Smith Hill to Capitol Hill: Society's Government Update: Final Days of 2018 General Assembly Session

The conclusion of the 2018 General Assembly session came on Saturday June 23, as lawmakers hammered out final amendments for the passage of a $9.6 billion-dollar state budget and approved or defeated scores of bills in the final days. The central bill being watched by the business community this session, establishing new Pay Equity provisions in the workplace, did not advance in the final hours as both supporters and opponents argued over the merits of the bill. The legislation calling for construction of a new Pawsox Stadium was passed, but the team is continuing to review the bill before a final agreement is reached. Other final votes gave passage to legalized sports betting in RI, approval of a $250 million referendum for new school construction across the state and new protections to combat the opioid crisis in RI, among numerous other legislative initiatives.

Other bills the Business Coalition addressed this session:

S. 2381 Medical Assistance/Wage Hike for Health Workers: We opposed this bill, which essentially calls for increasing the minimum wage for health-related workers across the board by requiring that an amount equal to 95 percent of the annual inflation rate be dedicated as a wage increase for health care staff. The bill would force the wage increase on wide categories of employees in health care and hospital settings including nurses, certified nursing assistants, medical technicians, housekeeping staff, laundry staff, dietary staff, and other workers of the nursing center or hospital. Any facility that does not comply with this legislation would essentially have to provide the same amount in a payback to the state. This bill seems designed to counteract changes in ownership occurring at hospital groups within the state through attempting to legislate compensation levels, and we believe the bill would force hospitals or nursing homes to make difficult or even dangerous staffing decisions by maintaining reduced levels of employees.

H. 8279 Fair Employment Practice. We opposed this legislation that would expand the definition of employee in the Fair Employment Practice Act to explicitly include volunteers and unpaid interns. We believe the intent of the legislation is very unclear, but the consequences of expanding what defines an employee to these categories would be disastrous for business. Furthermore, it could set a precedent that would conflict with other established Rhode Island labor laws.

H. 8277 Sexual Harassment, Education and Training in the Workplace. We oppose the bill which would mandate every private employer in the state provide sexual harassment training within three months of every new hired employee or supervisor/manager. This will not only be costly to employers, who might need to pay for monthly trainings depending on staff turnover, it will also lead to increased administration. We believe the rapid timeline of requiring training be provided within 3 months of a new staff person or new manager is excessive. Only two states, California and Connecticut, require training within six months of hiring and no state requires it within 3 months. We believe this bill would make RI an outlier on a new administrative cost issue.

Other State issues we monitored:
*Medicaid reimbursement fee dispute between the state and nursing homes and resolution of a new $24 million penalty on the state for a missed court deadline. This issue emerged near the end of session when it was revealed that a lawyer in the state department of Health & Human Services (HHS) handling a large and complex Medicaid reimbursement court case for the state, missed a critical court filing that could end up costing RI taxpayers $24 million. The lawyer not only deleted emails referencing the court appeals deadline information that was connected to a court victory by nursing homes, but was later found to be practicing with a suspended law license. The Governor has referred his case to the Attorney General’s office to investigate.

Washington, DC: The issues of separating illegal immigrant families crossing the southern U.S border and international diplomacy have been at center stage for the Trump administration in recent weeks. The zero-tolerance immigration policy at the border has resulted in thousands of immigrant children, some under 5 years old, being separated from their parents and held at sprawling detention centers in southern border Texas towns. Democrats in Congress are asking that President Trump freeze the policy to stop the separation of children from parents but the President says Congress has the authority to change the policy as it reflects existing immigration law. Meantime Trump’s recent summit meeting with North Korea’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un marked the first time an American President has met with the leader of the world’s most isolated and repressive regimes. The summit’s goals of forcing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for the loosening of economic sanctions by the West were discussed and some levels of agreement were reached. It remains to be seen if the tentative agreements will hold up in the months to come. Stay tuned!

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