As we noted last week, the ACLU of Rhode Island lobbied on 339 bills and tracked over 800 pieces of legislation over the course of the 2019 legislative session. Of these bills, over 100 passed out of committee and were voted on in either the House, Senate, or both.

Some of these good and bad pieces of legislation passed both chambers and will be either signed or vetoed by the governor in the upcoming weeks. Just as critical, however, are the bills, positive and negative, that died before they had a chance of becoming law. Some of these bills represented important steps forward for civil liberties and protections in Rhode Island; some would have severely undermined existing protections or law or emboldened future bad policy.

This week we’re highlighting some of the legislation that died in the 2019 session after passing one House, and whose passage would have represented serious setbacks for civil liberties. Even though these bills have died for this year, we expect that many of them will resurface next session, which is why it is important to stay apprised of the legislation that ultimately did not pass both chambers.

Involuntary Commitment (H 5751) The initial version of H 5751 would have allowed a physician to request a hold on a substance-abusing patient and provide a process for a court hearing to determine if emergency commitment would be appropriate for the patient. We argued that although the bill was well-meaning, it raised massive due process concerns and would be counterproductive to the goal of recovery. In response to additional objections from the medical and substance abuse communities, the bill was amended to instead create a special legislative commission to examine the issue. This bill passed the House, and we will closely monitor the commission’s activities.

Counting of Write-In Votes (H 5709, S 477) Regardless of who a vote is for, even if it is for an inevitably losing cause, all voters fundamentally deserve the right for their votes to be counted. For this reason, we opposed these bills, which would have eliminated the counting of write-in votes for persons who had not filed in advance a “declaration of intent.” This bill passed the House but died in the Senate.

Disclosure of Campaign Contributions (H 6255, S 1004) A campaign finance bill introduced only in the last week of the session raised important First Amendment concerns, prompting the ACLU’s opposition. Presently, all campaign contributions over $100 to political action committees or candidates must be publicly disclosed. This legislation would have reduced the threshold to $25. Years ago, the ACLU successfully challenged a $0 disclosure requirement on behalf of an anonymous Jane Doe who wanted to make a small donation to a pro-choice PAC but was afraid that she would face retribution from her Catholic church. The current $100 contribution disclosure threshold, the ACLU believes, strikes the correct balance between individual privacy, First Amendment rights, and campaign finance transparency. Although the bill swiftly passed out of the Senate on the second-to-last day of the session, it never received a vote in the House and died.

Animal Abuse Registry (H 5113) H 5113 would have established an “animal abuse registry” with registration and community notification requirements similar to those already in effect for persons convicted of sex offenses. Like the sex offender laws, establishment of this registry would be costly, undermine rehabilitation of offenders, subject individuals to severe criminal penalties for failing to follow proper registration requirements, and promote the harassment of ex-offenders seeking to reintegrate into the community. The legislation passed the House and, on the last day of the session, out of committee in the Senate. However, following opposition from the ACLU, a number of mental health advocacy groups, and even the American Kennel Club, the bill suffered a rare floor defeat in the Senate when it was voted down by a vote of 8-22.

“Supervisory” Sexual Assault (H 5817A) This bill would have redefined third-degree sexual assault to include sexual contact between people in “positions of authority” with teenagers who are above the age of consent but who have not yet turned 18. The legislation so expansively and subjectively defined a “position of authority” that we felt the bill would have criminalized a variety of innocent and consensual teenage relationships. The bill passed out of the House but was not taken up by the Senate and died.

Background Checks for Laboratory Assistants (H 5367, S 138) These bills would have resurrected a previously repealed statute requiring the licensing of medical lab professionals, and authorized the licensing body to deny or suspend a license if the applicant had ever been convicted of any undefined crime that “could jeopardize patients’ health,” even though these licensees have no contact with patients. This bill passed the Senate but died in the House.

Presidential Tax Returns (H 5727, S 342) We have long opposed legislative efforts to impose added qualifications in order for candidates to appear on the ballot in Rhode Island. For that reason, we opposed these two bills, which would require that presidential candidates publicly disclose their federal tax returns in order to be listed on the ballot. We argued that the ability to vote for an individual’s preferred candidate is a critical component of the fundamental right to vote. This bill passed the Senate but died in the House.

All of these troubling bills passed out of committee. Many others, fortunately, never made it to the floor of either House. They included such diverse bills as ones imposing mandatory sentencing for certain gun offenses, imposing a “lobbying” tax, establishing even more onerous residency restrictions on sex offenders, and implementing intrusive workplace surveillance on state contractors.

This session saw both profound victories and setbacks for civil liberties. To learn more about them, come to our 2019 Legislative Wrap-Up event at the Weaver Memorial Library on Wednesday, July 24th. Enjoy delicious donated treats and coffee and hear the good, the bad, and the ugly from your legislators on how the 2019 session impacted the rights of Rhode Islanders.