Meeting during a rare September session, the General Assembly on Tuesday passed bills to require paid sick days for workers, expand disability pension opportunities for firefighters, and to remove guns from domestic abusers facing a final protective order.
But the most suspenseful question of the one-day session was whether the Senate would sign off on a controversial bill sponsored by state Rep. Robert Jacquard (D-Cranston). The measure would allow a private company to create a network for scanning motorists' license plates for uninsured out of state drivers, and then split money from fines with the state. Civil libertarians and some lawmakers said the measure would amount to a gross invasion of privacy rights by allowing drivers to have their movements tracked.
In the end, the Senate did not vote on Jacquard's bill before the chamber wrapped business around 10:30 p.m., even though it was on the Senate's agenda.
A short time earlier, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said a vote on the Jacquard bill was part of "the game plan," although he acknowledged something unexpected could happen. Later, Ruggerio said the license-plate reader bill did not get a vote due to controversy and the concerns expressed by some senators. Yet he said focusing on uninsured out of state drivers is a good idea, and that the concept may return in the future.
"If Rhode Islanders have to have a valid license, if Rhode Islanders have to have a valid registration, if Rhode Islanders have to have mandatory insurance, people from out of state should have to have the same," Ruggerio told reporters. "Because if you get in an accident here, the person from Rhode Island except to go through their uninsured motorist coverage and I think that’s totally unfair."
The General Assembly met to take care of unresolved bills, starting at 2 p.m. in the House and ending around 10:30 pm in the Senate, due to a dispute that erupted between the two chambers in late June.
Both chambers passed a measure offering a presumption that if firefighters acquire heart disease after at least three years on the job that it is work-related. That would allowing firefighters to seek a tax-free disability pension at two-thirds of their salary.
Opponents, including state General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, say the bill will cause millions in new costs for cities and towns.
House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) said if firefighters are hurt fighting fires, “The good people of our communities want to take care of them. But this is a gift that is unjustifiable because it will make everybody else’s life harder and it’s hard enough. We shouldn’t be doing this.”
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said the state can afford the benefit, and that it's justified for people who risk their lives as part of their work. Other supporters said the presumption that heart disease was acquired as part of firefighters' work can be rebutted by the communities that employ them.
Asked if Governor Gina Raimondo will veto the firefighter disability bill, her spokesman, David Ortiz, said, "Governor Raimondo will consider the final version of this legislation once it reaches her desk. As the governor referred to in her July 19 transmittal letter of 2017-HB 5601 SUB A, she is concerned this legislation creates the presumption that stroke or heart disease results directly from a firefighter's service in the line of duty, requiring the Retirement System to disregard the opinions of examining physicians when granting lifetime, tax-free disability pensions."
In other action, the legislature passed a bill to take guns away from domestic abusers facing a final protective order.
The sponsor of the measure, Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown), said the legislation will save lives.
“Every month, 50 women are shot and killed in the United States by a former husband or spouse," Tanzi said. "We know people with a history of committing domestic violence are five times more likely to subsequently murder an intimate partner when a firearm is in the house.”
Opponents said taking guns away from people facing misdemeanors is an overreaction.
The General Assembly also passed a bill calling for workers at firms with at least 18 employees to get an initial three paid sick days a year.
The number of paid sick days will increase to four in 2019, and five in 2020.
Supporters said workers who don’t get paid sick days have a serious need for the benefit. The sponsor of the measure, Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence), said employees require occasional time off to care for themselves and their families.
But opponents expressed fear that paid sick days will hurt small businesses.
Governor Raimondo supports the paid sick day bill and is expected to sign it into law.
One issue not included in the special session is the proposal for a new PawSox stadium in Pawtucket. The Senate Finance Committee is holding an ongoing series of hearings on that concept, and the House is staging its own hearing in October.