Midway through the legislative session, we check in with East Greenwich’s three state legislators to see what they’re working on.
After last year’s lost legislative session, the General Assembly has found its hybrid footing, conducting business at the State House but with virtual input from the public. In many ways, this has led to more input from the public, since it can be done from home, without having to travel to Providence, find a parking space (☹️) and in some instances camp out in hallways for hours waiting for your time to speak.
Rep. Justine Caldwell considers this a good thing. She said she’s also been getting a lot more emails, texts and private Facebook messages from constituents about various issues. While it’s welcome, it’s also been a lot.
“We are getting so much more email than ever before,” she said of legislators. “We don’t have staff. It is literally just me.”
Caldwell chalks that up to both the pandemic and to heightened interest in politics, as well as the fact she is on four committees now: judiciary, small business, corporations and education.
The bills she’s sponsored that have garnered the most attention this session are around gun safety. She’s the lead sponsor on three gun bills: requiring stronger safe storage protections, a ban on the sale of assault-style weapons and a limit to 10 rounds for high-capacity magazines. The hearing on those bills lasted more than 10 hours and email correspondence topped 1,500 separate messages.
Caldwell is hopeful the bills will pass this year, both because Speaker Joe Shekarchi is more supportive of such legislation than the previous speaker, Nicholas Mattiello, and due to recent events.
“Three days before my hearing and three days after there were mass shootings,” she noted, referring to the shootings in Georgia and Colorado in March. “We need to decide in Rhode Island whether we’re going to stand up to lies from the gun lobby.”
Guns, especially those with high capacity magazines, kill more people faster, she said. “No one needs to have those weapons to hunt, no one needs to have them for home protection. These are the weapons of choice for mass shooters.”
Caldwell is also sponsoring a bill that would allow small Rhode Island craft breweries to sell up to 10 cases of beer from their tap rooms, up from the 1 case currently allowed. This is for breweries that make a limited amount of product and do not have large distribution contracts.
Rhode Island vineyards can sell cases of wine, Caldwell said, so why not beer breweries? “I have become very passionate about getting this bill passed – I feel good about this one. It’s so common sense and so needed. It should pass.”
She is also a co-sponsor of some special education bills, including one that would create a special ed ombudsman to help families get the education help they need for their children. However, she’s not sure how that one will do this year, acknowledging it is not overly popular with the state Department of Education and school district administrators.
Sen. Bridget Valverde’s (Dist. 35) said she was very pleased the Senate approved the Act on Climate bill she co-sponsored. The House subsequently passed a very similar bill. With veto-proof majorities in both the House and the Senate, the Act on Climate looks certain to become law regardless of how Gov. Dan McKee acts (he has not yet said).
“This is a really important and exciting thing for Rhode Island,” Valverde said. The bill updates the Resilient Rhode Island Act from 2014 and calls for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” by 2050. It also offers retraining provisions and would focus resources on poorer communities often harder hit by environmental changes.
“It brings us more in line with neighboring states,” Valverde said. “Connecticut and Massachusetts passed similar laws more than a decade ago.”
Valverde said the argument that this bill would hurt jobs is wrong. “I think there’s a disconnect for some people. This is a pro-business bill that will provide green jobs,” she said. “It shows that Rhode Island is really committed to this industry.”
She added, “I’m very proud of Rhode Island for getting this done.”
Valverde, a member of the Environment and Agriculture Committee, is the main sponsor on a bill to expand composting by requiring institutions and businesses that produce one ton of food waste or more a week to compost that waste if they are within 30 miles of a composting facility or anaerobic digester. The current law sets the limit to within 15 miles of a composting facility.
“We’re trying to build composting capacity in Rhode Island,” she said. “If we do it like this … we are giving these composters this additional material, creating demand in a very incremental and doable way.”
Disposing of waste at the landfill costs more than it does to compost waste. “If we encourage investment in composting infrastructure, it really is a win-win. Especially because the jobs that are created are green jobs and that’s what we need,” she said.
Valverde also sits on the Health and Human Services Committee and a bill she supports in that committee – the Doula Reimbursement Act – would require insurance companies to reimburse pregnant women and new mothers for use of a doula, which is a person who provides emotional and physical support during pregnancy and after birth.
“It’s a really important bill for mitigating the risk of maternal mortality, especially for women of color, who have historically received sometimes not as great care,” Valverde said. She is also a co-sponsor of a bill to require equity in abortion coverage. Right now, if you have health care through the state (RITE Care or Medicaid), abortion is not covered.
“If you don’t have access to the full range of reproductive care you are more likely to fall into poverty,” she said. “People should have all of their necessary health care covered regardless of the job they have or how much money they make.”
Valverde said another bill she supports – the Source of Income Discrimination housing bill – passed last week. That bill would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against people who use housing vouchers to help pay the rent. The Senate also passed Valverde’s resolution in support of statehood for Washington D.C. It’s a resolution only but she said it was important because there’s growing support for the idea in the U.S. Congress and she cited personal reasons.
“I went to college there and worked for one of the [D.C.] “shadow” senators, Paul Strauss. Twenty years later, to see this is gaining momentum finally in Congress … it just feels good.”
Sen. Leonidas (Lou) Raptakis (Dist. 33) has introduced a bill that would tie the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), rather than fast-track the minimum wage to $15 an hour. “I think that’s too fast [increasing to $15],” he said. Right now, the minimum wage in Rhode Island is $11.50 (the federal minimum wage is $7.40).
“I think the danger is big box stores can afford it but small mom and pop businesses can’t,” Raptakis said referring to $15 an hour.
He also has a bill that would decrease the tax on purchase of a new truck when you trade in an old one. Today, if you buy a truck for $20,000 and trade in a truck for $10,000, you must pay tax on the entire $20,000. Raptakis’s bill would require the tax bill be limited to the amount over the trade-in value. “Right now, that’s the case with cars but not trucks,” he said.
Another Rapkatis bill would cut the interest on late tax payments from 18 percent to 12 percent.
For the third time, the Senate has passed Raptakis’s bill repealing a law that limits police to offering a warning to those who leave a child under the age of 7 unattended in a car.
“If you leave an animal in your car right now and there’s excessive heat, you could be fined up to $1,000 and charged with a misdemeanor,” he said. “They spell it out for animals and not for children. We’re saying enough’s enough. It’s called responsibility. It’s called parenting. This takes the handcuffs off first responders.”
All three local legislators have come out strongly against Medrecycler-RI, the proposed high-heat medical waste facility proposed for West Warwick just over the EG border. Caldwell in the House and Raptakis and Valverde in the Senate have sponsored bills that would prohibit that type of facility from opening in Rhode Island in the future.
“We want to stop this for the future, no matter what happens” with Medrecycler, Caldwell said. “We don’t want any other company thinking they can come to Rhode Island and start this process.”