PROVIDENCE — The curtain has fallen but the play goes on.
Before closing down the 2021 legislative session last Thursday, Rhode Island lawmakers created more than a dozen “special commissions” to delve into:
Shoreline access. The plight of commercial sex workers. The once-a-decade redrawing of the boundary lines for R.I.’s legislative and congressional districts. Obstacles to the construction of more affordable housing.
And that’s just a sampling.
Two of the commissions were created at the behest of Rep. Anastasia Williams.
One was created to: “establish a permanent record” of minorities who have held appointed and elected positions in state and local government in Rhode Island from “the founding of this state’s original settlement by Roger Williams in 1636 to the present.”
The other was given this mouthful of a name:
The aim: “To make a comprehensive study and provide recommendations on the health and safety impact of revising laws related to commercial sexual activity.”
The House resolution creating the commission recalls what happened when Rhode Island law allowed indoor prostitution in massage parlors and strip clubs — and through online escorts, a state of affairs ascribed to an accident in legislative bill-drafting.
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It also cites these findings of a 2017 study:
“During 2003 through 2009, while indoor prostitution was still decriminalized in Rhode Island, the number of rapes diminished by 31 percent and the statewide incidence of gonorrhea among women diminished by 39 percent.”
In response to citizen outrage over an uptick in prostitution in the West End of Providence, lawmakers in 1980 tried to speed up the conviction process by making sex work a misdemeanor instead of a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison.
Then-House Speaker Matthew J. Smith co-sponsored the bill to “bring about speedier court decisions” to get the prostitutes off the streets more quickly.
The new law deleted the ban on prostitution itself, however, effectively making it legal if it occurred indoors.
The change, lawmakers would later say, was an accident.
And it went unnoticed for decades until lawyers representing women arrested in undercover stings on Asian massage parlors — including some suspected of sex-trafficking — succeeded in using the loophole to exonerate their clients, to the frustration of the police and prosecutors. The market for indoor prostitution flourished.
In 2009, state lawmakers closed the loophole and once again declared prostitution behind closed doors a crime.
In 2019, Williams, the Providence Democrat who chairs the House Labor Committee, introduced legislation to try to reopen discussion about the law.
“For some folks, it’s a squirmyish topic, sex … but I don’t think there are enough of us bold enough, open enough, to talk about it to have a grown-folks conversation,” Williams said then.
Support came not only from local advocates, including current and former sex workers, academics and defense attorneys, but a network of decriminalization advocates from as far away as New York, Texas and New Zealand.
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They argued that current prostitution laws don’t stop the sale of sex, but hurt those providing the service.
The 2019 Williams bill never made it out of the House Judiciary Committee. But this year, it won unanimous House approval on the last night of the session.
Among those with seats on the 13-member commission, aside from legislators: two people who have been “engaged in commercial sex,” representatives of COYOTE RI and other organizations “serving populations disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of commercial sex,” the attorney general, state health director and president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association.
Co-sponsors include: Representatives Edith Ajello, Camille Vella-Wilkinson, Karen Alzate, Brianna Henries and David Morales.
The House also initiated studies of: Shoreline access; the potential reorganization of the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council; gaps in Rhode Island’s effort to spur more low- and moderate-income housing and the extent to which land use regulations, particularly zoning ordinances, “have a major impact on the availability of affordable housing.”
Meanwhile in the Senate
The Senate, meanwhile, gave its go-ahead to the creation of a special commission to “make recommendations on how to most efficiently and effectively administer health and human services in the state.”
Among the potential lines of inquiry: whether the umbrella agency — known as the Executive Office of Health & Human Services — is doing what it was expected to do when it was established by then-Gov. Donald Carcieri in 2005.
Against the backdrop of UHIP, DCYF, BHDDH and the current state hospital controversy, the legislation implicitly asks the question: How’s that working out?
Senate Oversight Chairman Louis DiPalma explained his intent in proposing the study this way: “To truly analyze what needs to be changed, strengthened or eliminated so that our most vulnerable residents receive the care and support that they need and deserve.”
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It was one of three Senate-created commissions. The others were created to study:
The lawmakers created four joint House-Senate commissions to:
◘ Redraw the boundary lines for the 75 state representative districts, 38 state senatorial districts and two United States congressional districts “as near equal as possible, subject to the final 2020 census data provided by the United States Census Bureau.”
◘ “Advise and educate the governor, general assembly, and state departments … [on] the nature, magnitude and priorities of Holocaust and genocide education and develop policies and programs to address those needs.”
The COVID tab
FWIW: The total cost for the legislature’s remote COVID-year sessions was $900,978.
Federal Coronavirus Relief Fund paid rental expenses for the Senate at Rhode Island College for the entire session ($457,012), and the House at the Vets auditorium through May ($197,967).
The remaining $246,000 came from the legislature’s own budget for IT and Capitol TV.
Picks and regrets
Political Scene asked lawmakers what they considered the SINGLE most-important bill passed this year, the worst, and the one left by the wayside they most regret.
Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey said if he had to “choose just one issue … it would be the first [bill] introduced this session, Senate bill No. 1, increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour.”
The worst? “Every piece of legislation is important to someone.”
Several other Democrats hailed as “most important” the Act on Climate — setting deadlines for the elimination by 2050 of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
That includes tailpipe emissions from cars, trucks and buses, emissions from heating systems in homes and businesses and emissions from electricity generation.
Rep. Jason Knight, D-Barrington, was among them, saying: “This bill provides the overarching structure for reducing our emissions for years to come. Unlike other bills that set out environmental goals, this one has a mechanism for enforcement which will compel the state to act.”
Regrets? He was not alone in saying: “I would have liked to see the full slate of gun-control bills brought up for a vote, including a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.”
Sen. Meghan Kallman, D-Pawtucket: “The biggest/best bills this year in my opinion were the [phased-in $15 an hour] minimum wage and the Act on Climate.”
Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown: “One [most] important bill? Really? Hmmmmm my pick — “climate change” and “affordable housing.”
“Whether you’re a senior or a working family, affordable housing intersects health, education and the economy; housing is where jobs go to sleep at night. Seniors want to ‘age in place’ in their homes … and now we need to invest in home-based services.”
Regrets? “It will be so very regrettable if we do not pass my broadband bill (H5148), which passed the House unanimously 72-0 with bipartisan support,” she said.
“Everyone knows that RI is one of only two states without a broadband coordinator to access and implement federal funds which will be coming to all states.” (It did not pass.)
Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, R-Cranston: “I’ll probably be the only person to say this, but bipartisan bill H6042 … [which] conducts a massive cybersecurity review of our election systems … is the under-the-radar most important piece of legislation to clear the House this year.”
Why? “Because if 2020 taught us anything nationally, it’s that we need to take transparent measures to build more trust and faith in our election systems.” (It did not pass.)
Rep. Deborah Fellela, D-Johnston: Most important? The creation of a dedicated funding stream for affordable housing. “Our state is in desperate need of more affordable housing.”
Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, hailed as most-important his bill to avert fatal overdoses by creating “harm-reduction” centers where people can take and test the makeup of their pre-obtained illegal drugs under the watchful eyes of medical professionals.
Worst? “S119 distracts from the real work needed to reduce the threat and impact of gun violence in RI,” he said of the approved bill sought by gun-rights groups to compile data on types of firearms used in crimes, and disposition of those cases.
The biggest regret ofRep. David Place, R-Burrillville?
“We did nothing to address the crisis in our education system that has only been compounded by the pandemic and the misguided attempts at distance learning.
“If our system is failing our families and we refuse to do anything about it, we must give our families the ability to choose … We must trust parents to make the right education decisions for their children.”