2017 legislative session saw success for pro-life issues, prison reform, support for poor and vulnerable

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PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island General Assembly’s 2017 legislative session drew to an abrupt halt on Friday, June 30, when a disagreement over the repeal of the car tax led lawmakers to call off the session without a final vote on several pieces of legislation, including the 2018 budget.

Despite the uncertain future of the state budget, the 2017 legislative session still offered much to celebrate for those following issues of concern to the Church, including pro-life issues, support for elderly and disabled individuals and prison reform, as well as moderate progress in areas such as immigration reform and school choice.

According to pro-life advocates, among the largest victories of the session was the blocking of the Reproductive Health Care Act, a Planned Parenthood-supported bill introduced by lawmakers in both the House and the Senate that would have severely limited regulations of any kind on abortion. The House version of the bill, which originally had more than 35 co-sponsors (though nine later withdrew their support) drew large numbers of witnesses from either side of the debate to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, where the measure was recommended held for further study in March. The Senate version of the bill was also recommended held for further study in May.

“The so-called Reproductive Health Care Act of 2017 was a radical pro-abortion bill,” said Father Bernard Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference. “It would have stopped Rhode Island from banning the gruesome practice of partial birth abortion, allowed for unrestricted abortions all the way up until birth, would have put vulnerable women in grave danger by striking down longstanding informed consent requirements and removed regulatory oversight of the Rhode Island Department of Health over abortionists and their abortion mills.”

Barth Bracy, executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life, said that while similar bills have been introduced in the past, the quick support the bill gained in the wake of the presidential election and the amount of resources invested by abortion advocates posed a greater urgency than past versions of the legislation.

“That was a very serious threat, so it’s a great achievement that we were able to hold that back,” he said. “We expect it to be a threat again next year, so I urge all Catholics to remain vigilant.”

Bracy also noted an increase in spending by the local lobbying branch of Planned Parenthood, including a nearly $12,000 campaign contribution to Dawn Euer, a Democratic candidate seeking to fill the Senate District 13 (Newport and Jamestown) seat vacated by former Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed by special election in August.

“We are looking at a greatly increased effort on the part of Planned Parenthood, so we do need to warn pro-lifers certainly that we do need to be ready,” he said. “What ultimately influences these legislators is their local constituents — not us, not me and not the lobbyists at Planned Parenthood, but how many of their constituents contact them.”

Other successes by pro-life advocates this session included the failure of an assisted suicide bill to receive a committee hearing in either the House or Senate, as well as the amendment of a bill that would have mandated emergency contraception coverage in healthcare plans by employers.

“These were major victories for the sanctity of human life at the Rhode Island General Assembly and I thank all those who reached out to their elected officials to oppose these anti-life initiatives,” said Father Healey. “We are grateful to our allies at Rhode Island Right to Life for their continued vigilance and also to the pro-life caucus of both the House and Senate who provided courageous leadership when it was needed most in our state.”

Proponents for legislation in line with Church teaching also saw significant gains in the area of prison reform. A bill eliminating life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders sponsored by Sen. Harold Metts (D-Providence) passed the Senate in June. Though a companion bill sponsored by Rep. Christopher Blazejewski (D-Providence) was recommended held for further study in the House, the legislation’s partial success shows significant progress on an issue of concern to Church leaders.

“I hope that next session, with a renewed effort in the House, it will become law in RI,” said Father Healey. “The time has come to eliminate what Pope Francis calls this ‘hidden death penalty’ for juveniles.”

Criminal justice reform also saw partial success in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a series of bills sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick) that seek to reform the state’s probation and parole system. The bills passed the Senate in February, but were among the legislation left without a vote in the House following the General Assembly’s abrupt departure in June.

“The current dispute between the Senate and the House that caused the abrupt ending of the legislative session unfortunately saw many good bills left behind in limbo,” said Father Healey. “It is uncertain at this time if and when the House and Senate might come back to reconsider the budget and the many bills that remain unpassed at this time. We hope and pray that cooler heads prevail in this political dispute and all members of the General Assembly to continue to seek the common good of our state.”

In the area of school choice and support for non-public education, lawmakers introduced a bill that would greatly expand the corporate tax credit scholarship program, which offers state tax credits to businesses that donate to scholarship funds for private school students with financial need. The legislation would raise the cap on the program from $1.5 million to $5 million per year, increasing the amount of scholarship funds available to Catholic and other private school students.

Though the bill, sponsored by Rep. Robert Lancia (R-Cranston), was recommended held for further study by the House Finance Committee, Business Administrator for the diocesan Catholic School Office Edward Bastia said the introduction of the legislation was the first step in increasing awareness of the program.

“I’m hopeful that we’ve started a course for the future here,” he said. “We’re working actively to try to pursue this because this makes such a difference in the lives of families that want to enroll their kids in Catholic school.”

Rep. Lancia attributed the budget deficit with preventing further progress of the bill and said he hopes further education on the potential savings to the state as a result of the program will help the legislation gain greater support next year.

“The stats are startling when you look at the success rate and the money saved for the state,” he said. “I was stunned by the numbers and I just don’t think enough people are aware of that. If we can get that message out more, I think that would help.”

In other issues of concern to the Church, Governor Gina Raimondo signed legislation on July 5 restoring the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s no-fare bus pass for low-income elderly and disabled individuals, a program strongly supported by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, the Rhode Island Catholic Conference and the state’s Catholic pastors as well as the many nonprofit and social service organizations that serve the state’s low-income community. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. William O’Brien (D-North Providence) in the House and Sen. Metts in the Senate, represents an important victory for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

“I thank the many pastors who signed a letter in support of this as it helped very much,” said Father Healey. “We thank Rep. O’Brien and Sen. Metts, the State Senate, the House of Representatives and the Governor for heeding the cry of the poor with the passage of this bill.”

Bishop Tobin and the Rhode Island Catholic Conference also offered their support for a proposal to provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, a measure Bishop Tobin called “common sense legislation” that would promote public safety in the absence of more comprehensive immigration reform. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Frank Ciccone (D-Providence and North Providence) in the Senate and Rep. Anastasia Williams (D-Providence) in the House, was held for further study in the House and defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“As with many controversial and emotionally charged issues, it takes a few sessions to move the legislation to becoming law,” said Father Healey. “The fact that the Committee voted on the bill should be seen as progress and I thank Sen. Ciccone for his strong support of this issue.”