There are 75 members in the House and 38 members of the Senate that are elected every two years. The current leadership in both chambers is held by Democrats. There are 65 Democrats and 10 Republicans in the House. As for the Senate, there are 29 Democrat Senators, 8 Republican Senators and 1 Libertarian. Linc Chafee an Independent, is the Governor. Sen. M. Teresa Paiva-Weed is the President of the Senate and Rep. Gordon D. Fox is the Speaker of the House.
Surrounding the issue of health care, in early 2011, the Senate passed bill S 87 which would establish the Rhode Island Health Benefit Exchange. The bill passed 31-6 with extreme ease. However, the bill died in the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee because of contention over the provision that prohibits health plans purchased with state or federal funds through a health benefit exchange from covering abortion procedures. The bill exempts coverage for abortions that are necessary to save the life of the mother or if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. So, in 2012, implementing the federal health care mandate was brought back as a priority of the legislature with the House introducing H 7909 This bill requires state health care laws to comply with the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It passed the House by an overwhelming majority, 56-9 with largely Democrats supporting this piece of legislation and 10 representatives abstaining from the vote. When the bill moved to the Senate floor, it passed, 27-8 The opposition by House and Senate Republicans stemmed from their belief that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional as expressed by House Minority Leader Rep. Whip Joseph Trillo “We don't even know if what we are doing at the federal level is legal.” They expected the Supreme Court would overturn it the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Since several states passed legislative measures in recent years to regulate the usage of marijuana, Rhode Island passed two bills that address the use of marijuana. In May of 2012, the House approved H 7888 by a vote of 64-7 The Senate passed the same version of the bill, S 2555 by a margin of 35-3. Governor Chafee signed both bills in May. The provisions of the bills state that dispensaries would be allowed to possess up to 1,500 ounces of marijuana. The bills also authorize law enforcement to inspect dispensaries and give the state police a seat on the board overseeing the facilities. The following month, both chambers proposed companion bills to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. In the Senate, S 2253 passed 28-6 Likewise in the House, they passed the twin bill H 7092 by 50-24 margin. These bills decriminalize small amounts of marijuana from a criminal charge to a civil charge for the possession of no more than one ounce. Kathleen Sullivan, director of the BAY Team, was the only opponent to the legislation that testified in the hearing. She stated that decriminalizing marijuana will lead young people see it differently because “When their perception of harm goes down, over time, use rates go up,” and marijuana may “diminish” the academic potential of students. According to Senator Josh Miller the sponsor of the bill, he countered it by saying this measure “will still punish marijuana use, while avoiding the harsh collateral consequences that come with a criminal conviction that can ruin Rhode Islanders' job, education, and housing prospects.”
Another interesting piece of legislation that the Senate introduced in April of 2012 was S 2322 It prohibits minors from using tanning beds. This bill passed the Senate by a measure of 26-8 Proponents of the bill argued that this piece of legislation ensures that minors wait until they are old enough to weigh the risks of skin cancer. Critics were largely owners of tanning salons who claimed this is a business-killing measure due to a significant loss in revenue. The bill became law without Governor Chafee’s signature because he didn’t take any action during the time allotted to Governor’s by the Rhode Island State Constitution.
Voting enfranchisement is another issue of national importance that many state legislatures addressed. In May of 2011, the Senate introduced a bill, S 400 which requires voters, starting January 2012, to provide photo identification at the polls prior to casting a ballot. The bill passed the Senate by 27-6 The measure then moved to the House where it passed by a vote of 51-22 The bill would require the Secretary of State’s Office to provide free voter-identification cards by January. So, in 2014, voters will need to show a valid photo ID. Another bill that addresses voting rights is S 2052 called the Homeless Bill of Rights. Rhode Island is the first state to adopt the Homeless Bill of Rights. The law states that it will guarantee an individual the right to use public sidewalks, parks and transportation as well as public buildings without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status. It also guarantees a reasonable expectation of privacy. It cleared the Senate and House floors by a large margin of 33-2 and 59-6 respectively.
In Mid-May of 2011, the Rhode Island House of Representatives introduced a bill that establishes a legal proceeding for same sex couples authorizing them to enter into a civil union. Known as H 6103 this bill cleared the House by a vote of 62-11 The following month, the Senate approved the proposed bill by a 21-16 vote. The entire Republican caucus voted “nay” on this measure. Governor Chafee an outspoken proponent of gay marriage, said this civil union measure is a step forward and so he signed the bill into law.
Daniel Warner is a student at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in Government. He is currently interning with Project Vote Smart.