- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 27, 2017

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Rhode Island state lawmakers are working to pass dozens of bills in the final days before they adjourn for the year.

The legislation includes union-backed measures to extend public employee labor contract agreements after they’ve expired, and to allow firefighters and police officers to get disability pensions if they have an illness.

The Democratic-controlled state House of Representatives has suspended many of its procedural rules as it tries to rush to a close, allowing bills to move from committees to the House floor with little public notice. The Democratic-controlled Senate also voted to suspend its rules Tuesday.

Republicans are objecting to many of the bills and the process to fast-track them.

“They do this stuff at the very end of the session so that nobody can get momentum to fight it,” said Republican House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, in an interview. “We have a week in June when most people are going to go on vacation to mount any defense against it.”

Democratic leaders counter that the bills were already vetted in public hearings earlier in the year.

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DISABILITY PENSIONS

The state House of Representatives voted 53-8 on Tuesday night to expand accidental disability retirement benefits for firefighters and police officers. Current benefits cover on-the-job injuries, but the legislation would add certain illnesses sustained while in performance of duty. Several of the bill’s Democratic co-sponsors are former police officers.

“This is something that all parties agreed on, cities and towns, the general treasurer, and the unions that would be impacted,” said Rep. Robert Craven, a North Kingstown Democrat and chairman of the House Labor Committee.

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FARM WEDDINGS

The House voted 45-23 after an hourlong debate Tuesday to pass a bill that would protect farm owners who want to host non-agricultural events such as weddings, concerts and festivals. The legislation would block local town governments from restricting such events as long as they aren’t a safety hazard.

Voting against it were Republicans and several Democrats who criticized a proposal they said would usurp local government authority and harm rural communities that want to preserve their agricultural character against noisy parties.

Proponents say it would help Rhode Island adapt to an experience-based “new economy” that capitalizes on the state’s coastal beauty. Democratic Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi objected to what he said was an “unfounded fear that this could turn into a Woodstock.”

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SNOW DAYS

The House voted 59-11 on Tuesday night on a proposal that would allow schools to provide at-home virtual education to students if classes are canceled because of inclement weather or another emergency.

Proponents have said it’s inspired by a New Hampshire program known as “blizzard bags.” It would allow for the virtual education curriculum to count as a school day. Participation by school districts would be voluntary.

Opponents who voted against it said it’s not fair to students who don’t have computers at home.

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‘PERPETUAL’ CONTRACTS

A bill that was moving to a vote in the full House would require that labor contracts with school teachers and municipal employees be continued after they expire until a successor agreement is reached. Critics have derided it as allowing “perpetual” union contracts.

Morgan, the Republican leader, said she’s talked to mayors who are “very fearful” about the measure’s cost.

The bill’s sponsor, Warwick Democratic state Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson, said extending labor agreements “provides an equal playing field” and keeps municipal governments honest, so they don’t kick negotiations down the road.

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IN LIMBO

Several major bills remain in limbo in one legislative chamber or both including proposals to mandate paid sick days for private sector workers, take away guns from people on domestic restraining orders and ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving. Horse-trading between the two legislative chambers could heat up Wednesday.

Other bills appeared headed for defeat by not making it to a vote in either chamber, including a proposal backed by Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo that called for random audits of campaign accounts.

Another stalled election-related reform measure would have opened polling places for in-person early voting in the days before an election. Hurting the cause and raising doubts among some legislators was a May 25 congressional election in Montana, where the winning candidate’s election-eve assault on a reporter happened after many people had already cast their votes.

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