After six months of committee hearings, lobbying, and testifying, the 2019 legislative session concluded last Friday, June 28th. During this time period, our two lobbyists testified or lobbied on 339 bills and tracked more than 800 pieces of legislation. Of the bills we worked on, over 100 passed out of committee in some form.
These numbers show how significantly and extensively civil liberties are affected, positively and negatively, by the actions of our state legislature. This is why it is so critical that our lobbyists are cognizant of the wide breadth of legislation introduced every year, because highly-publicized bills affecting civil liberties are not the only ones that pass and reach the governor’s desk.
This week, we’re highlighting some of the good and bad legislation that passed both chambers and has been signed into law or is awaiting the governor’s action. For a look at the legislative session as a whole, visit our legislative page.
• Reproductive Privacy Act (H 5125 Sub B) As the attitude of the US Supreme Court towards abortion rights becomes murkier, a broad-based coalition of organizations supportive of reproductive freedom, including the ACLU, launched a successful campaign to codify the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade into Rhode Island law. The Reproductive Privacy Act, introduced by Rep. Anastasia Williams, preserves the status quo of abortion healthcare in the state, and ensures that the shifting ideology of the Supreme Court does not impede upon a person’s right to choose. The RPA also repeals several statutes that had been struck down by the courts as the result of ACLU lawsuits, such as a spousal notification law, but which remained on the books. The RPA was passed in the House by a vote of 45-29 and the Senate by a vote of 21-16 and was signed into law in mid-June. Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Gayle Goldin introduced the original version of the legislation.
• Benefits for LGBTQ Veterans (H 5443, S 837) For decades, excellent military personnel were forced to leave the military on “less than honorable” discharges once they became identified as a part of the LGBTQ community. H 5443 and S 837, introduced by Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson and Sen. Dawn Euer, ensures that veterans discharged solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity will still qualify for state veterans’ benefits. This bill has been signed by the governor.
• Driver’s License Fines Reduction (S 78, H 6254) Currently, drivers must pay the entirety of their traffic fines or face suspension of their driver’s license. This system can trap individuals in a cycle of poverty as they struggle to pay their fines and keep a job to pay them without the ability to legally drive. Sponsored by Sen. Frank Lombardi and Rep. Grace Diaz, S 78 and H 6254 seek to address this serious problem by providing an “ability-to-pay” hearing to authorize payment plans or a reduction in the fines owed before a driver’s license suspension is imposed as punishment. We anticipate this bill will be signed shortly.
• Tampon Tax (H 5151 Sub A as amended, Article 5) Introduced as a piece of standalone legislation in both the House and the Senate by Representative Edith Ajello and Senator Louis DiPalma, the repeal of the discriminatory “tampon tax” was incorporated into the revised state budget proposal. Until this budget article, Rhode Island law treated feminine hygiene products as “luxury items,” thus subjecting them to the sales tax. Its elimination is a small, but important, victory for women’s rights.
• Opioid Overdose Notification (H 5383, S 139 Sub A) We have been vigilant in opposing “solutions” to the opioid epidemic that compromise patient rights, including their right to confidentiality. It is for this reason that we opposed H 5383 and S 139A, which will allow hospital emergency physicians to notify the emergency contacts of a patient, without his or her consent, who has experienced a drug overdose. Among other things, we noted that some patients may go to dangerous lengths, such as avoiding medical help altogether, in order to avoid having medical personnel disclose their condition against their wishes.
• Combining Voting Districts (H 5864, S 474) These bills allow the Board of Canvassers to combine voting districts for many elections with no standards in place other than a Board determination that it is “advisable.” We testified that the process for consolidating polling locations should require objective standards and notification to voters of the change. Unfortunately, an amendment to include these safeguards was defeated on the House floor. The legislation was signed by the governor, despite a veto request from the ACLU, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.
• Threat Assessment Teams (H 5538, S 818) A heightened, though unsubstantiated, fear of violence on school campuses has led to legislative efforts that raise civil liberties concerns; H 5538 and S 818 are two of those bills. This legislation requires public schools to create vaguely-defined “threat assessment teams.” We raised concerns that these teams could become heavy on law enforcement and light on staff who professionally provide mental health support, and also objected that these assessments can be conducted and acted upon without parental notification. This bill will soon be transmitted to the governor.
• Protection of Animals We expressed concerns about two sets of approved bills that are aimed at protecting animals. One set (H 5433 and S 465) allows representatives of the RI SPCA, a private organization, to seize from private property animals that appear “aged,” “disabled,” or “sick,” and to do so without a warrant or even a requirement of exigency. A second set of bills (H 6043 and S 779) makes it a crime, punishable by a year in prison, to “maliciously tease” a police dog or police horse. The ACLU has been joined by a number of mental health advocacy groups in urging the Governor to veto this bill, concerned that its enforcement would most likely fall on people with mental disabilities. It remains unknown what action the Governor will take on these bills.
• Immunization Registry (H 5541, S 676) These bills authorize the Department of Health to create an adult immunization database. We expressed concern over the potential expansiveness of the registry and the data it would be authorized to collect and maintain, and objected that it put the burden on individuals to opt out of the registry, rather than requiring an opt-in procedure. However, the legislation passed by wide margins in both Houses.
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 in East Providence on Wednesday, July 24th. Enjoy delicious donated treats and coffee and hear the good, the bad, and the ugly on how the 2019 session impacted the rights of Rhode Islanders.