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.
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. “We also said we don’t want to just spend this money, we want to invest it. I’m happy that this budget meets those goals we set out.”
The Senate was still expected Thursday night to take up all but one of the 11 bills backed by House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi to deal with the soaring cost of housing.
The runaway real estate market elevated housing to the top of the policy agenda and the budget included $250 million for a package of affordability programs including down-payment assistance for first-time homebuyers.
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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.
On Wednesday, the Senate changed the bill, with Ruggerio and Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey voting in committee, so that cities and towns could still 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 ADUs,” Mack said.
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.
But the big housing policy was in the budget and includes a $10-million public housing pilot program sought by progressive groups who had backed the creation of a state housing developer.
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What didn’t make it?
For the second consecutive session after social justice protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, 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.
“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 change to shoreline boundary “was borderline unconstitutional.”
“We’ve got so many things going on right now,” he said. “That’s not even on the radar screen.”
Medicaid coverage of miscarriage
With the US 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 US 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.
At 5:15 pm on what is expected to be the last night of the session, Senate leaders scrambled to save a proposed real estate 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.
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.
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.
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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