Ƶ

STATE

Legislature finishes with votes on $13.9B budget, granny flats, criminal records

PROVIDENCE − The curtain came down on Rhode Island's six-month legislative session at 1:33 Friday morning, after an emotional apology from the ailing Senate President Dominick Ruggerio for his extended absence.

Saying he felt a need to "apologize for what I went through and the lack of attention that I gave this body, which isn't normal for me," Ruggerio also said: "Talk about people stepping up to the plate.... I was overwhelmed." He told The Journal he hopes to be back presiding over the Senate next year.

The session that began in January came to an end after final votes on a record-high, $13.96-billion state budget, a Citizens Bank tax break, a spate of proposed new laws favored by the generous – and perennially persuasive − auto-body shop industry and a shield law for doctors who perform abortions and provide gender-affirming care.

Just past midnight, the Senate gave its stamp of approval to the new state spending plan on a 34-to-1 vote, with Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz casting the lone nay vote.

Before the final House and Senate sessions began, Gov. Dan McKee signed into law new safe gun-storage requirements, born out of a series of potentially preventable tragedies and passed over the strenuous objections of legislative Republicans and other gun rights advocates.

"We did it,'' said South Kingstown Councilwoman Patti Alley, to cheers and more than a few tears in the packed State House room where the signing took place.

Patti Alley, at podium, stands with members of her family in the State Room at the State House on Thursday afternoon after the signing of a gun-storage bill by Gov. Dan McKee.

Alley championed the safe gun storage fight, initiated by state Rep. Justine Caldwell, after her own sister, Allyson Dosreis, killed herself on June 26, 2020, with her partner's unlocked gun at an especially low point in their "tumultuous and toxic relationship."

"One of the first things I learned after Allie died was that Rhode Island had only weak laws regarding gun storage and that the law that was in existence would do nothing to hold her partner accountable for his reckless actions," she said.

McKee donned a red Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence T-shirt for the signing of the new law requiring locked storage of firearms when not in use.

Then it was on to the business of the final legislative day.

That included to officially confirm the acting head the state prison system, Wayne Salisbury, after a failed campaign by the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers to derail the McKee appointment.

Citizens

Under threat that Citizens Bank might move some or most of 4,000 employees across state lines, lawmakers Thursday delivered for the Rhode Island-based financial institution with legislation expected to cut its taxes by $16 million per year.

. The Senate vote on a matching bill was .

Despite the overwhelming votes, many progressives were uneasy with the idea of being pressured to give banks a tax cut.

"I never thought I'd see the day that state government, our state government, would allow itself to be extorted by corporation," Rep. Enrique Sanchez, D-Providence, told House colleagues before voting no on the bank bill. "That's what this is."

The bill would allow bank taxes to be calculated entirely on income instead of also factoring in property and employment, which Citizens executives argued penalizes them for keeping a large workforce here. 

Citizens sought the change after losing access to an incentive program that has cut its taxes for many years.

Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson cheers along with the House chamber and her balcony guest as she gets a rousing sendoff while saying good-bye at her final House session on Thursday evening at the State House. She had announced she would not be running for reelection after serving since 2017.

Over in the Senate, Sen. Sam Bell questioned the premise that Citizens was actually contemplating more than a small number of workers moving across the border to Massachusetts, which has higher income tax rates and just instituted a "millionaires tax." 

But Sen. Sam Zurier, also a Providence Democrat, said he would reluctantly vote yes because the possibility of Citizens moving its headquarters and back office workers across the state line was too great to a risk to take. 

"I have to vote yes because I do not want to be the one to lose Citizens," he said. 

Expungement

Bills to remove many more criminal records from public view and allow convicted criminals to tell anyone who asks, including a prospective employer or voter, "I have never been convicted of a crime" made headway.

The House approved a His bill would allow the expungement of a 15 years after completion of the last sentence.

Knight tried but did not win leadership support for the expungement of a felony when an individual has multiple misdemeanors.

The sticking point for a number of legislators, including Rep. Cherie Cruz, was the 15-year wait, which is five years longer than someone with a felony conviction alone would have to wait under current law.

Despite Rhode Island's decade-old "Ban-the-Box" law prohibiting employers from asking job seekers upfront on their employment applications if they have ever been arrested or convicted, Cruz said:

"I can only speak [as] someone who has [had] the experience of ... a criminal record, [as] someone who waited decades to have a chance to find employment, a chance to get me off ... public assistance and a chance to easily find housing. A chance to be here with you all today."

"The whole point of a record of expungement is so people can get their lives back, back as soon as possible to reduce the barriers to housing, employment and raising their families. Those same barriers I faced," said Cruz, who voted no on the vote.

As of midnight, there had been no Senate action on this bill, though legislation sailed through both chambers to speed up the eligibility date for the expungement of mulitple convictions for crimes downgraded in recent years from felonies to misdemeanors, such as certain drug crimes.

Rhode Island's current expungement law has already led to the removal of tens of thousands of public records from public view. Attorney General Peter Neronha failed in his push this year to open these sealed records to authorities weighing applications for gun permits.

The Neronha-backed bill never got out of committee after legislative hearings that drew comments such as this, from Michael Luciano of Cranston: "This is another attempt at putting up roadblocks for people wishing to protect themselves."

Housing

The General Assembly approved House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi's No. 1 priority this session: legislation to allow homeowners to add accessory apartments, aka "granny flats," within the existing footprint or in any already existing structure on their property without special permission from their municipality.

As the final night wore on, the Assembly approved most of the other bills in Shekarchi's 15-piece housing package as well, sending them on to the governor to be signed into law.

The one bill in the House package the Senate changed significantly would have allowed manufactured and mobile homes in residential areas.

Could someone "come in and put a trailer in my neighborhood" where there are traditionally-built single family homes?" Sen. Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston, asked about the bill. 

Answer: yes, but unlike Shekarchi's version, the Senate version made allowing manufactured homes optional for local officials, defeating much of the point.

Senate Republicans balked at the idea of allowing new accessory apartments that property owners could use rent for profit. 

"This will negatively impact single-family neighborhoods," Sen. Gordon Rogers, R-Foster, said. "Investors can buy a home and turn it into two-unit rental housing."

Senate Democrats had tried to require that accessory apartments be used only on owner-occupied properties, but Shekarchi said that would not help lower housing costs.

"It is time," Sen. Meghan Kallman, D-Pawtucket, said about legalizing granny flats, the top legislative priority of AARP, adding that studies show allowing non-owner occupants "is important for housing production."

Auto-body shop bills

And then there are the final-day auto-body bills (and yes, there's more than one), creating new offenses within the state's "Unfair Claims Settlement Practices Act" for auto insurers who resist paying for use of original manufacturer parts or honor a "direction to pay" an auto-body shop directly.

For the record: The auto-body shop owners, who made $62,000 in political donations the first three months of this year, and the former state lawmaker who lobbies for them at the State House, Robert Jacquard, say these are consumer bills.

The auto insurance lobby says these year-after-year mandates drive up Rhode Island's already high auto insurance rates.

Casino smoking

In what may be an early harbinger of next year's legislative fights, the House Finance Committee unanimously passed a bill from South Kingstown Rep. Teresa Tanzi Thursday afternoon that would strip Bally's casinos of their exemption from the state's indoor smoking ban.

Bally's has opposed efforts from some of its employees and progressive lawmakers to end smoking there, arguing that smoking is one of its competitive advantages against bigger casinos in Massachusetts and Connecticut. And for years the gambling company has been able to rely on the Senate to kill a smoking ban.

The House did not bring the bill to the floor for a full vote.    

Temporary Caregiver Leave

An expansion of the state's six-week paid caregiver leave law won passage Thursday, but it was a smaller expansion than most senators wanted.

An initial Senate bill would have doubled the length of paid time off workers could take to care for a new baby or sick loved one to 12 weeks. But the House would only go along with 7 weeks starting Jan. 1 and 8 weeks in 2026, which the Senate eventually accepted.

Sen. Jonathan Acosta, D-Central Falls, called eight weeks "scraps" and said since Rhode Island became an early adopter of Temporary Caregiver leave in 2014, it is now well behind Massachusetts' 12 weeks.

"We were originally leaders. We are aren't even followers now. We are has-beens," Acosta said.  

Final Day Highlights

Some other bills that received final votes Thursday: