even possess a gun.
”This?is going to end up becoming a turkey that is going to bite a lot of people without stopping criminals from being criminals,” said Republican. Rep. Michael Chippendale.
’Rhode Island doesn’t have a gun problem. It has a crime problem and we are not addressing the crime problem,” asserted republican Rep. Patricia Morgan, a past GOP candidate for governor.
But the lead sponsor, Rep. Jason Knight, D-Barrington, told colleagues thetraw purchase ban “will make Rhodee Islanders safer,.”?
On the police and firefighter pension front, the Senate is slated to take a final vote on a late-session sleeper.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Edwards in the House, would allow firefighters aged 65 and up – and already eligible to retire with ordinary pensions – to?get accidental disability pensions paying 66?% of salary, tax-free, even if the injured individual can do other work.
Brian Daniels, the executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, strenuously objected to the first version of the bill, but admitted he is not clear what cost impact the final version might have and why the firefighters want it.
”As you can see from my testimony, I was very concerned about the bill’s original language that would have removed the current requirement that the disability not be the result of age or length of service.”
”If that had passed, it could have opened the door to disability pensions for degenerative conditions like arthritis,” he told The Journal earlier this week.
He said that language was removed in the final version, but “I’m still working to understand the impact of eliminating the age limit.”
In his earlier testimony to a House committee, he noted the history:?When the General Assembly enacted pension reform almost a decade ago, police and fire unions opposed the increased retirement age – currently 55 with 25 years of service — arguing that the physical requirements of these jobs make them unsafe as employees get older.
”If?the likelihood of injury to police officers and firefighters increases with age, we should be encouraging them to retire before 65. This legislation does exactly the opposite.”
The bill – (H6357)is on the Senate’s “consent calendar,” which means it will be voted on in a bundle. The matching Senate bill (S941)? – sponsored by Sens. Frank Ciccone and Frank Lombardi is on the House’s consent calendar.
It appears this may be the year the lawmakers finally pass a perennial “sunscreen bill” allowing children to apply sunscreen in?schools without a doctor’s note.
In first votes of the day, the House gave final passage to legislation that would allow politicians to spend money they raised for their campaigns on child care, create a “Climate Resilience and Adaptation Fund,” prevent school districts from disciplining bus drivers without a formal investigation, and double the amount of beer that can be sold at breweries.?
All are headed to Gov. Dan McKee’s desk.
The House also voted to make insurers cover telemedicine care, something that was first covered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Telemedicine would be covered wherever deemed “clinically appropriate,” a term some on the left feel gives insurers too much leeway to deny some telemedicine claims.