Twenty years ago, following the horrors of the September 11 attacks, Americans stood in solidarity with our heroes on the front lines. It seemed that all of us recognized the courage and valor of our first responders.
Americans are more polarized today, but I am grateful that the vast majority of my colleagues in the Senate still respect and appreciate the vital role of first responders in keeping us safe.
This session I was proud to win Senate passage of a pair of bills to recognize the tremendous work of the numerous local volunteer firefighters who selflessly serve their community.
In May, the Senate unanimously passed a Resolution I sponsored to honor the heroism of several Union Fire District volunteers who located and saved an unresponsive man and his dog in a structure fire. Our community owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to these volunteer firefighters Deputy Chief Tony Cinquegrana, Captain Tyler Parks, Lieutenant Eric Holmander, and Firefighters Matthew Viner and Daniel Kiley.
The Senate also passed legislation allowing municipalities to provide property tax exemptions to their volunteer firefighters. Under the bill, cities and towns across the state could, if they choose, offer their volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians a break on their property taxes.I will continue to work with my colleagues to win passage of this important bill through the House of Representatives so that this modest but important proposal can be implemented. It is a small token to recognize the valor and selfless service of the volunteer firefighters who protect us.
Representatives Justine A. Caldwell, Susan Donovan, Carol Hagan McEntee, and Katherine S. Kazarian; Senators Gayle Goldin, Valarie J. Lawson, and V. Susan Sosnowski; and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi; Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio joined Gov. Dan. McKee and women's advocates and organizations today for the ceremonial signing of multiple pieces of legislation that will support women's health and equity in Rhode Island.
The first bill ensures pay equity for all employees, regardless of gender or ethnicity.
“I have experienced first-hand what it’s like to be paid unequally when you are doing comparable work,” said Rep. Susan Donovan (D-Dist. 69, Bristol, Portsmouth), bill sponsor. “It’s a devastating blow, both emotionally and financially, for so many women and people of color across Rhode Island. Women work just as hard as our counterparts to advance our careers and support our families, and we deserve to be compensated equally. This bill has been my priority since my first term in the legislature, and I am thrilled to see it pass the General Assembly.”
“This legislation provides employees a more effective, realistic set of tools for addressing unfair pay practices, and it helps our state identify unequal pay where it occurs,” said Sen. Gayle Goldin (D-Dist. 3, Providence), bill sponsor. “While we have always known wage disparity is a problem, the pandemic has forced a disproportionate number of women out of the workforce completely, compounding the inequity women already faced. This bill will go a long way toward addressing the gaping holes in our existing fair pay laws and establishing financial stability for Rhode Island employees and their families.”
The second bill bans health insurers from using gender rating, a discriminatory practice of charging women and men different premiums for individual insurance.
“Women face unconscionable disparities when buying health insurance in the individual market,” said Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham), bill sponsor. “Women sometimes are charged 10 percent to 25 percent to 50 percent more than men for insurance providing identical coverage, especially during the age bracket associated with child-bearing years.”
“The discrimination that women have faced when it comes to the costs of health insurance has existed for far too long and needs to end,” said Rep. Katherine S. Kazarian (D-Dist. 63, East Providence), bill sponsor. “If we truly value the positive impacts of regular healthcare, there is no reason women should be discriminated against and forced to pay much higher rates for their medical care. This bill will eliminate this gross injustice and finally bring women in our state the healthcare equality that they rightfully deserve.”
The third bill will require all public schools to provide feminine hygiene products at no cost.
“We all know how necessary feminine hygiene products are, but what many people do not realize, and I see this as a long time educator, is that a lack of access to these products can cause students to miss crucial school days. These products are a daily necessity to so many students and just as schools provide toilet paper for the bathrooms, these products should also be readily accessible for our students in need,” said Sen. Valarie J. Lawson (D-Dist. 14, East Providence), bill sponsor.
“These products are not luxuries, they are necessities for many of our students. If soap and paper towels are available in bathrooms, so should feminine hygiene products, it’s as simple as that. This bill will prevent the embarrassment suffered by our students who have an accident during the school day and afford them the dignity that they deserve,” said Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (D-Dist. 33, South Kingstown, Narragansett), bill sponsor.
The fourth bill will allow candidates for office to use campaign funds for child care while they are participating in campaign or officeholder activities.
“Rhode Island is better served when our elected officials truly reflect the people they represent, and that includes parents of young children. Child care expenses are a roadblock that excludes people from running for local or state office and participating in the political process,” said Senator Goldin, bill sponsor. “You shouldn’t have to be wealthy to run for office.”
“While child care can be a concern for potential candidates of any gender, it is a consideration that can deter many women from running for office. Guaranteeing the legitimacy of using campaign funds in this way can help to encourage more women to run, bringing valuable perspective to state and local government. Child care that enables a candidate to perform their political or officeholder activities is a necessity, so of course it should be recognized as a valid campaign expense,” said Rep. Justine A. Caldwell (D-Dist. 30, East Greenwich, West Greenwich), bill sponsor.
The fifth bill will protect survivors of domestic and sexual violence by allowing people to request that their insurers send health communications directly to them instead of a parent or spouse.
“While federal laws have long guaranteed health care privacy rights between a patient and clinician, those protections fall apart when the health insurance industry sends information about the visit to the patient’s home. The details included in the statements that are mailed to insurance policyholders can discourage patients from seeking a medical intervention that they need. We want to make sure everyone feels safe to seek the full range of care: from mental health, to reproductive care, to getting a broken bone set. Our bill will provide an option to protect patients who need health care without their family knowing all of the details,” said Senator Goldin, bill sponsor.
“Ultimately, this bill is about keeping Rhode Islanders safe and eliminating roadblocks that keep people from seeking the treatment they need. Adult children on a parent’s health insurance policy should not have to worry about that information being shared. And no one should be put in danger by having their personal health care information sent to someone with whom they would rather not share it,” said Representative Donovan, bill sponsor.
“I'm proud to support women's health and equity. Today, Rhode Island is closing a number of discriminatory gaps and eliminating a collection of practices that have unfairly impacted women for generations,” said Governor Dan McKee. “Thank you to the remarkable and dedicated group of legislators who worked day-in and day-out to ensure that these bills became law, and to the advocates whose tireless work and spirit ensured that this progress continues.”
A new law introduced by Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham) and House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi (R-Dist. 36, New Shoreham, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly) will allow for increases in net metering peak for utility districts in New Shoreham and Burrillville.
Net metering is a billing mechanism that credits solar energy system owners for the electricity they add to the grid. The bill (2021-S 0022, 2021-H 5503) amends the maximum peak load of allowable capacity for the net metering systems in the Block Island Utility District and the Pascoag Utility District to not exceed a maximum peak load set by the utility district.
“State law restricts net metering for private solar and wind installations,” said Senator Sosnowski. “The Block Island Utility District Board of Commissioners have been developing a new policy for further installations. In order for that to happen, we need to lift the cap on net metering beyond the allowed percentage.”
The bill, which took effect immediately when it was signed yesterday, changes the maximum aggregate amount of net metering from 3% to a percentage set by the utility district based on its operational characteristics, subject to approval of the Public Utilities Commission.
“On Block Island, we’re an environmentally conscious community, and we’ve already used our 3% capacity,” said Leader Filippi. “There are hundreds of homeowners that want to purchase solar voltaic cells and put them on their roofs and produce clean renewable energy. This bill is necessary for Block Islanders to increase their solar capacity.”
The General Assembly has approved and the governor has signed legislation sponsored by Rep. Deborah Ruggiero and Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski to phase in significantly higher percentages of cleaner-burning biodiesel in home heating oil sold in the state.
Biodiesel is a fuel made from vegetable oils such as used cooking oil and soy byproducts. It must meet standards and is blended with petroleum heating oil to burn cleaner and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It requires no alteration to existing heating equipment.
Rhode Island already requires heating oil to be sold as a mix that contains 5 percent biodiesel. That requirement was phased in between 2014 and 2017 under legislation that Senator Sosnowski sponsored and Representative Ruggiero cosponsored in 2013.
The new law will phase in higher percentages of biodiesel or renewable hydrocarbon diesel blended into home heating oil. It requires home heating oil to be 10% biodiesel or renewable hydrocarbon diesel in 2023, 20% in 2025 and 50% in 2030. Renewable hydrocarbon diesel is made from the same vegetable oils as biodiesel, but through a different process that requires higher pressures and temperatures. Some large refineries are being converted to make renewable hydrocarbon diesel.
“Every gallon of biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% when compared to a gallon of petroleum heating oil. A blend of 15% biodiesel burns cleaner and has more greenhouse gas reductions than natural gas,” said Representative Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown). “Local leaders in the heating oil industry helped develop this bill, because they understand that in order to stay in business today, they need to modernize and eliminate their carbon intensity by doing what’s right for healthy outcomes for all of us. When people build homes they can go with gas or electric, but with biodiesel blends, home heating oil burns more efficiently and cleaner.”
Said Senator Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham), “Biodiesel reduces the emissions of soot and toxins released into the air. The Environmental Protection Agency’s research indicates that biodiesel emits 11% less carbon monoxide and 10% less particulate matter than diesel. A study done by the departments of Energy and Agriculture found that use of biodiesel reduces net carbon dioxide emissions by 78%. Unlike petroleum, which contains sulfur and carcinogens, biodiesel is nontoxic and biodegradable.”
According to the Oil Heat Institute of Rhode Island, in 2017, the existing 5-percent requirement resulted in the use of 12 million gallons of biodiesel being blended into heating oil in the state, diverting cooking oil and other byproducts from landfills and reducing our reliance on petroleum products by 12 million gallons. About one-third of Rhode Island homes rely on oil heat.
Switching to higher concentrations of biodiesel in home heating oil will help Rhode Island achieve the state’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals, established through the Act on Climate passed earlier this year. Those goals are to reach emissions that are 10 percent below 1990 levels this year, 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2040 and net-zero by 2050. Approximately 35% of Rhode Island’s greenhouse gas emissions are from heating.
Enacting the bill helps keep Rhode Island in step with neighboring states. Connecticut’s lawmakers passed similar legislation last month, and Massachusetts has an incentive that currently results in much of its home heating oil supply being sold at a 10-percent blend.
The General Assembly has approved and the governor has signed legislation sponsored by Rep. Susan R. Donovan and Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski to protect the environment and wildlife by prohibiting the intentional release of large groups of balloons.
The new law, which takes effect Nov. 1, bans intentional, simultaneous releases of 10 or more balloons into the air.
All released balloons, including those falsely marketed as biodegradable, end up as litter on waterways and landscapes. Animals, attracted by their vibrant colors and shapes, mistake them for food, causing injury or death to countless sea and land creatures each year. Balloons are also a nuisance to commercial fishermen and can even cause power outages when they tangle with power lines.
“Balloons may conjure up sweet images of childhood innocence, and the sight of them rising into the sky may seem wondrous and beautiful. But what goes up must come down, and when balloons come down, they become a particularly insidious kind of litter. They often end up in the water, and are among the types of plastic litter that kill and painfully maim fish, birds and other wildlife,” said Representative Donovan (D-Dist. 69, Bristol, Portsmouth). “Releasing balloons is harmful. While I’m grateful that these events have become rarer in recent years as awareness of their impact has spread, they should be made illegal to ensure that they become a thing of the past. Dumping hazardous plastic into the environment is not a suitable celebration of anything in 2021.”
Said Senator Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham), “Rhode Island’s identity, much of our economy and our lifestyle are so dependent upon a healthy ocean. Releasing balloons in the Ocean State – where 21 of the 39 cities and towns are coastal – is just not in line with way of life or our efforts to improve our environment. Releasing balloons is littering and endangering animals, and it should not be tolerated in Rhode Island.”
The legislation provides exceptions for scientific or meteorological balloon launches with government permission, hot air balloon launches and indoor releases. It applies only to intentional release, not accidental release. Each violation is punishable by a fine of $100 for a first offense and $250 for subsequent ones.
According to Save The Bay, the plastic remains of 503 balloons were found along Rhode Island’s shoreline during the September 2019 International Coastal Cleanup.
The legislation had widespread support from environmental groups across Rhode Island and fishermen’s associations. In 2018, the New Shoreham Town Council passed an ordinance banning the sale of balloons on Block Island as a means of addressing this issue. The new law does not prohibit balloon sales, only the outdoor release of balloons.
Representative Donovan, an avid kayaker who represents a coastal district, has witnessed firsthand the danger balloons pose to animals. A few years ago, while kayaking on the Sakonnet River off Portsmouth with a friend, she encountered a seagull entangled in the string of a balloon. She captured the gull, which was injured and suffering, and used some nail clippers she had with her to free it from the string.
Gov. Dan McKee has signed legislation introduced by Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, New Shoreham, South Kingstown) and Rep. Kathleen A. Fogarty (D-Dist. 35, South Kingstown) that allows for the direct dockside sale of fish.
The law permits the dockside sale of allowable species upon issuance of a direct sale dealer license by the Department of Environmental Management to a commercial fishing license holder. The legislation allows finfish to be processed but not filleted dockside from the vessel. Lobsters, crabs and whelk would be sold live.
“Commercial fisheries have taken a particular beating during the COVID pandemic,” said Senator Sosnowski. “Those in the seafood industry are just starting to get back on their feet now since the closure of restaurants and other businesses and supply chains.”
Last year, Senator Sosnowski worked closely with the DEM and members of the shellfishing industry to find alternatives to the supply chain and to ensure that the seafood industry is protected and served. The DEM issued provisions temporarily allowing fishermen to sell their catch dockside to consumers and retailers.
“Commercial fisheries are an important part of the coastal economy of Rhode Island,” said Representative Fogarty. “This bill is a lifeline to that industry while preserving safety and public health by ensuring that all seafood be stored and handled in a safe and sanitary manner pursuant to department regulations.”
The Rhode Island Clean Water Association has honored Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham) as its 2021 Legislator of the Year.
The award recognizes outstanding legislative contributions to ensuring clean water for Rhode Island. Senator Sosnowski was recognized for her persistent efforts in phasing out cesspools.
“The Rhode Island Clean Water Association created the Clean Water Legislator of the Year Award to recognize all the hard work involved in getting substantial, effective legislation enacted in support of the water environment. We selected Senator Susan Sosnowski for the 2020 award because of her persistent efforts over many years to phase out cesspools,” said RICWA President Peter J. Connell.
The award was announced during the Rhode Island Clean Water Legislative Summit, held virtually Feb. 25. House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, Senator Jack Reed and Congressman Jim Langevin all spoke, along with R.I. Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit, Narragansett Bay Commission Executive Director Laurie Horridge and Save the Bay Executive Director Jonathan Stone.
“I am honored that the Clean Water Association would recognize my efforts in improving the quality of water in Rhode Island,” said Senator Sosnowski. “The bill I sponsored, which became law, is an important step in improving Narragansett Bay and our drinking water.”
Established in 1952, the Rhode Island Clean Water Association (RICWA), formerly the Narragansett Water Pollution Control Association (NWPCA), is a nonprofit organization created to promote the advancement of knowledge concerning the nature, collection, treatment, and disposal of domestic and industrial wastewaters.