General Assembly passes budget, slew of bills in final hours

Sen. Daniel DaPonte (D-East Providence) urges fellow Senators to pass the state's FY 2017 budget.

PROVIDENCE, R.I (WPRI) – The Rhode Island Senate approved the state’s budget in the early morning hours Saturday, as lawmakers in both chambers of the General Assembly raced to pass dozens of bills before adjourning for the year after sunrise.

The final votes were taken at 5:33 a.m. in the House, and 6:09 a.m. in the Senate.

Some lawmakers took to Twitter as the hours dragged on to express their amusement or frustration – or both – with how late the marathon final session lasted:

The Senate’s 32-3 budget vote, taken at 1:34 a.m., was the final hurdle before sending the $8.9 billion budget to the governor’s desk for her signature.

The debate lasted less than an hour, and as expected no changes were made to the version approved by the House Wednesday night. A proposed amendment by Sen. Leonidas Raptakis to add a line-item veto was not considered.

Three Republicans voted against the budget: Sens. Mark Gee, Nicholas Kettle and Elaine Morgan.

The budget, which lays out state taxes and spending for the fiscal year beginning July 1, raises no broad-based taxes and includes a tax break on pensions for some retirees. Lawmakers ultimately chose not to include proposals by Gov. Gina Raimondo to raise the cigarette tax and the minimum wage, and lowered a marijuana tag fee to $25 per plant, a fraction of what she proposed.

“While the program needed a belt and some suspenders, what was proposed was going to be burdensome to those who need this program the most,” said Sen. Daniel DaPonte, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

As he spoke about the budget on the floor well after midnight, DaPonte praised House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin Abney, who rose to lead the powerful budget-writing committee after the resignation of Raymond Gallison in May, during the crucial weeks in which the spending plan typically comes together.

“[He] was really thrown in the frying pan,” DaPonte said.

Dozens of other bills were pushed through both the House and Senate Friday night and early Saturday as both chambers aimed to adjourn, ranging from the naming of a state marine mammal – the harbor seal – to a bill that creates a process to try and keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.

That domestic abuse bill was approved by the House late Friday, and was considered a watered-down version of one that would have banned misdemeanor domestic abusers from possessing guns. Instead, the House adopted similar language from a Senate bill that applies the gun ban only to felony domestic abusers – who are already banned from gun possession under federal law – and adds a requirement that they surrender their guns within 24 hours of a conviction, or otherwise attest that they possess no firearms.

“Right now this bill addresses felonies only, perhaps one day it will address misdemeanors as well,” said the bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Cynthia Coyne, D-Barrington. She supports extending the ban to misdemeanor domestic abusers but said this bill was a first step.

“We know there is a greater danger to domestic violence victims when firearms can be in the mix,” Sen. Coyne said.

The bill received opposition from those who said it didn’t go far enough, including the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence. That group sent out an email moments before the bill’s passage, urging representatives to vote “no” on the bill. But it passed unanimously.

Another controversial gun bill – an attempt to make it easier to obtain concealed-carry permits – passed the House 66-6 but died in the Senate amid a last-minute lobbying campaign by R.I. State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell and Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements, among others.

Others bills that passed the House Friday included a ban on e-cigarette vaping at businesses and a bill to create a special license plate for the Dorian J. Murray Foundation.

The vaping bill received a contentious debate, as opponents questioned whether there was any scientific evidence that e-cigarettes were harmful.

“Whats next, bacon?” questioned Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick. “Chocolate cake?”

Both chambers approved a mandate for schools to incorporate 20 minutes of “free play” recess into each school day. The bill urged teachers not to take recess away as a punishment, but did not outright ban the practice. In a last-minute amendment, the House added 6th grade to the bill, giving play time to schoolchildren from kindergarten through 6th grade.

A push to regulate ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft reached consensus at 5:42 a.m., when the Senate approved a House version of a bill to bring those drivers under the oversight of the Public Utilities Commission. If signed by the governor, the bill would require permits, background checks and insurance for those drivers, who are classified as independent contractors.

Those ride-hailing companies do face a regulation in the main budget bill: they’ll be required collect the state’s 7% sales tax from riders and give it to the state.

The Assembly also approved several renewable-energy measures, including a five-year extension of the Renewable Energy Fund and a new community net metering program. They had been left on the cutting-room floor during Wednesday’s House budget debate because they were linked with another controversial energy measure that critics said had been crated to benefit a well-connected wind developer.

A disappointed Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, who briefly choked up on the rostrum, announced early in the morning that there would be no agreement between the two chambers on passing a package of criminal-justice reform measures that flowed out of proposals put forward by Raimondo’s Justice Reinvestment Working Group. But a series of bills to curb opioid abuse did pass.

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.

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