Metro

Spotlight on the Statehouse: March 31, 2015

By
Metro Editor
Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Stalling Shark

A Providence Board of Licenses hearing regarding the liquor license issued to Shark Bar and Grille in exchange for bribes of $52,500 in 2008 was halted yesterday by Associate Justice Michael Silverstein, a Rhode Island Superior Court judge, the Providence Journal reported.

Silverstein granted Shark owners Raymond Hugh and Bahij Boutros their request for a court receiver — someone to take custody of the owners’ assets and rights and displace them in the court proceedings.

Silverstein chose lawyer Stephen Del Sesto for the receivership and canceled the 1 p.m. hearing less than three hours before it was scheduled to begin.

The hearing was originally scheduled in response to a petition by Mayor Jorge Elorza to void the original 2008 liquor license granted to the corporation that owns Shark, SSBG & G Inc., and thus voiding all subsequent renewals of that license.

Elorza issued a statement yesterday saying, “Public corruption at any level of government is unacceptable, and I want to send a strong signal that there will be no tolerance for it. I hope that the Superior Court will grant relief from today’s decision.”

Taxis and taxes

The $40 minimum for public motor vehicle transactions is currently being stayed during a Rhode Island Supreme Court case between several public motor vehicle companies and the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission.

The minimum for van, limo and black car services was implemented as part of the Public Motor Vehicle Act, which was passed in 2013 in an attempt to keep the less regulated black car industry from moving into the high-volume, low-cost portion of the market that has traditionally been occupied by taxicabs. Ride-sharing applications such as Uber and Lyft have encouraged drivers of public motor vehicles to perform high-volume, low-cost rides, undercutting the price of taxicabs due to the lack of regulation.

Uber for Rhode Island and Massachusetts recently came under fire from public officials for not paying sales tax. Terrence Mercer, associate administrator for motor carriers at the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, said neither Uber nor Lyft is registered to file sales taxes with the state, the Providence Journal reported. Uber spokesman Matthew Wing told the Providence Journal that Uber returns the collected sales tax to drivers who are registered car services — and with it, the responsibility to pay it to the state. For drivers who are not registered car services, Uber collects the sales tax and has said that it is actively working with the state tax department to pay the taxes because of “ambiguity” in state tax law.

Lyft does not collect sales taxes in Rhode Island, Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson told the Providence Journal, adding, “It is not clear how peer-to-peer platforms should be treated for tax purposes in the state.”

The Public Motor Vehicle Act also created a special joint legislative commission to study “the impact of innovative technologies on the market for transportation services,” according to a press release.

The 11-member commission last met March 24 to hear Cathy Zhou, general manager of Uber for Rhode Island and Massachusetts, who is also on the commission, and J. Russell Jackson, a lawyer representing the taxi industry.

A number of bills have been filed in the House related to taxicabs and public motor vehicles. The House Corporations Committee heard five of the bills — four of which were introduced by Rep. Marvin Abney, D-Newport and Middletown, and one of which was introduced by Rep. Robert Jacquard, D-Cranston. Neither Abney nor Jacquard is on the joint commission.

All five bills seek to increase regulation for public motor vehicles or decrease regulation for taxicabs.

Gag order remains for pension lawsuit

Several public figures, including Sen. James Sheehan, D-Narragansett and North Kingstown, and the Rhode Island Broadcasters Association, requested Monday that Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter lift a gag order on all parties involved in the lawsuit regarding the 2011 pension overhaul, WPRI reported.

A settlement was introduced by the state March 17, and the gag order was imposed to keep the union voting process from being impacted by the media. Voting among unions ended last week, though the gag order is still in place. If the settlement is not agreed upon, the case will go to trial April 20.

“In the interest of an open and transparent government, the citizens of the state — whose tax dollars are directly impacted by this epic policy issue — deserve full accounting,” Sheehan wrote in a statement.

“The news departments of the association’s television and radio stations have a right and responsibility to report on issues that impact all Rhode Island taxpayers and the future of our state,” the statement from the RIBA reads.

The settlement could cost cities and towns in Rhode Island $13.7 million, the Providence Journal reported.