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Rhode Island leaders talk legislative session’s priorities

December 21, 2018

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Investing in job training programs, phasing out the car tax and expanding sports betting are the top priorities for Rhode Island’s Democratic leaders in the upcoming legislative session.

Gov. Gina Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio discussed their plans for the 2019 legislative session in interviews with The Associated Press. The session begins Jan. 1.

Raimondo said her top priority continues to be solidifying the state’s economic momentum.

“Everything I do will be with that in mind,” she said.

She said she’ll continue investing in job training programs, education and infrastructure. She wants to expand her free tuition program, which is currently offered at the Community College of Rhode Island, but she’s not sure whether that can be done next year. The state faces tough choices because of the budget deficit, which stands at about $200 million largely due to increasing costs of Medicaid and aid to municipalities, Raimondo added.

Mattiello said he’s always most focused on the state budget. Within that, he said he’ll prioritize continuing to phase out the car tax because residents appreciate the tax relief. The third year of the phase-out is expected to cost about $92 million. Raimondo and Ruggerio also support phasing it out.

Ruggerio is working on a bill to expand legalized sports betting in Rhode Island by allowing for mobile wagering. Sports betting is currently allowed at two casinos in the state but bets must be placed in person.

Ruggerio said mobile gambling would be a convenience and generate more revenue for the state. Raimondo and Mattiello said they’re open to it. Ruggerio is the biggest advocate for legalized sports betting in the legislature, having lobbied for its legalization for decades.

Rep. Blake Filippi, who’ll be the House minority leader, has said that Republicans will push for policies that promote more free markets and free enterprise.

State lawmakers will also likely discuss whether to legalize recreational marijuana, now that Massachusetts has done so and Connecticut’s incoming governor supports legalizing it there. Raimondo said she’s looking at it more seriously than she has in past years because “our hand is being forced by all of our neighbors.”

Mattiello said he’s open to discussing it, given that Rhode Island could be burdened with the social costs of marijuana use without receiving any revenue. Ruggerio is more reluctant. He said he has a number of concerns, including marijuana use in workplaces.

Among their other priorities, Raimondo said she’ll look to reduce the use of plastics, continue tackling the opioid crisis and address a growing need for mental health services, particularly in schools.

Mattiello said he’s looking for ways to combat opioid overdoses and deaths too, as well as ways to make schools safer. Raimondo wants the legislature to pass a measure to ban guns in schools. Mattiello said that people who are legally carrying firearms with a permit are not the ones responsible for school shootings and other things should be considered, such as the use of school resource officers and infrastructure enhancements.

Mattiello said he thinks the House could pass some of the bills proposed by a legislative commission to address sexual harassment, which didn’t get a vote before the session adjourned in June.

Ruggerio said the Senate will seek to put into state law the protections that currently exist through the federal Affordable Care Act, especially in light of a federal judge’s ruling in Texas that the act is unconstitutional. Mattiello said he won’t consider that until he knows what the full cost to the state could be.

Ruggerio said the Senate will also look for ways to change the zoning and building inspections process to speed up development. Ruggerio was upset with Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza for vetoing a zoning change to allow for a skyscraper.

Both Ruggerio and Mattiello said they want to pass a bill to address wage disparities. Both chambers passed versions of a pay equity bill this year but didn’t reach a compromise before adjournment.

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