PROVIDENCE — As the 2013 General Assembly session wound down Wednesday, July 3, with a whirlwind of legislation being heard in both chambers, several bills proposed by local lawmakers found their way to passage.
Rep. Katherine S. Kazarian (D-Dist. 63, East Providence) was the primary sponsor of House bill (2013-H 6323), which created a Code Consistency Council charged with examining the state fire, building, elevator and other related codes for consistency.
The companion bills, which now head to the governor’s desk for a signature, establish a 16-member council with the state fire marshal and the Rhode Island building code commissioner serving as co-chairpersons. The panel will meet regularly and present its findings and recommendations to the General Assembly by March 31, 2014.
“Small business owners in this state have spoken loud and clear about the obstacles standing in the way of economic development, and one of their major points has been that there are onerous codes and regulations that make the process too difficult for entrepreneurs,” said Rep. Katherine S. Kazarian (D-Dist. 63, East Providence), primary sponsor of the House bill (2013-H 6323).
“This council is the answer to that problem,” she added. “This panel’s sole responsibility will be to look at our building and fire codes so we can identify and eradicate overlapping, contradictory, inconsistent and extraneous language. I’m pleased my colleagues have supported the bill and I look forward to seeing its contribution to Rhode Island’s economic progress.”
Sponsored by Rep. Gregg Amore (D-Dist. 65, East Providence) and Sen. Gayle L. Goldin (D-Dist. 3, Providence), the Assembly passed companion bills that require health plans to cover oral treatments for cancer at a rate comparable to standard intravenous (IV) chemotherapy.
The legislation aims to put emerging oral chemotherapy treatments on par with IV treatments, protecting patients’ accessibility to medicine and preventing additional financial hardship. Oral chemotherapy is currently viewed as a prescription drug benefit, which requires patients to pay a large amount of the drugs’ cost. IV chemotherapy is treated as a medical benefit, essentially requiring insurers to issue a modest patient co-pay and a limit to annual out-of-pocket expenses. If enacted, the legislation could save cancer patients thousands of dollars for a treatment that serves the same purpose as the intravenous form.
Cosponsors of the House bill (2013-H 5354A) included Rep. Kazarian and Rep. Helio Melo (D – Dist. 64, East Providence).
Rep. Melo, the Chairman of the House Committee on Finance, and his counterpart in the Senate, Finance Chair Daniel DaPonte (D-Dist. 14, East Providence) shepherded reforms to the state’s economic development structures as a package of bills aimed at improving the way the state strategizes economic development was passed.
The four final bills, which will now be transmitted to the governor, represent a blending of the highlights of separate packages introduced by each chamber’s leadership earlier this year.
Rep. Melo’s bill creates the Executive Office of Commerce headed by the new secretary of commerce. The Office of Commerce would be the state’s lead agency for economic development and would ensure commerce is consistently promoted throughout the state. The office would be established in 2015 to coincide with the beginning of the governor’s term and would be led by the secretary of commerce appointed by the governor. The office would absorb the Department of Business Regulation, the Office of Regulatory Reform, and functions related to Housing and Community Development, as well as the newly reconstituted RICC.
The Office of Commerce would be empowered to engage in broad regulatory and performance reform across all state agencies to protect the health and well-being of Rhode Islanders while delivering a clear, predictable, reliable, simplified, and expedited regulatory and permitting system that businesses need and deserve.
The secretary of commerce would be responsible for unifying and directing functions that relate to the state’s economy, including: Chairing the Economic Development Planning Council – the broad stakeholder group charged with crafting a long-term economic plan for the state; Serving as CEO of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation; Serving as vice chairperson of the Governor’s Workforce Board – the state’s chief workforce development body; and Chairing the new Council of Economic Advisors.
Sen. DaPonte sponsored legislation that would insert more accountability into the state’s handling of tax credit programs. The bill provides a systematic approach for evaluating whether the state’s tax incentives are truly fulfilling their intended purpose in a cost-effective manner through data collection and a comprehensive assessment.
“In order for state government to be truly effective in serving Rhode Islanders, the legislature needs to be presented with more economic data,” Sen. DaPonte said. “Otherwise, it’s impossible to craft the most useful policy and adapt to an ever-changing economic climate. This bill not only inserts more accountability in our budget and policymaking processes, but also ensures that state dollars are being channeled into incentives that are actually working to the taxpayers’ advantage.”
The legislation also calls on the director of the state Office of Management and Budget to prepare a comprehensive review and inventory of all reports from the executive office and other state agencies filed with the General Assembly. It provides that this inventory be presented to the state legislature as part of the annual budget submission. Further, the act calls for a cost-benefit analysis be incorporated into the unified economic development report, which the Office of Revenue Analysis prepares each year.
Legislation sponsored by Rep. Joy Hearn (D-Dist. 66, Barrington, East Providence) to allow Rhode Island businesses to pay employees on a biweekly basis if their average payroll exceeds 200 percent of minimum wage passed both chambers.
The legislation (2013-S 980, 2013-H 6065B) is aimed at addressing businesses’ concerns that Rhode Island’s current law requiring weekly paychecks is burdensome, but also addresses the needs of workers living paycheck-to-paycheck. According to the American Payroll Association, Rhode Island is the only state that requires weekly wages for nonexempt private sector employees.
“This has been one of the issues we heard over and over this year as we talked to businesspeople in our efforts to improve the business climate in Rhode Island,” said Rep. Hearn. “Issuing paychecks biweekly instead of weekly means a significant reduction in payroll costs and processing work for companies, and being the only state where it’s not allowed is a distinction that makes us less inviting to them.”
Many employers use payroll service providers to process their payroll, and those providers typically charge flat fees for processing and can charge extra for each direct deposit transaction and live check issued. Paying biweekly rather than weekly cuts down on supplier and processing fees, which average $4 per check per employee, according to the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association.
The bill also simplifies reconciliation for companies. A weekly payroll requires the employer to go through checks issued every week and balance them against those still outstanding. However, a biweekly payroll would mean there will be fewer checks to track. The bill requires written consent of the representative of any employees who are subject to collective bargaining.
There is also a provision allowing companies whose average salary is not at least twice the minimum wage to petition the Department of Labor and Training for the ability to pay biweekly if they show sufficient reason and post a surety bond in the amount of the highest biweekly payroll in the preceding year for the employees subject to the petition.
Minimum wage is currently set at $7.75 in Rhode Island, but the General Assembly has also approved legislation to raise it to $8 on Jan. 1, 2014.
Sponsored by Sen. William J. Conley Jr. (D-Dist. 18, East Providence Pawtucket) legislation allowing a new model of long-term financing that will enable homeowners to increase the energy efficiency of their homes earned passage.
The legislation, sponsored by House Environment and Natural Resources Chairman Arthur Handy and , would allow homeowners in participating cities and towns to access a low-cost, fixed-rate loan for energy upgrades that would become an assessment on the property, much like a sewer assessment.
The Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, modeled after a similar program in Vermont, would allow homeowners to make otherwise costly energy efficiency or renewable energy generation improvements without the up front costs, allowing them to pay for them incrementally over the course of up to 20 years. The assessment would stay with the property and would transfer to the next owner if the home were to change hands before it is completely paid.
“This is an innovative and fair way to make improvements that will benefit not only the current owner of a property, but anyone who might live there in the future, as well as our communities, our environment and our economy. PACE is a great opportunity for Rhode Island in so many ways,” Sen. Conley said.
— Compiled by The Post’s Mike Rego with reports from the General Assembly information office.