Even $14 billion can’t buy happiness for everyone.
The state’s fiscal 2024 spending plan and flurry of end-of-session legislation still left policymakers and reformers hanging on high-profile topics ranging from police reform and gun safety to the controversy-ridden Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council.
Here are the biggest losers from the 2023 session. (There were some winners too).
The latest proposal to reform the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBOR) passed the Rhode Island Senate on the final day of the session, but never made it to the House.
The legislation, sponsored by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, would have expanded hearing panels to five members. Panels currently consist of three people — one chosen by an accused officer, one chosen by the chief of police, and a third chosen by both or a presiding Rhode Island Superior Court judge.
Under Ruggerio’s bill, members included three randomly selected officers, a representative from the Nonviolence Institute and a retired judge appointed by the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
The bill also would have allowed police chiefs to release video evidence and make public comments concerning the accused officer.
Other bills seeking to reform or abolish LEOBOR were held in committee.
Gun safety advocates
Despite support from the state’s executive branch and a visit from a high-profile activist, the Rhode Island General Assembly failed to act on two bills seeking to tighten Rhode Island’s gun laws.
One bill would have banned the possession, sale, and transfer of semi-automatic firearms with certain features including detachable magazines or a folding stock. The other piece of legislation required that firearms be safely stored to prevent access by persons prohibited by law from possessing a firearm.
Both bills were held in committee for further study.
The state’s $14 billion spending package does not include designated funding for the financially endangered Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA), despite projections that the agency is headed toward a fiscal cliff.
RIPTA is projecting a $40 million budget shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year, which the agency projects could lead to 400 layoffs and drastic cuts to service.
It’s not all bad for RIPTA, as the agency will get $750,000 to continue its free fare bus route service along the “R-Line” — which travels from Pawtucket to Providence.
The fare program began last September and will end at the end of August. RIPTA will track ridership data and submit a report to the Speaker of the House, the President of the Senate, and the Governor no later than March 1, 2024.
Retired state employees
The ghost of past pension reforms returned to haunt the State House this session, with retired state workers and public school teachers calling on lawmakers to resurrect the cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) that were suspended more than a decade ago. While the fiscal 2024 budget offers some improvement – a much-reduced annual COLA rather than a lump, quadrennial sum and plans for a comprehensive study of the pension reform – it was hardly the revival that retirees wanted.
One potential outlier: working firefighters who suffer heart attacks on the job, who could now qualify for disability pensions under legislation passed in the final throes of the session. Assuming, that is, that Gov. Dan McKee does not veto the bill as the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns has called on him to do, citing the cost to taxpayers.
The embattled Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council was the target of a flurry of bills this session that would have reformed, or even gotten rid of, the politically appointed council at the source of most of the controversy. Yet nearly all these pieces of legislation never made it out of committee in their respective chambers, minus one, successful bill that turns the executive director job into a governor-appointed role.
Another small, but significant win for coastal reform advocates: the 11th-hour confirmation of a full-time hearing officer, filling a position that has sat empty (despite being funded) for more than a year.
The push to address solitary confinement in Rhode Island will also have to wait for a future session. The legislation, sponsored in the Senate by Central Falls Democrat Jonathan Acosta with a House companion bill by Rep. Leonela Felix, a Pawtucket Democrat, would have limited the maximum length of time a person can spend in solitary confinement.
Both bills were held in committee for further study.
Legislators and activists sought to cap an inmate’s stay in restrictive housing at 15 days, which the United Nations says is the maximum amount of time someone can spend in solitary confinement before it counts as torture.
Many activists say the conditions inmates face in isolation have led them to die by suicide.
The legislation was opposed by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (DOC), with Acting DOC Director Wayne Salisbury testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March that the bill was too broad to be applied to Rhode Island and could lead to “disastrous results.” The department also disputed the use of the term “solitary confinement” by advocates.
Also stalled in committee was a package of bills that would crack down on impaired and reckless driving. One bill, sponsored by Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, a Coventry Democrat, sought to extend the limit on prior offenses that police take into consideration when charging an impaired driver with a more serious repeat offense from five to 10 years.
Another bill, also sponsored in the Senate by Raptakis, would have made the maximum prison term for killing someone due to impaired driving 30 years — double the state’s current penalty.
Payday lending reform
Efforts to rid Rhode Island of predatory payday lending practices stopped short of passage, though the proposal still advanced further than ever before with overwhelming support by the Rhode Island House (it never got out of committee on the Senate side). While the triple-digit, small-dollar loans are still available in the Ocean State for now, reformers will no doubt use the momentum from this session to try and ban deferred deposit providers once and for all next year.
Heirs of estates above $1.7M
Though Massachusetts lawmakers appear poised to ease estate taxes, attempts to offer the same relief to Rhode Island heirs and beneficiaries proved unsuccessful. Various proposals to increase Rhode Island’s estate tax exemption over the current $1.73 million threshold – or get rid of it entirely – proved unsuccessful despite warnings from lawmakers about losing wealthy residents, and their tax dollars, to states with better death tax policies.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts lawmakers are still considering doubling their exemption to $2 million, which would leave Rhode Island as one of two states with a less competitive policy.
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