Metro

Spotlight on the statehouse: Jan. 30, 2014

By
Metro Editor
Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pay it forward, pay it back
Legislation introduced Tuesday by House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, and Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick and Cranston, would create a pilot program in which participating students attending in-state colleges or universities would not pay tuition or fees until after graduation.

The proposed three-year pilot initiative — in which students would sign a contract to pay back a percentage of their income for a fixed number of years after graduation — is based on a similar program adopted in Oregon and would be implemented by June 2015.
“This is a bold, innovative idea that would address two of our state’s major challenges — the rapid rise of college costs and the skills gap — at once,” Fox said, according to a press release.

The program would be available only to Rhode Island residents in specific courses of study, which would be determined by the Department of Education, in order to address the demands of state employers who lack skilled workers in their industries.

“If this model works, it would put education within the reach of every interested student, just as it should be,” McNamara said, according to the release.

Profile privacy

Privacy bills aimed at protecting personal social networking profiles of students and employees have been introduced in both chambers, according to a Jan. 24 press release.

“The term ‘social media’ does not mean everything associated with a person’s online presence is automatically public, and it is not a license for an employer or school to pry into private material,” said Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, D-Providence and North Providence, who introduced the bill in the Senate.

The legislation would prohibit educational institutions and employers from requesting, coercing or requiring students or employees to disclose a password or other means of accessing a social media account. It would also protect students and employees from any penalty resulting from refusing to disclose the information, according to the press release.

“This legislation is not giving anyone a right to privacy over the parts of social media that are unsecured, but there is a distinct line between readily accessible portions of social media pages and other information,” said Rep. Brian Kennedy, D-Hopkinton and Westerly, according to the release.

With the introduction of these bills, Rhode Island joins 20 other states where social media bills are currently enforced or under legislative consideration, according to the press release. The House and Senate bills have been referred to their respective Judiciary Committees for review.

Taxi taxes

Rep. Doreen Costa, R-North Kingstown and Exeter, held a press conference Thursday to discuss legislation she has filed to repeal a tax on taxi cab fares. The bill would eliminate the 7 percent tax imposed in 2012, which cab drivers say has led to reduced tips, according to a Jan. 21 press release.

Though a similar effort to repeal the tax last year was never brought to a vote, the House bill now has 40 co-sponsors — already a majority — and Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown and New Shoreham, has introduced the Senate companion bill.

“I have opposed this unfair tax against small business owners from the beginning,” Costa said, according to the press release.

Firearms safety

The Joint Behavioral Health and Firearms Safety Task Force recommended Thursday that Rhode Island submit some of the state’s mental health record information to the national database used to screen gun buyers.

Rhode Island currently submits relevant criminal records and requires gun owners to submit a criminal background check, but the 20-member task force — headed by co-chairwomen Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown and Middletown, and Sen. Catherine Rumsey, D-Exeter, Charlestown, Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich — has recommended in its report that the state change its health privacy laws to allow for the release of critical information about gun buyers who may pose a risk of violence to themselves or others.

“We can’t prevent every tragedy, but we should be trying to prevent the arming of people who have already been brought to the court’s attention, because they are seriously mentally ill, violent and dangerous,” Rumsey said, according to the press release.

The report suggests adopting a law that would require the submission of only enough information to identify a particular individual and would prohibit disclosing any additional information about the person’s mental health condition. The law would also exclude those who have sought mental health treatment on their own and those who have exhibited only a low risk of violence.

The report also proposes excluding additional information on substance abuse, because it could discourage individuals from seeking treatment, according to the press release.

“The key is to strike the balance between public safety and the individual’s right to privacy and freedom,” Rumsey said.
The task force will submit the report to the General Assembly in hopes of spurring the recommended changes.