Tolls, economic agency dominate session's endgame

Rhode Island entered a new fiscal year Monday without a state budget as a dispute over bridge tolls and a flurry of votes on lesser bills marked the final days of this year's session of the General Assembly.

Bills that would restructure the state's Economic Development Corp., allow workers to take paid family leave and impose interest caps on payday lenders were among those that hung in the balance as lawmakers sought to adjourn for the year ahead of the July 4 holiday.

As of Monday night Gov. Lincoln Chafee had not signed off on an $8.2 billion state budget that lawmakers passed last week. Christine Hunsinger, a spokeswoman for the Democratic governor, said Chafee "will evaluate the budget in its entirety" before deciding whether to sign the budget, allow it to become law without his signature, or issue a rare budget veto. He has until Wednesday to decide.

One potential hang-up is a provision temporarily blocking the Turnpike and Bridge Authority's power to set tolls on the Sakonnet and Newport bridges. Transportation officials warned lawmakers last week that the move would destabilize funding for bridge maintenance and violate rules on bridge bond financing that require the agency to have tolling authority.

"While no one likes tolls, the tolls allow the Turnpike and Bridge Authority to maintain the bridges," Hunsinger said. She declined to say whether Chafee was considering vetoing the budget over the toll provision, which was inserted in the budget by House lawmakers last week in response to protests over plans to impose tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge beginning this month.

The budget provision delays those tolls until at least February to give the state time to study alternatives. Lawmakers also voted to block any attempt by the Turnpike and Bridge Authority to raise the existing Newport Bridge toll instead.

Legislation that would rescind or modify the toll provision was "under discussion" by House and Senate leaders, according to Larry Berman, a spokesman for House Speaker Gordon Fox.

Such legislation would surely anger East Bay lawmakers who had fought to block tolls on the bridge, which connects Tiverton to Portsmouth.

Alternatively, if Chafee vetoed the budget, the House could attempt to override the veto. The budget passed the House narrowly last week, with only two votes more than necessary.

Meanwhile, lawmakers continued to finalize proposals that would revamp the state's Economic Development Corp., which has been criticized following the failure of its investment in former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling's video game company, 38 Studios. The House and Senate have passed different bills that would rename and reorganize the agency, and are now working to reconcile the two versions.

Other bills remained in limbo as the session entered its final days.

One would give workers paid time off to care for a new child or sick spouse, child or parent. When fully phased in, workers would be eligible for up to eight weeks of compensated time off, funded through a payroll deduction. The Senate has passed the bill, the House has not.

Supporters of bills to cap the interest rates charged by pay day lenders were worried their bill might not reach a vote. Similar legislation has failed to advance in years past under pressure from the pay-day loan industry.

The House has passed legislation to make Rhode Island-style calamari the state's official appetizer. The Senate has not yet considered the measure.

A proposal to ban semi-automatic assault weapons, which was announced with great fanfare earlier in the session, appeared unlikely to get a vote.