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Plenty of highlights as 2011 legislative session ends

July 2, 2011

PROVIDENCE – You will have to carry identification when you go to vote from now on and police will be authorized to pull your car over on the road if you or your passengers are not wearing seatbelts.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the 2012 state budget into law just hours before it was scheduled to take effect and he signed the seatbelt bill just hours before the state would have lost $4 million in federal highway funds if the law didn't take effect before July 1.
Those are just some of the highlights of the hundreds of pieces of legislation that lawmakers debated and voted on as the General Assembly finished up its 2011 session Thursday night.
Perhaps the biggest piece of news from the Statehouse, however, is what the legislature didn't do: the House of Representatives adjourned without taking up the bill allowing for binding arbitration in teachers' contract disputes.
Protests rocked the Statehouse Rotunda Wednesday as taxpayer associations, anti-union groups and mayors, school committee members and other municipal officials all showed up for a last-ditch push to implore lawmakers to defeat a binding arbitration bill that was resurrected in the last days of the session after being dormant since early spring.
Nonetheless, the Senate voted 20-17 in the late hours of Wednesday to pass the bill, with President Teresa Paiva Weed casting her key vote in favor of the measure.
But House Speaker Gordon Fox issued a written statement Thursday evening that effectively killed the bill for this year.
"Binding arbitration is a very complicated issue,” Fox stated. “I talked with many of our House members who feel they need more information and time, so therefore I will not put a vote before them in this session. We will continue to look closely at this issue in the off-session."
Lisa Blais of the RI Tea Party, one of the more persistent and vocal groups opposing arbitration for teachers, said, “Evidently, Speaker Fox is much savvier than Senator Paiva Weed, we are thankful he showed the leadership to stop it. Speaker Fox saved this state and its taxpayers, public education and cities and towns trying to balance their budgets.”
The Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, which also led the arbitration fight, sent out an e-mail to its members saying “Binding arbitration is dead!” and “You did it!”
Among those fighting to the end to stop binding arbitration was Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien. He told the assembly leadership and the city's delegation that, “As mayor of a city that every day faces an uphill battle to avoid falling into state bankruptcy proceedings, it is my position that passage of such a bill would likely result in higher costs for education that will almost inevitably fall on local cities and towns, and most importantly on our local taxpayers at a time of continued severe economic distress. This is legislation that Pawtucket taxpayers simply cannot afford. The end result would be that Pawtucket would lose control of its economic future. As mayor, that is something I must oppose for the sake of our city.
Also with regard to Pawtucket, the House and Senate voted to extend the two-axle limit on the Pawtucket River Bridge (I-95) while construction continues. The restriction would have expired yesterday, July 1.
By far, the most raucous debate in the House’s final day concerned Woonsocket Rep. Jon Brien's bill to require voters to show some form of identification when they show up to vote. The measure requires that, starting in January, 2012, voters only to have show something with their name on it as identification. After Jan. 1 2014, they will be required to have a photo identification at their local polling place.
For 90 minutes, lawmakers debated, urged, cajoled and, not infrequently, screamed at one another over the pros and cons of showing an ID.
Proponents of the measure called it a common sense safeguard to protect against voter fraud. One representative recalled a close race in 2004 when, about 15 minutes before the polls closed, two school buses filled with people pulled up to the polling place and dropped them off to vote. Rep. Leo Medina said he lost that election by 40 votes.
Opponents called reports of voter fraud an “urban myth” and accused the other side of “chasing ghosts and phantoms.”
The debate threatened to get ugly, as some speakers challenged those who spoke before them and their were countless shrill calls for points of order before Fox stood up, slammed his gavel and insisted on decorum.
In the end, the voter identification bill passed on a vote of 54-21 and an identical Senate bill passed 52-21.
They now go to the governor for his signature or veto.
Until now, it has been the law that drivers and passengers must wear seatbelts in a moving vehicle, but it has been a secondary offense. That means you could only get a ticket for not wearing a belt if you were pulled over for some other offense, such as speeding or running a red light.
Now both the House and Senate passed legislation making it a primary offense, so you can be pulled over and ticketed for that alone.
The governor's office said Thursday evening that Chafee was signing the bill.
Supporters of the measure claim primary seatbelt laws save lives in states where they are implemented.
This was the last year that the federal government was offering states an additional $4 million in highway funding to pass the bills.
In other last-minute business:
--- The House passed and sent to the Senate a bill that prevents municipal officials in cities and towns with a state-appointed receiver from rescinding or taking any steps contrary to actions taken by the receiver. It also protects receivers, overseers or budget commission members from being held personally liable for actions taken in the course of their official duties.
--- The House voted 65-0 to pass a bill by Central Falls Rep. Agostinho Silva that requires a state appointed receiver to allow elected city or town officials to provide advice on matters relating to the operation of the city or town.
--- The Senate and House voted to form a special seven-member legislative commission to study the Wyatt Detention Center and its operations and finances. The commission is a substitute for a bill by Central Falls Sen. Elizabeth Crowley that would have stripped the federal facility of its exemption from paying local taxes because it has failed for the last several years to pay the impact fee it promised the city. Loss of that revenue from the detention center is pointed to as one of the reasons for Central Falls' financial woes.


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