06/05/12 – House Floor & Committee on Environment and Natural Resources

4:41 p.m.
Punchy atmosphere on the House floor today as we move into the hurtling period toward final budget passage. There’s sure to be a good deal of mischief, but most of it will be invisible to the public, because much of what’s making it to the legislative goal line is payment for support on more significant items.

One significant item on the floor today is the Common Cause RI legislation making campaign finance reporting more arduous (about which I’ve been writing for months, now). In the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, the legislators will be hearing the latest manifestation of the East Bay Energy Consortium (EBEC)… no longer with eminent domain power, but now a subsidiary of the Economic Development Corp. (EDC).

5:00 p.m.
They’ve moved the campaign finance bill back a bit (7859 sub a) because Rep. Dan Reilly is running late and has floor amendments. (Imagine his tardiness when there’s a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge!)

5:01 p.m.
The only real contention, thus far, was on legislation creating a legislative commission on humanities in the name of Sen. Claiborne Pell. Rep. Bob Watson opposed on the grounds that it was frivolous (and perhaps had a cost, although that notion was disputed on the floor).

5:06 p.m.
With Watson continuing his uniform objection to so many bills, I have to say that, after the first legislative session that I’ve watched close up, I can’t believe that anybody really thinks legislative bodies such as this are competent to address such a wide variety of issues at such a fine level of detail.

Now they’re debating mitigation of marijuana offenses from criminal to civil status. Rep. Arthur Corvese (D, North Providence) is currently speaking against it as “a true slippery slope” to legalization.

5:12 p.m.
Rep. Joe Trillo (R, Warwick) is saying he called several police leaders (beginning with O’Donnell in the State Police). All were opposed to this legislation.

5:17 p.m.
Rep. Larry Ehrhardt (R, North Kingstown) just asked bill Rep. Patrick O’Neill (D, Pawtucket) how many joints are in an ounce of marijuana. In the laughter and riffing, I might have missed the answer, but I think it was three or four.

[On a general observation note, legislators talk about the technical applications of the legislation, but having waded through a number of bills, it’s clear that the language often seems to do things that the legislators don’t realize it does.]

5:22 p.m.
Rep. Roberto DaSilva (D, East Providence, Pawtucket) notes that this legislation would make possession of a can of beer for 18-21 year olds a larger offense than possession of pot. He’s also noting that restrictions on alcohol have been getting tighter, while those on pot are loosening.

“This is a job creation bill for illegal drug sales.” They’ll just make deliveries in 1 oz. packages.

5:30 p.m.
Had to move from one gallery to the other in search of a power outlet. Rep. Patricia Morgan was saying that she opposes the bill on the grounds that it makes “getting high” look OK. Rep. Doreen Costa pointed out that they want to make something “legal” that you have to buy illegally.

Sounds like there’s a fair bit of opposition on the floor. Several legislators have said that law enforcement uniformly opposes.

5:34 p.m.
Rep. Charlene Lima is saying that a “good kid” these days can have his future ruined because he wants to experiment. She suggests legalizing (and taxing) pot but “locking up” kids experimenting with alcohol.

[The debate brings to mind conversations I had while working on the docks in Galilee about drunk driving. The older guys talked wistfully about the days when cops would pull drunk drivers over and emphasize getting them home safely. Discretion. That may or may not have been the best application of the law, but it seems like local latitude could go a long way toward resolving these conundrums.

That requires a much greater change than just adjustments to the law… to a time when law enforcement was more of a community activity than a government activity controlling the public. It’s an attitude shift.]

5:41 p.m.
Rep. Anastasia Williams on drinking: “How many of us are going to go home and have a little something something?” Notes that she’s not an alcoholic, although “I’m on the wagon, right now.” She’s speaking in favor of the legislation, which is a little curious, considering that she’s been a lead sponsor of legislation to keep seat-belt wearing a primary offense allowing police to pull drivers over.

5:46 p.m.
Rep. Jack Savage: “Marijuana should be legal in this country.” Sold, taxed, and regulated.

5:48 p.m.
Rep. John Carnevale suggested that this legislation would make it a larger offense to speed while driving and governments have been restricting all sorts of foods for health reasons, while pot moves in the other direction.

5:51 p.m.
Carnevale notes this will increase demand for an illegal drug.

5:55 p.m.
Rep. Dan Gordon is arguing in favor of legalizing all drugs, saying that legalization won’t make everybody drug addicts.

[I’m still distracted by the surreal situation in which we’re regulating foods, seat-belts, language, and licenses for barbers, but when it comes to marijuana, everybody’s a small-government advocate.]

6:01 p.m.
O’Neill corrects himself, saying that his experience is with “much larger” joints: an ounce would make about 15.

6:05 p.m.
Rep. Nicholas Mattiello pointed out that the bill is about “decriminalization” not “legalization.” [The actual scope of the debate has been erroneously ignored on both sides. That said, much of the argument against has been about the message sent, and decriminalization and legalization is a pretty fine line for public messages.]

6:08 p.m.
Rep. Trillo drew the difference between Prohibition and this legislation, saying that ending Prohibition came with legalization of the sale of the substance. This particular legislation would have adverse effects, for that reason, he says.

6:10 p.m.
Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt asks why, if the concern is that kids’ lives will be ruined if they’re busted for pot, why not change expungement laws.

Rep. Edith Ajello says the point is that college applications ask “have you ever been convicted of a drug crime,” and expungement doesn’t avoid that.

Baldelli-Hunt says she’s just “grasping” for justification for the law.

6:17 p.m.
Carnevale suggested that this legislation contradicts medical marijuana legislation, arguing that you can’t call it medicine and accept non-prescribed use of it. (I think that was his point.)

He also stated that the savings of the legislation (in prison costs) wouldn’t be as much as suggested, because the effect wouldn’t be great enough to decrease utilities usage and such.

6:24 p.m.
House Speaker Gordon Fox asked how many people in the room really don’t know how they’re going to vote, at this point.

6:25 p.m.
Rep. Jay Edwards says he’s been putting in this legislation because he worked with two carpenters who couldn’t work on a federal project because they had arrests for small amounts of pot when they were younger.

Technical amendment passes. Bill passes 50 versus 24.

6:32 p.m.
Now debating legislation on gratuity.

6:36 p.m.
Trillo and Rep. Peter Petrarca just had a heated who’s-on-first argument about the effect of the legislation on valet services until Petrarca asserted that the bill affects only food services.

Reading the bill, I think Petrarca is wrong:

No employer or other person shall demand, request or accept from any waitstaff employee, service employee or service bartender any payment or deduction from a tip or service charge given to such waitstaff employee, service employee or service bartender by a patron.

6:41 p.m.
Passes. Reading the bill a little more closely, I see lots of language saying things like “including, but not limited to.” Unless I’m missing something, this applies to any employee offering a service and receiving money from a patron in exchange for that service. One really has to wonder how broadly this might apply when finalized into law and how careful legislators are in general.

6:46 p.m.
From the gratuity legislation:

“Service employee” means a person who works in an occupation in which employees customarily receive tips or gratuities, and who provides service directly to customers or consumers, but who works in an occupation other than in food or beverage service and who is not a manager.

6:48 p.m.
Various bills moving through. [Here’s an idea for certain teachers of AP high school students and college students: make the kids pick some piece of tricky, micromanaging legislation and follow it through the process. It would surely make for eye-opening lessons.]

6:56 p.m.
Bob Plain tweets that the Senate just passed the pot decriminalization bill.

6:59 p.m.
If my quick skim of the legislation is correct, the House just voted to make it a crime to keep a dog on a short leash for too long. No debate about whether it matters if the person is stoned at the time.

7:00 p.m.
Now (finally) on to the campaign finance legislation.

Rep. Chris Blazejewski moved an amendment limiting the bill to donations from the moment of passage into law (anti-retroactivity) and carving out a little more space for small organizations. Amendment prevails.

7:03 p.m.
Rep. Dan Reilly asked why 501(c)(3) organizations are exempted. Blazejewski said it’s because they can’t engage in lobbying, anyway.

Reilly suggests that such organizations can engage in political activities. Blazejewski’s answer suggested that he’s incorrect, but his explanation points out how absurdly complicated these rules are… prohibitively so, I’d say, considering that political speech is supposed to be Constitutionally protected.

7:07 p.m.
Reilly’s argument appears to be that it creates an “opaque” situation in which savvy organizations shuffle funds around, “masking donations” to essentially launder them.

7:08 p.m.
I will say that I wish that legislative discourse were more often of the tone and level of that between Reilly and Blazejewski.

7:10 p.m.
Rep. Gordon is arguing against the bill, saying that it isn’t the way to go about addressing problems. He made a point about Common Cause’s being a corporation, but I suspect John Marion would state that they’re not averse to reporting their activities as required.

7:12 p.m.
Minority Leader Brian Newberry proposes an amendment exempting “neighborhood organizations,” as defined in the amendment. He says he doesn’t think the intention is to ensnare local groups that become politically active on ballot questions.

Blazejewski says “most such groups” would be 501(c)(3) groups, which would be exempted anyway. [I’m not sure about that.]

Newberry’s saying 501(c)(3) groups are engaged in “voter education.” To be honest, I’m not sure whether he’s saying that avoids the bill or not.

7:16 p.m.
Mattiello just said the amendment is “duplicitous,” but I think he meant “duplicative.”

7:17 p.m.
Reilly says he’s not comfortable setting caps on neighborhood groups that might spend a little more money than the bill allows. “Chills speech.”

7:18 p.m.
Mattiello says it’s appropriate to regulate even neighborhood groups if they’re that significant.

Blazejewski says “nearly” all neighborhood groups are c3, but I’d like to see his data on that.

[Side note: the debate only supports suspicions that outing local political activists on municipal and state ballot questions is a real objective, here.]

7:21 p.m.
Reilly puts forth another amendment to remove referendums from the legislation on the grounds that there’s no potential of corrupting a bought politician. Blazejewski notes that referendums are “important.” Amendment fails.

7:23 p.m.
Now Costa has an amendment.

7:24 p.m.
The amendment would raise limits to $25,000. “What’s another ten grand?”

Blazejewski: “This amendment guts the bill.” He asks how many legislators get that much.

7:26 p.m.
Newberry: This has nothing to do with donations to political campaigns, but with independent expenditures.

He points out that the bill makes violations felonies. “If a person wants to give $1,500 to a neighborhood organization,” he’ll have to disclose it within 24 hours. [Maybe an amendment to give room for those who are stoned at the time would help.]

7:28 p.m.
Blazejewski says the Republicans misunderstand the bill. He asks how many people in the room have gotten over $1,000 from an individual. But again, referendums are included.

Costa says she spent a half hour on the phone with Stephen Brown from the ACLU today, and they agree that this is a violation of free speech (the legislation, not Costa talking to Brown).

7:30 p.m.
Rep. Morrison shouted across the room, and Costa (in the midst of her talk about free speech) says she has the right to say what she wants. Fox admonished Morrison for speaking out of turn.

7:32 p.m.
Reilly says that the limits aren’t for donations to a political campaign. He also points out that no other campaign finance law makes violations a felony, as this one does.

7:33 p.m.
Amendment fails. Lockstep.

7:34 p.m.
Newberry says the reason for limits on political campaign donations is to avoid bribery, which doesn’t apply to referendums.

Newberry: “I know this is going to pass, but someday it’s going” to affect them all in ways they don’t anticipate.

On the bell to vote, a whole lot of legislators charged into the room to their desks.

Fox offers a stern admonishment that “if you’re in your seat, you vote.” Otherwise, leave.

57-13 passes.

7:50 p.m.
Now on to House Environment and Natural Resources for the hearing on legislation creating the East Bay Energy Consortium (EBEC) as a subsidiary of the EDC.

Unfortunately, on my way to the room, I heard from four sources how the hearing is going to end, which is kinda like knowing how a sports game is going to end, having taped it for later viewing.

7:53 p.m.
Rep. Arthur Handy opens with the EBEC bill. They’ve “indefinitely postponed” the original bill and put in an amendment that changes it to a study commission whose results would be due next January.

Held for further study.

7:58 p.m.
On to detailed discussion of loud animals. I think I’m going to call it a night…

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