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Tyler Rosenbaum '11: Mission accomplished!

You may not have noticed, but Rhode Island is a relatively small state. In fact, you can fit almost 2,500 Rhode Islands into the area of the United States! It also has a relatively small population, as states go. So it may come as no surprise that the General Assembly (the state's legislature) meets for only half the year.

Normally, the January through June session is enough time for the General Assembly to get all its business finished. Of course, even spending half a year might not be necessary — Florida's legislature, for example, is constitutionally restricted to meeting only 60 days per year.

But this year, circumstances were very different. Clearly, the situation was dire. So dire, in fact, that legislators took the drastic step of coming back to Providence for an unusual October session.

What, specifically, drove our legislators back to Providence for two whole days, with some having to make the perilous journey from as far as Westerly or Newport? Rhode Island was facing some serious problems, which in the aggregate have created the worst crisis the state has faced in decades.

No, I'm not talking about that trivial economic situation. If you read any of the newspapers, you'll discover the biggest threat facing the state; indeed, it was the primary target of this new session: legal, commercial sex. Yes, although a legal loophole has permitted indoor prostitution in Rhode Island since 1976, and although the General Assembly has met for a total of 198 months during the time this loophole has existed, only very recently have the pernicious effects of this permissiveness been felt, apparently.

I, for one, am quite relieved that prostitution will be criminalized immediately. Rhode Island likely would not have survived had it been forced to wait until the next regular session of the General Assembly commences in early January to begin fining and jailing prostitutes.

Another crisis of epic proportions was averted when the House of Representatives agreed with the Senate's plan to ask the state's voters whether to change the state's official name from "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" to simply "Rhode Island."

Cynics might point out that the referendum on the straightforward issue will take place in November 2010, and that therefore the House's action could have waited until January. But they underestimate the importance of planning ahead. Moreover, some voters might not be appreciative of having only 10 months' time to make up their minds on such an issue, preferring instead to have a full year.

Additionally, the General Assembly approved a law allowing individuals in same-sex couples to make funeral arrangements for their deceased partners. This legislation was urgently necessary to make legislative leaders seem less callous and heartless in their steadfast opposition to same-sex marriage or civil unions.

Whether anti-gay Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 signs the bill or not, the General Assembly and its overwhelming Democratic supermajority, by bravely tossing this bone to the gay community, managed to silence perhaps the most heart-wrenching testimony presented in favor of marriage equality at the yearly legislative hearings on that subject. Undoubtedly, had the bill not been passed at this special session, legislators might have been forced to hear such testimony on the harmful effects of their inaction on gay rights again. Truly, this was a crisis averted.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the General Assembly stiffened penalties on minors operating boats while intoxicated. Unquestionably, delaying action on this crucial measure for two months would have resulted in a catastrophe of epic proportions.

Unfortunately, other, less pressing business had to be left until January. Legislators are, after all, part-time, and do have jobs outside of government. It is therefore understandable that some issues just could not be considered during this special session and therefore needed to be postponed.

The main issue that failed the make the cut was the state's rapidly worsening fiscal condition. Some naysayers might argue that last year's $60 million deficit and this year's projected $60 million deficit warranted more attention than allowing Rhode Island motorists to buy license plates that indicate support for the New England Patriots, or permitting bars to stay open an extra hour (but not to serve alcohol during that hour).

Such naysayers, however, clearly miss the point, blindly focusing on Rhode Island's impending bankruptcy at the expense of many more important issues. What use is a solvent state government if, for example, intoxicated teens can operate motorboats with impunity? Can you put a price on the immediate incarceration of women who sell sex in their own homes?  I didn't think so.

Luckily, Rhode Island lawmakers recognized the pressing issues facing the state, and they traveled from far and wide to come back into a special session specifically to address them. And though the legislators have already left town, the enduring legacy of their brief presence will remain with us for quite some time. The General Assembly bravely faced the numerous crises confronting the state and prioritized accordingly. All I can say as an admiring citizen is: mission accomplished!
 
Tyler Rosenbaum '11 is dismayed the General Assembly didn't act to penalize drunken Segway drivers.




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