The General Assembly ended its regular session Thursday night without approving Governor Gina Raimondo's plan to use tolls on trucks to pay for bridge improvements. The last night of the session was punctuated by a dispute that led senators to leave their chamber as the House was still meeting, and resulted in a series of bills slated for votes going by the wayside.
The bills left hanging included measures to limit charter schools; to add post-traumatic stress disordered to the eligible conditions for medical marijuana; a so-called good Samaritan law offering legal protection to individuals who intervene during an emergency; and a number of bills introduced at the request of cities and towns.
Lawmakers are expected to take up a revised infrastructure-funding proposal, and possibly a revised Providence baseball stadium pitch, during a special fall session.
Most of the drama associated with the end of the session evaporated with the realization that Raimondo's truck-toll proposal didn't enjoy the full confidence of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello; he cited concerns that the tolling plan would hurt local companies, and said more time should be taken to develop an approach for fixing the state’s 230 substandard bridges.
Yet the last day of the session took a surprising turn when senators left en masse shortly before 1o pm. They were reportedly upset about pressure to pass House bills, particularly one prohibiting a certain kind of coop for hens. Critics of the bill say it would hurt small farmers.
The House continued to meet for about an hour, with the usual lengthy series of end-of-session thanks to legislative leaders, staffers, and others. In the time after senators left, representatives were punchy and unusually loud, and they stopped considering a host of bills from the Senate (just as the Senate left without voting on a series of House bills).
In interviews, Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed each downplayed the differences with the other chamber.
Both said said the House and Senate began to get frustrated by a lack of progress on bills important to the other chamber -- the details of which they declined to specify.
Mattiello described the legislation as "not very significant." Like Paiva Weed, he said the impasse posed the threat of a session going into the wee hours -- something both wanted to avoid. The speaker predicted no significant long-term fallout in House-Senate relations from the dispute.
Paiva Weed said she was reluctant to call what happened a dispute; "It was absolutely an impasse," she said, on a series of issues. Paiva Weed said the result was that some agreed-upon legislation didn't get considered, but she's hopeful it will fare better in the next session. "January's not very far away," she said.
On the truck-toll plan known as Rhode Works, Raimondo said she’ll continue working with the legislature, but she also expressed frustration that her funding plan didn’t go forward.
"Nobody wants to do a toll, nobody wants to raise taxes," the governor said. "I know it’s difficult politics, but until we come up with a sustainable comprehensive funding formula to repair our bridges, we’re just going to do what we’ve always done – put a Band-Aid here, a Band-Aid there, and it’s not going to fix the problem."
It remains unclear what changes might be incorporated when lawmakers discuss a different bridge-fix plan in the fall. Raimondo said she has serious concerns about increasing the gas tax because, she said, it affects average Rhode Islanders the most and is a declining revenue source.
The governor says she’s pleased the General Assembly backed some of her other initiatives.
“I asked for economic development tools and those were passed in the budget," she said. "The Medicaid reform was passed in the budget. Now we have to implement and get Rhode Island on its road to its comeback.”
This post has been updated.