2011 R.I. Assembly: Expect a battle on marriage equality among other issues

Posted by Katherine Gregg and Philip Marcelo on projo.com:

"The drive to legalize the freedom to marry, turn the state’s slot parlors into full-fledged casinos and impose a 1-percent sales tax on food, clothing and prescription drugs — among other items — has set the stage for months of late-night hearings and high-stakes battles at the State House.

"The House and Senate open for business at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, with Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis swearing in the 38 senators and 75 members of the House of Representatives, who are then expected to easily reelect Providence Democrat Gordon D. Fox as the House speaker, and Newport Democrat M. Teresa Paiva Weed as Senate president.

"The state’s first independent governor will then cross the great marble divide between the House and Senate to assure the lawmakers in both chambers that, after years of name-calling by his Republican predecessor, he believes: 'We are all in this together.'

“'I greatly value those who have run for office,' Governor-elect Lincoln D. Chafee said last week. 'We put our names out there, raised the money, walked the neighborhoods and faced the voters. … Now let’s get together and move the state forward.'

"With 22 new representatives and 7 new senators, the balance of power in the heavily Democratic General Assembly has shifted, but just slightly. The House will have 65 Democrats and 10 Republicans, and the Senate, 29 Democrats, 8 Republicans and 1 independent.

... "To the extent there is any change in legislative leadership, it will be seen in longtime Providence Democrat Dominick Ruggerio’s new role as Senate majority leader. As the administrator of an arm of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which pursues construction contracts for labor-friendly companies across New England, Ruggerio has always been at the forefront of labor’s efforts to push its agenda. Leaving no doubt he intends to continue in that role, Ruggerio is proposing a commission to look at how much the state is spending on 'consultants and contracted services' when these jobs might be 'done more efficiently with state employees.'

"But in the opening weeks, the Senate will be busy holding hearings and voting on the appointment — and, in some cases, reappointment — of Chafee’s nominees to 14 top jobs in state government, including state police superintendent, state prison chief and head of the Office of Health & Human Services.

"The leaders of both chambers will appoint a commission to begin the once-a-decade redrawing of House and Senate district lines to reflect population changes since the last census.

"And Fox makes no secret of his hope of bringing a marriage equality bill to a vote in the House, for the first time, early in the session.

“'I do think there comes a time to do certain things,' says the openly gay Fox. 'I’d like to see a vote on it.'

"But it remains unclear what the Senate will do. Paiva Weed opposes marriage for same-sex couples, and the National Organization for Marriage has its first TV ad ready to run as soon as the first hearing gets called, according to Christopher Plante, executive director of the local chapter. He says the national organization will spend 'whatever it takes.'

... "With a House speaker and governor-elect sympathetic to their cause, Plante says, 'marriage equality advocates see this as their best chance, and I will acknowledge that,' Plante says....

"... The freedom to marry is currently legal in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont, but is facing a repeal effort in New Hampshire. In Maine, voters overturned the state Legislature’s approval of marriage equality.  Marriages of same-sex couples are also honored in Iowa and the District of Columbia."

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