On returning lawmakers’ plate: firefighter pensions, IGT deal, emergency ballots, Providence Plantations
PROVIDENCE — Tax-free pensions for firefighters. A 20-year, no-bid Lottery deal worth $1 billion to gambling-giant IGT. An early-voting option to avert potential chaos in November. A state name change.
All are on the legislative docket for this week’s special summer session, with votes scheduled on all except the reworked Lottery deal. That will come later.
On hiatus for three months during the statewide shutdown aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, the lawmakers held a relatively brief catch up session in June.
They passed a budget fix for the year that ended on June 30, but left the big deficit-closing decisions for this year until later this summer in hopes of another Congressional bailout.
With the FY21 budget still in abeyance, here’s what is coming up:
On Monday the full Senate is meeting, and, on Thursday, the full House with its own run of election-year speeches and votes, followed by a mop-up Senate session that same night.
On Tuesday, the House and Senate Finance Committees have both scheduled no-vote hearings on the latest, reworked version of Raimondo’s controversial push to extend IGT’s lucrative Lottery contracts another two decades. Here’s what we know:
IGT LOTTERY CONTRACT: The earlier controversy over the proposed no-bid deal quieted down after IGT and its most vocal critic and competitor — Twin River Worldwide Holdings — announced an agreement last January to team up in a joint financial venture.
The 30-page rewrite of the IGT bill surfaced Friday. The terms could find their way into the big budget bill vote later this summer.
The stakes are high. State-sponsored gambling — including the live table-game action and video-slot play at the two casinos — has been Rhode Island’s third-largest source of state revenue.
It had been producing nearly $400 million a year for the state treasury until the new Encore casino in Massachusetts and other competitors in the region took a bite out of Rhode Island’s gambling revenue, and the pandemic temporarily shut down the casinos.
Last fall, the state’s Office of Revenue Analysis told lawmakers Rhode Island could “conservatively” net $14 million a year in additional gambling revenue if the state put out to bid the Lottery contracts held exclusively by International Game Technology, but it could risk jobs.
IGT pitched the no-bid extension of its current Lottery contracts as a way to lock in 1,100 good-paying jobs. The company also raised the specter it would leave Rhode Island if it did not get what it was seeking.
It is not yet fully clear how much has changed in the reworked bill, but there’s this:
The latest version of the bill expands the definition of a qualifying employee to include: “employees of outsourcing and consulting service providers and temporary employees retained through an employment agency in the state.”
For every “FTE” (or full-time equivalent) the company falls short of its 1,100 employee obligation, on average, over two years, it would have to forfeit $6,400.
Lawmakers raised concerns earlier about the original pay requirement: only 150% of the state’s minimum wage, which is rising from $10.50 to $11.50 an hour on Oct. 1.
But that stayed, with this caveat: the total payroll — including the top-tier executive salaries — must reflect average salaries of at least 250% of the minimum wage.
Another point of earlier contention was a provision allowing IGT to provide up 85% of the video slots that are the cash cows at the Twin River casinos in Lincoln and Tiverton.
The reworked bill caps the number of IGT-manufactured machines at 40%, but seems to allow the new IGT-Twin River joint venture to control up to 97%.
“We are very concerned [for] the taxpayer,″ House Republican Leader Blake Filippi said Saturday.
“We are very concerned about what we see as a lukewarm jobs commitment. For instance, the way we read this ... if IGT hires a cleaning company to clean its offices, those [workers] will be counted towards the [1,100] jobs.
“We think there is a substantial premium that IGT-Twin River is getting and, at the same time they are getting that substantial premium, they are reducing the jobs commitment from what has been in effect for over 20 years,″ Filippi said.
Added Steven Frias, the Republican National Committeeman who twice challenged House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello for reelection in his home-district and came close:
“All along, the only argument for giving IGT this 20-year, billion-dollar no-bid deal was to keep over 1,000 good jobs here in Rhode Island. But this new legislation allows IGT to satisfy the requirement that it have 1,100 full-time jobs in Rhode Island by hiring temps, part-time workers, and outsourcing providers.”
Suggesting the jobs requirement was “watered down″ because the shutdown of all in-person gambling this spring created “financial difficulties″ for IGT, Frias said: “Taxpayers should not come to its rescue by locking themselves into a 20-year, billion-dollar, no-bid deal for a bunch of jobs with no benefits.”
No one has come forward yet to explain and defend the proposed new terms.
What else is going on?
FIREFIGHTER PENSIONS: The lawmakers are poised to approve an election-year bill guaranteeing firefighters tax-free, two-thirds-pay disability pensions for life if they get any type of cancer before — or after — they retire, even treatable cancers.
Organized labor advocates for the firefighters told lawmakers they are simply restoring benefits they had before a wrong-headed Supreme Court decision last year. But city and town leaders bemoan the projected $239,000-a-year extra cost to taxpayers and note how much more restrictive other states — including Massachusetts — are.
The expected passage of the matching bills — sponsored by retired firefighter Michael Morin in the House and Sen. Frank Lombardi — would effectively moot a long-running legal fight headed for trial on Aug. 17 in the state’s Workers’ Compensation Court.
The court case centers on the long-running bid by the family of Cranston firefighter Kevin Lang, a smoker who died in 2017, for disability benefits even though three doctors found no evidence his colon cancer was work-related. (The pension system has been paying his widow $47,023 a year in “accidental” benefits regardless, but the case would set a precedent on how much medical evidence counts.)
NAME CHANGE: A bill to give voters another chance to strip the words “and Providence Plantations” from the state’s official name has overwhelming legislative support in this year of racial unrest.
Though it is broadly acknowledged that the word “plantations″ did not mean here what it meant in the deep South, advocates of the name-change say it is nontheless hurtful to many.
“Words matter,″ Gov. Gina M. Raimondo wrote the House Judiciary Committee.
“While ‘plantations’ does not explicitly refer to slavery in our state name, Rhode Island did play an ugly role in the slave trade,″ she wrote.
“I’ve heard from many Black Rhode Islanders that it is incredibly painful to see a word so closely associated with slavery and oppression in the name of our state,″ she said in her letter.
VOTING: A bill to pin down rules for emergency ballot voting just ahead of the fall elections hit a firestorm of criticism from minority and voter-advocacy groups, including the ACLU and Common Cause Rhode Island.
The original bill — advanced by the state Board of Elections — would have shortened from the current 20-day period to 12 days the length of time during which a voter could request an emergency mail ballot.
“As worded,″ the critics wrote, “this bill could [also] require — quite inappropriately, in our view — the person to provide more justification than is required for a regular mail ballot and give the [RI Elections] Board virtually unbridled discretion to rule on the validity of that justification.”
A newly introduced version of the bill has now been posted.
It would allow voters to process their emergency mail ballot applications and place the ballots, in advance, directly into state-approved voting machines at their local boards of canvassers, without any other changes to existing law, including the ID requirements.
OTHER BILLS: Expect final votes on legislation — prompted by a fatal shooting spree in Westerly last December — to give hometown police chiefs a say over applications to buy guns.
Also headed for passage: 45 pages of proposed legal remedies to the obstacles gay and lesbian couples face establishing their rights as parents.
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