The General Assembly Passes Newport Casino Plan, Calls It A Wrap for 2014
In a marathon session that stretched for almost 12 hours before ending shortly after 4 am, the General Assembly closed its 2014 session by approving a plan that could turn Newport Grand into a casino, imposing a three-year moratorium on the use of high-stakes tests as a graduation requirement, and setting the stage for Governor Lincoln Chafee to sign a bill making calamari Rhode Island's official state appetizer.
Although House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello pledged a day earlier that Friday's final session would be brief, it was anything but; The last push began more than an hour after its scheduled 3 pm start, was interrupted by lengthy breaks, and droned on into the wee hours as tired lawmakers fought boredom and exhaustion. It was even worse than the prediction of veteran Times of Pawtucket reporter/columnist Jim Baron, who had suggested the session would go from 3 pm to 3 a,m.
The most conspicuous development was the emergence after 1 am Saturday of the plan to bolster the video slot parlor at Newport Grand, which faces a threat to its existence (and the revenue it provides to the state) due to the growth of gambling in Massachusetts.
Although the legislation to add table games at Newport was the most anticipated issue of the final day, it didn't hit hastily called meetings of the House and Senate Finance Committees until the last hours of the session.
Details of the pitch were unveiled in the House by Finance chairman Raymond Gallison (D-Bristol). He said if statewide and Newport voters approve the casino expansion, former Providence mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr.'s development team will be required to spend $40 million on the project, and the City of Newport will get $1.5 million annually (up from about $400,000 now) for the first six years of the casino's operation, and then $1 million annually thereafter. Lawmakers quickly passed the plan through the committees and on the floor based on the brief description they received of the deal.
Left unanswered was the question of why an important issue involving state finances was left to linger into the early morning hours of the session, with seemingly no advance details for lawmakers until right before they voted on it.
Earlier, House lawmakers took part in a lengthy debate over a bill to add sentences of up to 10 years for those convicted of street-gang related activity. Supporters called the measure a necessary tool for police, but critics warned that it targets minorities and will be applied unevenly. The measure passed by a large margin.
A move to restore the state Ethics Commission's oversight of lawmakers died after not being taken up in the House. Although the Senate passed the measure as an attempt to move past to impasse created by a 2009 state Supreme Court decision, good government groups opposed the bill; they said an element to create a separate new trial for someone facing an ethics charge was too broad, and that it would be better to start all over again.
Following a Senate vote earlier in this session, the House also voted to delay until 2017 the use of high-stakes tests, like the NECAP, as a graduation requirement. The bill's sponsor, Representative Gregg Amore, an East Providence teacher, was among the critics who said NECAP waivers are used inconsistently and that it's wrong to put so much emphasis on a test. A few lawmakers on the other side of the issue equated moving away from the graduation requirement with watering down education reform. It remains unclear how Governor Lincoln Chafee will act on the measure.
In another victory for teachers' unions, whose lobbyists were among those present on the last day of the session, the legislature moved to make evaluations for highly rated public school teachers less frequent.
The General Assembly approved legislation to channel $4.8 million to pensioners in Central Falls, raising to 75 percent the amount of what they used to receive. Noting how this is the second move to increase Central Falls pensions since 2012, Representative Jared Nunes (D-Coventry) warned about what he called a precedent for remaking deals in fiscally distressed communities. Other lawmakers, including Representative Karen MacBeth (D-Cumberland), said the Central Falls pensioners are in such dire financial straits, and get such relatively small pensions, that the increase is merited.
Both chambers passed Warwick Representative Joseph McNamara's quest to make calamari the official state appetizer -- a move that he says will help promote Rhode Island's considerable squid industry. The bill last year passed the House, but died in the Senate.
In keeping with tradition, lawmakers bid farewell to their departing colleagues -- Senator David Bates (R-Barrington) is leaving the chamber after more than 20 years, and Dawson Hodgson (R-North Kingstown) is running for attorney general. In the House, the exits are being made by William San Bento of Pawtucket; Frank Ferri of Warwick (who is running for lieutenant governor) and Elaine Coderre of Pawtucket, who was first elected in 1984. Brian Patrick Kennedy, first elected in Hopkinton, will succeed Coderre as the longest serving member of the House.
The lawmaker who received the most attention during the 2014 session -- former speaker Gordon Fox -- was not present for the last day. A proclamation citing his commitment to public service was read into the record at close to 2 am. Fox, whose East Side home and Statehouse office were raided by state and federal law enforcement on March 21, has said he won't be seeking re-election. The cause for the probe that paved the way for Mattiello to assume the speakership remains unexplained.
Mattiello chalked up a string of political victories after taking power -- including the elimination of the master lever (albeit in 2015), and moves to cut the corporate tax rate and raise the estate tax exemption -- that he says set the stage for economic growth. East Bay lawmakers, and certainly many of their constituents, were delighted by the removal Friday of tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.
Yet Rhode Island faces ominous structural deficits that will grow in a few years to hundreds of millions of dollars, so the familiar task of resolving red ink will once again face lawmakers when they return to Smith Hill in January.
This post has been updated.