SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Just in time for the ticking Thursday, Feb. 16 deadline, South County legislators have submitted a multitude of bills this year, varying from eliminating unfunded state mandates to banning texting while driving and training a skilled workforce.
Though the legislators have submitted many bills since January, the ones expected to grab the most attention include Rep. Teresa Tanzi’s bill to relieve municipalities from the unfunded state mandate that requires them to provide and pay for school transportation for private school students. Tanzi’s bill is enabling legislation, which allows municipalities to choose whether or not they want to provide the school transportation.
The freshman representative from Narragansett and South Kingstown submitted the bill at the request of the South Kingstown School Committee. Last year it cost South Kingstown $354,246 to bus in-district students and $48,268 for out-of-district students. In Narragansett, the transportation cost for out-of-district students amounted to $110,469. There is no in-district cost to Narragansett.
“There are times when [school committees] hands are tied and they need some kind of freedom,” Tanzi said. “When people talk about school choice when we have great schools in our community, it seems like a burden.
Tanzi said she designed the bill to give communities the choice because “those decisions don’t need to be made at the state house, but with the community in mind by the school departments.”
With the economy in mind, Tanzi submitted a bill that will require tax credits, like those received by film industries, to be evaluated every five years to make sure the companies are actually contributing to the state through jobs. The program now only provides credit for production, but Tanzi’s bill would include credit for pre-and-post production.
Tanzi said often “jobs they created are for people from Massachusetts they hired. We as a legislature need to decide whether a tax credit is worth is or did we just get movie stars to come into our lives for two months?”
In light of South Kingstown’s Healthy Places by Design Program, Tanzi also submitted a bill, relating to vulnerable road user laws that will increase penalties for drivers who hit a pedestrian on the road. Penalties may include a traffic training session, community service, fines up to $500,000 and a suspended driver’s license.
Several bills introduced by Senator V. Susan Sosnowski (D-New Shoreham, South Kingstown) also make roads safer. One bill she reintroduced bans use of all handheld cell phones, including texting, while driving except for emergency vehicles. Another bill bans smoking in cars with children present, while a handful more deal with implementing the driver interlock system for those convicted of driving while under the influence.
A stated goal for Senator James Sheehan (D-Narragansett, North Kingstown) was to increase economic development in the state. As such, he co-sponsored a bill to create a job-match program that allows the government to coordinate with businesses. The program would train employees for skills employers seek.
Sheehan also introduced a bill to limit overdraft fees Rhode Island banks and credit unions can charge.
“I think it’s excessive in this recession,” Sheehan said.
A third bill submitted by Sheehan will require more oversight for quasi-public agencies, such as the Johnston landfill and will require them to reach performance standards to justify state money they receive to operate.
This year marked the once a decade process of redistricting, a controversial process that is often suspected of wielding a political arm. Rep. Spencer Dickinson (D-South Kingstown) was not shy in his opposition against this year’s process, stating the results look like a “cartoon version if what they’re doing is trying to bring about a political result.”
As a result, Dickinson has submitted a bill to separate redistricting from the political process and provide guidelines on what can and cannot be done.
“It’s correcting for population shifts and not allowing political outcomes to be intended part of redistricting,” Dickinson said.
A second bill submitted by Dickinson provides for whistle-blowing legislation that protects state employees from losing their job or from intimidation if they report a wrongdoing.
“If an individual is being unfairly treated in his or her job, they should have access to an appeals process and can’t be suppressed against his or her will,” Dickinson said.
With some fines for candidates failing to file campaign finance reports climbing into thousands of dollars, Rep. Donald Lally, Jr., (D-Narragansett, North Kingstown, South Kingstown) introduced on behalf of the state board of elections a bill that maxes out fines at $2,000. Once a candidate owes that amount, he or she would be prevented from running for office.
“The board felt they were never going to collect those [fines] so they wanted to cap the amount a candidate could owe them,” Lally explained.
Another bill by Lally would increase the limit anyone can contribute to an individual candidate from $1,000 to $1,500 to address an increase in inflation since the limitation was first created in 1990.
As a chair of the House Economic Development Committee, many bills of Rep. Donna Walsh (D-Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly) pertain to improving the economy. The most recent bill submitted by Walsh gives preference to certified, qualified construction companies on state contracts who bid within five percent of the lowest bid received.
“This is an industry that is really suffering. There is no building going on,” Walsh said.
A second bill would make it easier for small business owners to receive permits from municipalities by having the process take place online. Walsh said it would be funded by 1/10 percent of a levy that already exists on total construction costs.
To counter the fact that Rhode Island has the second highest cost for farmland, $12 per acre, in the nation, Walsh introduced a bill to limit the total evaluation for farmland, crops, livestock and equipment to $2.5 million.
The formal deadline for bills was last Thursday, Feb. 16 but it is common practice, legislators say, for legislative counsel, the law firm that drafts legislation in the basement of the state house, to leave their doors open for legislators to drop off last minute bills during this week’s February recess. Legislators can still have until session resumes on Tuesday, Feb. 28 to submit legislation. The local legislators explain that even after that date, House rules allow them to submit three more bills. On the Senate side, senators can submit bills as long as the majority agrees. Once the bills are finalized in legislative counsel, assigned a tracking number and introduced to the floor, they are assigned to various committees who determine their fate.