2015-07-02 / Front Page

Assembly Leaves Unfinished Business

By Tom Walsh

In the end, the wingspan of henlaying chickens may have been at least partly responsible for what has widely been described as the unusually “abrupt” finish of this year’s Rhode Island General Assembly's regular session.

That and the economics of replacing smaller cages with larger ones.

The House was still in session as the clock wound toward 10 p.m. on Thursday, June 25, when Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, decided that it was time for senators to go home.

While the House had already approved the bill establishing minimum cage sizes for hen-laying chickens, the Senate was not convinced of its merits.

“There was testimony from the owner of Little Rhody Farms in Foster that replacing cages would cost them between $500,000 and $600,000,” the Senate president said. She added that in California, where a similar bill was enacted, “the cost of eggs dramatically increased.

“Because of those concerns, the Rhode Island Senate did not support that legislation,” Paiva Weed told Newport This Week. She also maintained that the concerns that prompted the bill “are adequately addressed by DEM [Department of Environmental Management] regulations.”

The chicken coop bill would have required that cages be large enough for egg-laying hens to fully extend their wings without brushing up against either side of a cage. The bill would also require that each hen be allotted at least 216 square inches of space.

Such was the 2015 General Assembly session that lawmakers could make quick work of an $8.7 billion state budget but reach an impasse on chicken cages.

Other measures were also victims of time and disagreement. And no one was immune. For example, a Paiva Weed bill to tie new state aid for Rhode Island’s three public colleges to performance measures designed to improve graduation rates and prepare students for jobs in high-demand occupations languished in the House as the clock ran out.

“The House chose not to pass that legislation despite broad support from three college presidents and two unions,” the Senate president huffed. She said that while legislation must still be passed to fully achieve those goals, some non-legislative work will begin.

“I believe there is broad support in the House for this legislation,” she said. “But, yes, I was disappointed.”

Freshman Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, looked back on the abrupt Assembly “recess” and mused, “In some ways it was unfortunate.” She said she had heard that the chicken coop bill “had pushed conversations to an impasse.”

“I’m tired, yes,” Carson said. “And I’m looking forward to a summer break. But the Speaker does seem committed to a fall session.”

Carson said current legislative leaders were sensitive to criticism leveled at past Assembly commanders who horse-traded well into the next day and kept the House and Senate in session for overnight votes. “There has been a lot of criticism over passing bills in the middle of the night,” she said. “It may have been a way to reverse that attitude.”

At the end of all this, Carson was philosophic about her freshman session and the way it “recessed.”

“It’s a disappointment that we didn’t finish,” she said. “But, I’ll be ready to go back in the fall.”

While House leaders have spoken openly about returning for a special session in the fall to tackle such issues as Gov. Gina M. Raimondo’s proposed large-truck toll to pay for state infrastructure repairs, the Senate president was having none of that.

“At this juncture we have no plans in the Senate to return before next January,” Paiva Weed declared. She said the Senate has already passed the truck-toll legislation while the House has not. “We support the governor’s proposal with regard to improving the longterm safety of our bridges. I’m disappointed that the House did not move forward in that regard.”

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has been widely quoted as saying the House needed more time to study the issue to ensure that moving forward with the proposed tolls would not impair the state’s economy.

One bright note with a local spin from the 2015 General Assembly session: Legislation initiated by third graders at St. Michael’s Country Day School in Newport designating the American burying beetle as Rhode Island’s official state insect was enacted and sent to the Governor before the legislature closed down for the summer.

“This has been a very memorable year for this class,” said Carson, a sponsor of the measure. “They’re nearly a decade too young to vote, but they just made their very own state law, which genuinely was the result of their own research, lobbying and ability to effectively communicate the worthiness of their idea. What are they going to do in the fourth grade?”

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