Voter Referendums, Notable Bills During Week 2

Editor's note: This story was updated Jan. 15 to reflect the latest developments at the General Assembly.

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Voters who want the final say on specific issues may want to consider a bill that expands the use of statewide referendums and initiatives. In recent years, Massachusetts, California and other states have held historic statewide votes on marijuana, animal rights and waste management issues, all of which were driven by voter petitions.

Rhode Island’s referendum process is largely controlled by the General Assembly, making it much harder for single issues to escape the influence of special interest groups.

A bill (S2036) sponsored by Sen. Marc Cote, D-North Smithfield, seeks to join the 26 states that currently have voter-driven referendums or initiatives. The bill requires a statewide vote to amend the Rhode Island Constitution. It also sets the rules for how issues make it to the ballot.

Cote believes the concept may resonate with voters who want a say on issues such as the proposed PawSox stadium.

“Maybe we should have something that allows the people to have more influence and a greater voice in their government,” Cote said.

The prospect for success, however, seems slim at best. Cote has introduce the bill 22 times during his 24 years in the Senate. Nevertheless, he revises the bill each year and gets advice from organizations that advocate for voters’ rights.

Here are other bills of note during week 2 of the General Assembly:

Net neutrality: H7076 requires Internet service providers doing business in Rhode Island to follow net-neutrality rules, meaning they don’t give preferential Internet traffic services for money. Compliance would be overseen by the Division of Public Utilities. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, D-Hopkinton.

Contaminated landfill: A resolution (H7089) sponsored by Rep. Camille F.J. Vella-Wilkinson, D-Warwick, seeks $100,000 to oversee the cleanup of the contaminated Truk-Away Landfill in Warwick. The 52-acre municipal and industrial landfill operated between 1970 and 1977, when it was closed after the discovery of extensive chemical waste. The site was used as an illegal dump until 1990. A similar resolution died in committee in 2017.

Infrastructure projects: H7102 establishes a grant program, overseen by the Department of Administration, that offers funds for infrastructure projects related to housing development and rehabilitation, community development, and the accommodation of future growth and redevelopment.

Gas and electricity tax: H7108 repeals the sales and use tax on gas and electric bills. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Robert D. Lancia, R-Cranston.

Field trips: H7157 requires public-school students in grades K-12 be offered at least one field trip per year to a nature preserve, reserve or conservatory. The bipartisan bill is sponsored by Rep. Ramon Perez, D-Providence.

Term limits: H7161 extends terms in the House and Senate to four years, while limiting the time in either chamber to no more than two terms, or eight years. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Robert Quattrocchi, R-Scituate.

Waste management: S2026 requires that the potential detrimental impact on a community be considered when approving the construction or operation of a waste management facility. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence.

The first week of the 2018 legislative session was shortened by a snowstorm, nevertheless several noteworthy bills were introduced Jan 3:

Energy: H7050 allows the state to add an additional 2 megawatts to the state Renewable Energy Growth Program if it is oversubscribed, as it is currently. The incentive program offers fixed pricing for the sale of electricity from new, mostly smaller, solar installations. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown.

H7023 restricts National Grid from raising rates by 5.5 percent or more than the Consumer Price Index, whichever is greater. The bill is sponsored by Rep. John Lombardi, D-Providence.

Native American inequity: H7063 creates the Rhode Island American Indian Affairs Commission to address social and economic inequality of local aboriginal and indigenous groups. The nine-member council will review racial, ethnic, cultural, environmental, socioeconomic, linguistic, educational, equity, and health disparities, and maintain compliance with laws and rights that protect indigenous people. The council will advise the General Assembly and governor on legislation and support local Native American organizations.

The legislation comes after the 35-day occupation last summer of disputed land in Bristol by the Pokanoket Tribe. The agreement with Brown University and the tribe assured that the property will be held in trust and used by Native American groups.

Beach parking: H7059 eliminates parking fees and other charges at state-run beaches and recreation areas. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Robert Lancia, R-Cranston.

Permits: H7049 allows members of the military and there spouses to receive expedited permits and certification from the Department of Environmental Management. It also allows for the temporary approval of activities that may be allowed in other states but not in Rhode Island.

Transportation: H7015 allows the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) to talk with the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) about a joint MBTA commuter pass and RIPTA bus pass.

Sewage: H7051 creates sewer-connection exemptions in the town of Covenrty.

Reproductive rights: H7026 outlaws “dismemberment abortions.” Anyone conducting such a procedure can be charged with a misdemeanor, a second offense is a felony. A woman receiving the procedure can't be charged. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence.