Good and Bad from 2013 General Assembly

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The General Assembly is done for the year, sort of. Technically, the House and Senate are in recess and can reconvene for things like overriding a veto. Many bills that passed both chambers now must be transmitted to the governor, which he can sign, veto or let pass without his signature.

Here’s a look at what happened to many of this year's environmental bills:

Big Picture

Commerce secretary. The original legislation gave the new commerce secretary oversight of permitting for the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the Coastal Resources Management Council (CMRC) — all in the name of making Rhode Island more business friendly. The DEM and Gov. Lincoln Chafee opposed the bill. The final version is less clear regarding permitting, stating that the commerce secretary shall “lead or assist” state departments with permits. The House and Senate passed the bill (H6063). On July 8, the bill was sent to the governor.

Cimate Change

Mitigation. Rep. Arthur Handy’s bill (H5801) to curtail local greenhouse gas emissions failed to get out of committee. “I still want Rhode Island to address climate change on our end to plan as well as prevent,” the Cranston Democrat said. He intends to begin promoting long-term prevention and planning this fall.

Climate Commission. Last year Chafee vetoed a bill giving the CRMC oversight of the Rhode Island Climate Change Commission. This year, the 28-member board added the director of the Department of Administration (DOA) to provide additional management for climate change adaptation planning. Handy, a co-chair of the committee, said the DOA will bring more attention to the committee. “I feel pretty strongly it would give (the commission) more standing and closer to the governor.” The bill (S671) was signed by Chafee on July 11.

Greenhouse gas money. Up to $300,000 from the state's share of Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) proceeds will be paid each year to the DEM and the Office of Energy Resources (OER). The money will fund programs that address climate change, energy efficiency and renewable energy. The bill (S642) was signed by the governor July 11.

Waste and Recycling

Mattress recycling is the biggest success for waste management during the 2013 legislative session. Rhode joins Connecticut in adopting a program for recycling and disposal of old mattresses. Municipalities are expected to save money by not having to collect discarded mattresses. Consumers will likely be charged $10 per new mattress to fund drop-off centers at stores or by cities and towns. The program starts in 2015. The bills (S261 and H5799) were sent to the governor July 11.

Bag ban. The nation’s first statewide ban on plastic check-out bags (H5403 and S404) wasn't advanced by the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources or the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture.

Solid Waste Commission. On July 3, the House and Senate passed S602, creating an 11-member commission to study all technical, environmental, policy and financial issues concerning the future of solid waste management in the state. Findings and recommendations are due by Dec. 31, 2014.

A comprehensive marine debris and product-packaging bill (H5264) morphed into this study of landfill planning. The commission doesn't require approval from the governor, although it was sent to his desk July 12.

Stormwater Commission. The House and Senate passed H6049, establishing a five-member legislative commission to study stormwater regulations and report back to the General Assembly by April 15, 2014. The bill was sent to the governor July 11.

Drug exchange. Pharmacies and other drug dispensaries will reimburse customers for unused prescriptions. The bill (H5230) passed the House and Senate on July 3. It was sent to the governor July 11.

Medical sharps. The House approved a bill (H5048) that requires hospitals and pharmacies to provide public collection of medical syringes. The bill was opposed by the pharmacy industry. The House passed the bill July 3, but the Senate never held a committee hearing.

Renewable Energy

Tax credit. A 25 percent tax credit (H5116S127) for residential wind, solar and geothermal renewable installations never made it out of committee or into the budget. The state tax credit ended after 2010.

PACE. The Property Assessed Clean Energy program allows homeowners to pay for solar projects and energy-efficient upgrades as they do for property taxes or a sewer assessment. A municipality must first approve the program, as they oversee payment for the debt. PACE is modeled after a Vermont program, which allows any unpaid amount for an energy project to stay with a home if it is sold. Thus, PACE acts as an incentive for homeowners to receive the benefits of an energy upgrade even if they sell a home before the debt is repaid over a 20-year term. The bills (S900) and (H6019) passed both the House and Senate. The bills were forwarded to the governor July 10.

Distributed generation. The lesser of two bills (S641) to expand utility-scale wind- and solar-energy incentives has been sent to the governor. The bill adds hydropower projects to the distributed generation (DG) contracts program. It also gives some relief to new energy projects, allowing them to meet a 90 percent power output threshold within the first two years, instead of 100 percent. Provisions were made for small-scale renewable projects. Renewable-energy proponents favored a bill (H6094) that makes the DG program permanent instead of a pilot program that ends Dec. 31, 2014. Chafee signed the Senate bill July 11.

Wind turbines on farms. Bills (H5953 and S815) setting statewide standards for wind turbines on farms never made it out of committee. Several municipalities, such as East Greenwich and North Kingstown, passed resolutions opposing the legislation.

Hydropower. Chafee’s effort (H6018) to include large-scale hydropower from other regions, such as Canada, in the state’s renewable-energy mix passed in the House. The Senate didn't take up the bill. Chafee plans to pursue the concept in 2014.

“I’m going to come back next year on hydro,” Chafee said. "Hydro power is inexpensive and abundant. Getting the electricity to Rhode Island remains a challenge. That’s got to be part of the decision, where the transmissions lines are going.”

Land Development

Land Preservation. The bill H5386 gives added protection to conservation land subject to eminent domain. Both the House and Senate passed the act. It next goes to the governor’s desk.

Subdivision. The House and Senate passed a resolution (H6167) creating a five-member legislative study commission to make recommendations on statewide zoning regulations for subdivisions. The resolution does not require a signature from the governor. The bill was nonetheless sent to his desk July 11.

On June 25, Governor Chafee signed into law (H5425) the creation of a task force to make recommendations for statewide wetlands and septic setbacks. The bills represent an agreement between environmentalists and developers relating to local oversight of setbacks standards.

Slopes. Bills H5703S544 are considered the biggest offering for real estate developers this year. The legislation allows sloped land to be included in buildable lot calculations. Previously, land that exceeded a certain incline was omitted from the calculation of lot sizes. Environmentalists fear the legislation unleashes building on Rhode Island’s dwindling open space. The bills were passed in late June. They were sent to the governor July 10 and 11.

Public Health

GMOs. Bills (52785849) requiring the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms did not get out of committee. This year, Connecticut and Maine became the first states in the nation to pass GMO labeling laws.

Lead paint. Funding ($600,000) for local lead paint poisoning awareness programs and outreach was restored in the new budget.

Children’s jewelry. The Senate and House passed bills (S497H5423) requiring all children’s jewelry made or sold in Rhode island to comply with the standards set by the American Society for Testing and Standards. Neither bill, however, was approved by both chambers, so the bill did not advance.

Schools on contaminated land. The House and Senate (H5617) passed a controversial revision to last year’s school siting bill. The Rhode Island Mayoral Academies was the principal advocate for the bill. The charter school plans to build a school on a contaminated site in Pawtucket.

Schools already built on contaminated land such as Alvarez High School on Providence's South Side will not be helped by the legislation.

Opponents of the revision such as the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island helped write the revision of this year’s bill. The bill was sent to the governor July 12.

Cesspools. A bill (H6031) requiring the replacement of cesspools at the time of a property transfer or sale did not advance out of committee.

Cloning. The House and Senate passed bills (H5424 and S621) that extends the state ban on human cloning until 2017. The bills were sent to the governor July 12.

Other

Streetlights. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers supported bills H5935 and S836 that allows cities and towns to buy and maintain its streetlights. The bill was held up in recent weeks as it neared passage by union employees working for National Grid due to concerns about jobs. The House passed the amended bill 58-9. The bills were sent to the governor July 11.

The new version added enhanced safety and certification standards for electrical workers. Municipal streetlight ownership is expected to help cities and towns save money on maintenance and install energy-efficient light bulbs.

Raw milk. Bills in the House and Senate (H5820S015) to permit and regulate raw milk sales never made it out of committee. 

Wine and beer at farmers markets. For the second year, bills (H5190S585) allowing the sale of locally made beer and wine at farmers market died in committee.

RIPTA funding. There was no new funding program created for the state’s chronically underfunded public transit system.