PROVIDENCE — Named for the indefatigable fighter for the poor and sick, the Henry Shelton Act, which will allow low-income Rhode Islanders to pay a percentage of their income for gas and electric utility bills instead of the full metered amount, and will restrict the ability of utilities to shut off service for non-payment was ceremonially signed by Gov. Lincoln Chafee Thursday.
Chafee officially signed the bill into law two weeks ago, but the signing ceremony was intended as much to honor the tireless, seven-years-long effort by Shelton, now infirm himself as a result of a stroke as to celebrate the passage of the bill.
True to form, Shelton was not prepared to rest on his laurels. He called the bill “a broad step forward,” but added, “there are still people who are going to be shut off because they can't afford” ever-increasing utility bills.”
He told the lawmakers who gathered for the signing, “I appreciate you staying involved with issues of low-income people because their issues don't go away.
Make sure no one in Rhode Island goes without heat or without lights.”
“In these difficult economic times, when Rhode Islanders across the state are struggling and we are facing unprecedented cuts to federal low-income heating assistance programs, it is especially important that state leaders find a way to care for those most in need,” Chafee said as he prepared to sign the bill, “the Henry Shelton Act will help families keep the heat on and the lights on in the winter.”
Chafee praised Shelton, who showed up for the mid-morning ceremony, as someone “who has worked throughout his life for Rhode Islanders in need. What a phrase to be associated with a human being: working for others.”
The bill will create a pool of money, funded by a surcharge on gas and electricity utility customers, not to exceed $10 a year each, that would in effect subsidize low-income customers, It also prohibits shut-offs unless a customer has missed more than two consecutive monthly payments a year, or whose back bill exceeds $300.
“This is one of those great moments,” enthused House Speaker Gordon Fox.
“There have been some tough times and we have been forced to cut so much,” Fox said, that he and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed wondered “when do we get to do something good? I think this bill is something good.”
Fox said his 89-year-old mother often told him “every now and again you have to do something that is food for your soul. I think this is food for all our souls. Ultimately, it is the right thing to do.” He said the bill means, “we provide people with heat in the winter – imagine that, heat in the winter – and lights.”
He joked to Shelton, saying, “Henry, you over the years have lobbied me, you've chided me, you've even picketed me, but ultimately, you educated me. You always make sure that our hearts and minds are bound together.”
Paiva Weed said Shelton, over the years, “made sure we heard the voice of those who weren't in the building and recognized the needs of those in need of assistance.” She said that, watching on television with Sen. Josh Miller as the bill passed in the House of Representatives, “it was one of those moments when you stand there and realize why we are here and how we can make a difference in other people's lives.”
Miller said the new law is evidence that, “we will not abandon the elderly, we will not abandon the recently unemployed, we will not abandon those in need, we will not abandon children in need. The person who did the most to make sure we had those priorities is Henry Shelton.”