Legislative study commissions used to be where bills went to die. Not anymore. 

TWELVE LEGISLATIVE study commissions have or will soon kick off thanks to resolutions passed in the 2023 legislative session. That’s in addition to 10 created in prior years that have been extended into the upcoming year. / PBN FILE PHOTO/CASSIUS SHUMAN

Ten years have passed since Rep. Jennifer Boylan crouched next to her son in his fourth grade classroom, practicing what to do if someone with a gun ever entered the school. 

But the memory from the lockdown drill lingers in the Barrington Democrat’s mind: The students huddled next to cubbies because they had no closet to hide inside. The stricken looks Boylan exchanged with the teacher, both thinking of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting a few months prior. And the rattling of the door knob as police checked to make sure the door was closed. 

“Everyone jumped about a mile,” Boylan recalled.  

How to improve school safety drills and active shooter sweeps — and reduce the trauma that students and teachers might suffer from them — is the focus of a newly created commission formed under legislation sponsored by Boylan.  

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Also on the docket for lawmakers in the policymaking off-season: quahogs, miniature alcohol bottles, forest fires and Airbnbs, to name a few. Twelve legislative study commissions have or will soon kick off thanks to resolutions passed in the 2023 legislative session. That’s in addition to 10 created in prior years that have been extended into the upcoming year. 

Study commissions were once considered a kind of political purgatory where controversial topics get shunted to sit in eternal limbo. Not anymore, thanks in part to a crop of legislative victories resulting from the work of these legislative panels. 

“That this is where bills go to die is flatly wrong,” said Sen. Mark McKenney, a Warwick Democrat. “It has historically been the case, when there is not a clear critical mass behind a particular idea, it might get shunted to a study commission. But the reality is that these are issues that take more time to percolate or be considered in-depth.” 

He should know. 

McKenney was one of 12 people to wade into the controversial waters of public shoreline access through a study commission created in 2021. Its resulting recommendation on where to draw the line between public and private on the sand was the basis for successful legislation signed into law last month.

Advocates touted the work of the shoreline access commission, and its chairwoman, Rep. Terri Cortvriend, a Portsmouth Democrat, for turning the tide on a long-debated topic. And lawmakers now look for similar success to follow from panels studying equally controversial issues. 

Chief among them: a bottle recycling program. After multiple years of unsuccessful legislative attempts, the perennial fixture is headed to an 18-member joint legislative study commission. 

The resolutions passed this year were born out of several bills seeking to create a deposit-refund program for glass, plastic and aluminum bottles and cans, including miniature alcohol bottles, or “nips.” Environment defenders rallied for the program, which would charge a small fee to consumers on purchase that would later be refunded when empty bottles are returned. But liquor and convenience store owners decried the burden created on their small businesses, which would serve as collection and refund centers. 

Also in dispute is how much money customers should pay, and get back, for recycling bottles and cans. Rep. Carol McEntee’s bottle bill, and companion legislation in the Senate by Sen. Bridget Valverde, set the fee at 10 cents per bottle, can or nip. Rep. David Bennett’s nips-only legislation included a 25-cent deposit and refund, while Sen. Josh Miller’s bill called for a 50-cent charge and refund in his version of the nips bill.

The study commission aims to tackle these and other questions, bringing together representatives from various state agencies, environment and clean water advocates and business leaders from the five state associations for food, beverage and alcohol retailers and distributors. 

Rep. McEntee, who will head up the study panel, did not return multiple calls for comment. But others were optimistic that hashing out the details of a complex policy issue would help lead to a legislative win, 

“There has to be a conclusion,” said Rep. Lauren Carson, a Newport Democrat and second vice chair of the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. “We can’t keep hearing this bill year after year.” 

While Carson plans to keep tabs on the bottle recycling panel’s work, she also has a packed agenda of her own having sponsored resolutions for two more study commissions slated to begin work this fall.

First up: regulating short-term rentals. The 15-member House panel will tackle questions born out of the explosion of Airbnb and VRBO across Rhode Island, particularly in tourism-dependent communities like Newport. Among its tasks: reconciling the various municipal policies with state enforcement (including a state registry created last year to help law enforcement keep tabs on who’s operating these vacation homes). Also high on the agenda, for Carson especially, is taxes.

Airbnb and other short-term rentals require guests to pay the standard state sales tax plus a 1% local hotel tax, but are exempt from the state’s 5% hotel tax. Lawmakers have attempted to reconcile this perceived inequity through a flurry of bills, including one proposed by Carson that would add a 2% “impact fee” to cities and towns that host the rentals.

Short-term rental owners railed against the bill, but Carson still thinks it’s a good idea, describing criticism as “largely misunderstood.”

“The response to the taxation bills was a little over the top,” she said. “The customer is paying this, not the property owner.”

By the time the 15-member panel submits its recommendations next March, Carson hopes to have achieved consensus around legislation that, at the very least, “resolves the taxation stuff.”

But not every panel will end in legislation, nor do lawmakers want that.

Carson’s other study commission, which will consider how to streamline and improve state services for older adults, may conclude with non-legislative solutions, she said. 

Similarly, Rep. Megan Cotter, an Exeter Democrat, isn’t counting on a bill to come out of the panel examining how to prevent or manage forest fires in Rhode Island. Spurred by an April wildfire fire that scorched 400 acres of forest in Exeter and forced local residents to evacuate their homes, Cotter proposed the House study commission as a way to prepare for what she believes will be similar, and more frequent, fires due to climate change.

“We were so fortunate,” she said of the Exeter fire, which she said could have been a lot worse. “Why would we wait for us to not be fortunate.”

To Cotter, a key part of proactive planning is funding for the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, which helps local fire departments with wildland fires. Which is why her goal is not necessarily legislation, but funding in the state’s fiscal 2025 budget for DEM’s forest fire program.

Boylan also isn’t banking on legislation or budget funding as end results for the school lockdown drill study group.  She views the study commission in the most literal sense, as a way for educators, first responders, students and mental health clinicians to study how these seemingly necessary drills can be less emotionally taxing for participants. 

Also on Boylan’s mind: whether they are necessary at all. Ten states, including neighboring Massachusetts, don’t require individual schools to have lockdown drills, according to information from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. And critics point to the lack of definitive research affirming their effectiveness. 

Comparisons with other states is a unifying thread among many of these legislative panels, past and present. Topics with concrete data or case studies generally make for more productive study commissions, said McKenney.

“If there are issues that are purely political, then sending it to a study commission might seem like avoiding action,” he said. “It’s when there is evidence or scientific data, that seems ripe for a study commission.” 

Scientific data, like, for instance, what’s causing the decline in quahogs in Narragansett Bay. A joint House and Senate study commission based on resolutions sponsored by McKenney and Rep. Joe Solomon, a Warwick Democrat, will bring together fishermen and environmental experts to consider it. 

The obvious answer is to chalk up the decline to climate change, but it’s more complicated than that. Indeed, prior meetings with state environmental experts and fishermen revealed disagreement over how much warming water is truly to blame. Some say better wastewater management has made the bay too clean, depleting water of nitrogen required for phytoplankton – quahogs’ food source – to grow. 

The 13-member panel will consider how each of these factors, along with oxygen deficiency and changing aquatic life, might affect the abundance of quahogs, and propose recommended solutions, if there are any. 

“The bay is so complex, we don’t want to introduce legislation haphazardly without knowing what the potential consequences and side effects are,” Solomon said. 

Whether any of the newly created panels result in legislation in the 2024 session depends when they finish. With most of the commissions slated to begin work in earnest this fall, some aren’t mandated to make recommendations to lawmakers until April or May of 2024, which could be too late into the session for a bill to pass. 

That won’t be a worry for at least one Senate panel, which got an early start on its exploration of alternative methods to determine primary election winners when no one gets 50% of the vote. The enabling resolution from Sen. Sam Zurier, a Providence Democrat, passed in January, giving the seven-member panel until Oct. 31 to submit its recommendations to the Senate. 

Zurier wasn’t ready to commit to any of the alternatives the commission considered – like ranked-choice voting – saying he wasn’t sure what the consensus was. But he was optimistic that, if nothing else, the consideration has helped both lawmakers and the public understand the options available. 

Indeed, when Zurier’s 2021 proposal to use ranked-choice voting in State House primary races showed how little most people understood the alternative ballot counting method – himself included. 

Zurier recalled a hearing on his bill in which a fellow senator pointed out a miscalculation that Zurier made in an example used to explain his proposal. 

“He understood it better than I did,” he said. 

Which, to Zurier, makes the case for the study commission. 

“What I have learned in my short time in the legislature is that, in addition to having a good idea, it often becomes a better idea with input from a lot of people,” he said. “You can try to do it through the legislative process, but it’s very constricted.” 

Nancy Lavin is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.

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