Metro, News

R.I. Senate considers shutdown relief bills

Rhode Island among states most severely affected by partial government shutdown

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 23, 2019

George Nee, president of the Rhode Island branch of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, voices support for a proposed bill to senators during the Senate Judiciary Committee assembly.

Thirty two days and one missed paycheck into the longest shutdown in the federal government’s history, the Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee convened Tuesday to discuss measures to protect furloughed federal employees.

The committee, chaired by state Sen. Erin Lynch Prata (D-Warwick), devoted its first meeting to discussing the financial security of affected Rhode Islanders. The proposed Federal Furloughed Employees Protection Act, sponsored by state Sen. Dawn Euer (D-Newport, Jamestown), would provide unpaid federal employees such as Transportation and Security Administration agents and Coast Guard employees with reprieve from tax, residential, credit card and automotive payments. The legislation also suggests a “stay or postponement of all civil proceedings in district or superior court” for all furloughed employees. 

The implementation of this legislation will “help the families who are impacted by (the shutdown), to ease their minds. I know that almost 80 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck and that these families have already missed one paycheck,” Euer told The Herald. She explained that the legislation aims to lighten the burden on these families, as they “juggle payments, make the decision between the car payment and the medication payment, between paying your mortgage and paying your credit card,” she said.

During the hearing, Euer emphasized urgency, as it is unclear when the shutdown will end. “Missing one paycheck is a problem, missing two is disastrous,” she said.

“The majority of senators signed on to the legislation. I know that folks are very supportive of the idea,” Euer told The Herald, adding that she hopes the Senate will vote on the bill Thursday.

The bill is primarily a response to outcry from Rhode Island cities and towns, which have asked the state to help their residents weather the shutdown, according to a press release from the Rhode Island General Assembly. A study by WalletHub currently ranks Rhode Island as the state 11th most affected by the government shutdown. The study ranked states according to factors such as state share of federal jobs, federal contract dollars per capita and the percentage of families receiving food stamps, among other factors.

Euer said she would like to include an amendment addressing furloughed employees’ student loan payments, which could also be affected by missed paychecks.

Another bill called The Levy and Assessment of Local Taxes bill, sponsored by state Sen. William Conley Jr. (D-East Providence), is being considered concurrently. Conley’s bill applies to Rhode Island residents employed by the federal government and takes effect during government shutdowns. His bill allows city or town councils to “provide relief from the payment of any tax due or payable to the city or town tax…upon real estate or tangible property.”

“If you fail to pay a quarter of your property tax, probably across this whole state, the cities and towns charge 18 percent (interest) for even missing one day. That’s a huge amount,” state Sen. Leonidas P. Raptakis (D-Coventry) said during the committee meeting. Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island Steven Brown said state and town fees and taxes should be postponed for affected residents, also citing harsh late penalties, such as the mandatory suspension of a person’s driver’s license after a missed fee payment.

The Rhode Island branch of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations “very strongly supports this legislation,” said George Nee, the organization’s president. Nee also noted that unemployment insurance is unavailable for furloughed employees, who are technically still working.

“They’re protecting us and are being mistreated” he said, “(The bill is) terrific, but awful that we have to have a bill for this.”