Four bills that died in 2017 that should never come back (and five that should)

The 2017 legislative session was, in many ways, a reaction to nationwide events, including protests held by Black Lives Matter and other civil rights groups and, of course, the 2016 presidential election that suddenly raised concerns over the long-term existence of Roe v Wade abortion protections and certain protections for workers and immigrants.

Despite the sudden stalemate between Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (Democrat, District 15, Cranston) and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence) at the end of the regular session, the 2017 session offered legislative victories for workers, including the passing of Earned Paid Sick Time legislation and a law making it easier for businesses to incorporate as cooperatives in the state of Rhode Island. Last year’s session also saw the passage of a minimum wage increase and a bill that revokes gun ownership rights from people under a restraining order related to domestic abuse charges (but excludes police officers and security guards, where domestic violence is two to four times more common than the general public). Though these bills made their way into law, below are four bills that died in 2017 that should never see the light of committee ever again, and five that should.

House Bill 5690 – Establishing The God-Given Right to Strike Protestors With Your Car
Representative Justin Price (Republican, District 39, Richmond, Exeter Hopkinton) introduced this gem of a bill after being personally inconvenienced by a group of about 150 people who blocked one lane of the highway for a few minutes in response to the non-trial of the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. During a committee hearing on the bill, Price described the peaceful protest as “close to being a riot.”

The bill eliminates the civil liability drivers would otherwise face for causing injury specifically to someone engaged in protest or demonstration if the driver was exercising “due caution.” A few months after the introduction of the bill, a driver struck and killed a protestor in Charlottesville, Virginia. While there was enough evidence in that case to prove that the driver was not “exercising due caution”, future cases may not have the same luxury, and that is why this bill should be torn into shreds so small that Price and his co-sponsors (Representatives Michael Chippendale (Republican, District 40, Coventry, Foster Glocester), Robert Quattrocchi (Republican, District 41, Scituate), Arthur Corvese (Democrat, District 55, North Providence) and William O’Brien (Democrat, District 54, North Providence)) can successfully swallow them.

H5195 – The “Ask the Federal Government for Permission to Hire Act of 2017”
House Bill 5195, sponsored by Republican Representative Robert Nardolillo (Republican, District 28, Coventry), would require all non-governmental employers that employ at least three to ask the federal government for permission to hire people through the e-verify program. The idea of the bill is to make sure only documented residents of the United States are able to work in Rhode Island, but the reality is that e-verify is a severely flawed program that makes it harder for even documented residents to get a job; and if a worker is barred from employment due to an erroneous determination from e-verify or erroneous input by the employer (which happens in at least 1 in every 400 cases), it is extremely difficult to appeal. It would also cost small businesses over $2.6 billion per year to comply with the privatized e-verify program, according to the American Enterprise Institute. That’s a lot for Nardolillo and his co-sponsors (Quattrocchi, Chippendale, Price and Corvese) to explain to the small business community that counts on them to keep Rhode Island small business strong and competitive.

H5260 – The Liberal “Blue Lives Matter” Solution to Police-Community Relations
A group of five Democrats, led by Representative Charlene Lima (Democrat, District 14, Cranston), introduced a bill in 2017 that finally mends the gap in trust between police officers and the communities they serve by making it a hate crime to yell at them.

Just imagine being so disillusioned that in response to nationwide unrest between police and the general public you write law attempting to make being a police officer a protected class under hate crime sentencing in our little state. Imagine being so misinformed on the legacy and necessity of hate crime sentencing that you write a bill that elevates pushing against a barricading police officer during a protest to the same level as bullying and assaulting a black child simply for attending school. There is a reason occupation was not included in hate crime sentencing language: occupation is a mutable trait. When you clock out, you are no longer a member of that class. People of color and LGBTQ folks do not get to clock out. Please, please, please don’t resurrect this one.

S0179 – Requiring the spending of millions of dollars to weed out less than three drug-using welfare recipients
Senator Elaine Morgan (Republican, District 34, Exeter Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich)’s bill to mandate drug testing for those who receive public assistance was introduced in 2017 despite being a complete and documented failure literally everywhere else it has been enacted. It costs millions of dollars for some states to enact this type of policy and ends up taking less than one percent of the welfare-receiving population off of government subsidies.

The bill is red meat for your uncle who drones on about people on food stamps having iPhones at every Thanksgiving dinner table ever. It does nothing but feed the absolute fantasy that people who are on public assistance are lazy drug-addicts. This bill belongs in the same place as Morgan’s “accidental” plan to put Syrian refugees in “camps” segregated from the rest of the population: right in the garbage.

Bonus – The War on Christmas Bill That Never Was
Rhode Island Minority Leader and Gubernatorial Candidate Patricia Morgan (Republican, District 26, West Warwick) told media outlets in 2016 that she was going to introduce a bill that “allows” teachers to say “Merry Christmas”. To be clear, there is nothing illegal about saying “Merry Christmas” in school, which is what makes this bill so laughably targeted to the most special of snowflakes who yell endlessly about the perceived war on Christmas and wrote letters to their congressional representation when Starbucks released a plain red cup during the holiday season. In a year of Trump, this plan was, undoubtedly, the Trumpiest Trumpism that Rhode Island saw. This would have been hilarious to hear in committee, but if it was ever actually introduced, I must have missed it.

Amid the bills that should never see the light of day ever again, here are five that didn’t make it into law last year that deserve to be heard again.

The Lead Entity Act
This bill, introduced by Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (Democrat, District 5, Providence), would hold general contractors and corporations partially responsible for the illegal actions of their subcontractors, to include wage theft and employee misclassification. Fuerza Laboral, an immigrant and workers’ rights organization from Central Falls, the Metrowest Worker’s Center and I testified at length about the value this bill would bring to wage and hour law enforcement in the construction industry alone.

Currently, general contractors and business owners are able to disavow blame for the illegal actions of their subcontractors, and the subcontractors are able to blame a labor broker for the same actions. Eventually, a wage theft case is kicked so far down the ladder that it becomes unenforceable, costing the state money in lost tax revenue and driving another nail into the working class.

Reproductive Health Care Act
Representative Edith Ajello (Democrat, District 1, Providence)’s campaign to codify Roe v Wade protections for abortion in Rhode Island state law will continue in 2018, this time with a bill that repeals current unenforceable Rhode Island general law that runs contrary to federal Roe v Wade protections. In a phone conversation with Ajello on Friday, she explained that locally codifying Roe v Wade is not enough, and that several Rhode Island laws would have to be repealed in tandem in order to guarantee reproductive rights for women in Rhode Island. If Roe v Wade decisions were overturned by the new United States Supreme Court, these Rhode Island laws would suddenly become enforceable and would effectively make abortion illegal. In 2018, Ajello’s bill will address such laws.

Tipped Minimum Wage Increase
A few bills were introduced in 2017 that address the tipped minimum wage, but the strongest comes from Representative Moira Walsh (Democrat, District 3, Providence). A tipped worker herself, she understands that the elimination of the tipped minimum wage altogether would likely prompt business owners to withhold the tips of employees who traditionally received them. Instead, her bill calls for the tipped minimum wage to equal two-thirds of the minimum wage.

“Within the restaurant industry, waiters and waitresses are skittish about full elimination of the tipped minimum wage, because they fear they will lose the rights to their tips,” Walsh said on Friday. “But it needs to be increased. In that industry, you make little to no money in your base pay, which limits you in your terms of building credit. The current tipped minimum wage structure is also not fair to all of the other business owners who aren’t able to pass the cost of labor onto their customers.”

CEO Pay Ratio Tax
House Bill 5141, sponsored by Representative Aaron Regunberg (Democrat, District 4, Providence), imposes a surtax on businesses operating in Rhode Island that pay their CEOs more than 100 times what they pay their median worker. The issue of CEO-average worker pay ratio is especially relevant in Rhode Island, where CVS holds the highest pay disparity in the nation. Larry Merlo, the CEO of CVS, makes 422 times the median worker pay. If passed, publicly-traded corporations operating in Rhode Island would have three options: pay the surtax, lower CEO pay or increase worker pay. This type of levy has global momentum, with the Labour Party in the United Kingdom backing an “excessive pay levy” and maximum pay ratios of 20:1 in the public sector and in companies bidding for public contracts.

Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Residents
House Bill 5686, introduced by Representatives Anastasia Williams (Democrat, District 9, Providence), Scott Slater (Democrat, District 10, Providence), Shelby Maldonado (Democrat, District 56, Central Falls), Ramon Perez (Democrat, District 13, Providence, Johnston) and Regunberg, was a follow-up to Governor Gina Raimondo’s failed campaign promise to provide drivers licenses to undocumented Rhode Island residents through executive order within her first year in office. Through the bill introduced last year, undocumented Rhode Island residents would receive a driver’s license that would not serve as identification in the same way everyone else’s driver’s licenses do (no, nobody would be able to use them to vote); rather, it would provide a “driving privilege license” that would allow undocumented people to obtain car insurance and vehicle registration.

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About Benjamin Branchaud 1 Article
Benjamin Branchaud is a labor and community organizer and a lifelong Rhode Island resident.

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