I hope you are enjoying this Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start to the summer season in Rhode Island. This week’s letter discusses smoking in casinos, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority and the upcoming meeting of the non-plurality voting systems commission.
A. Smoking In Casinos
In 2004, the General Assembly enacted a general indoor smoking ban that exempted gambling facilities. During the pandemic, the State extended the smoking ban to casinos, which created outdoor smoking areas. Last year, indoor smoking at casinos returned. Towards the end of last year’s legislative session, a group of casino employees advocated for the return of the smoking ban, based among other things upon the impact of second-hand smoke on their health, and the inability of ventilation systems to mitigate this risk. The legislation did not move forward last year, but the proponents returned to the Finance Committee Thursday night to express support for Senate Bill S-438, which would restore the indoor smoking ban. .
The casino operators opposed the legislation, estimating that an indoor smoking ban could reduce revenues by 10%-15% of the State’s current annual revenues of approximately $600 million. Proponents questioned the financial projections, noting that (1) casino patrons who smoke could still do so outdoors (as they had during the pandemic), (2) the proportion of smokers in the United States is steadily declining and (3) because casinos in Massachusetts and Connecticut already ban smoking, it is not clear where smoking patrons would go instead. (though it is possible that the smokers from these other states currently go to Rhode Island). We did not have any clear data concerning the budgetary impact of a smoking ban in Rhode Island’s casinos, but I decided to co-sponsor S-438, because the health benefits from a ban are clear.
B. The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority
The Senate Finance Committee reviewed two bills to revise the management and governance of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA). Bill S-773 would establish procurement procedures, while Bill S-991 Sub A would elevate the Director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) from non-voting board member to Board Chair. Proponents argued that these bills could establish needed guardrails to better coordinate the relationships between the RIPTA Director and the Board on the one hand, and among Board members on the other. Opponents questioned RIDOT’s commitment to public transportation, and urged the Senate to address a higher RIPTA priority, namely its need for greater funding.
At the hearing, I inquired about RIPTA’s current governance structure as a quasi-public corporation. As I read the enabling statute, RIPTA’s board already has the authority to adopt resolutions to establish policies and procedures, so it is my hope they will make better use of that authority in the future. I agree with Thursday night’s witnesses that RIPTA needs additional State resources, as it is an essential part of our State’s economic well-being and environmental future. As a result, I will continue my commitment to support legislative oversight of RIDOT especially with regard to its responsibilities to implement the State’s Transit Master Plan and Act on Climate.
C. The Non-Plurality Voting Systems Commission
The Senate commission to study non-plurality voting systems will hold its last meeting of this legislative session on Wednesday, May 31 at 2:00 p.m. in the Senate Lounge. The Commission will receive public comment, which you can offer either in person or in writing by sending your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org . You can learn about the Commission’s work in my letters of March 5, March 26, and May 14. You also can review the Commission’s documents and view the Commission hearings. After hearing public comment, the Commissioners will exchange their conclusions from the hearings. Over the summer, Commission staff will prepare a draft report. This fall, the Commission will reconvene to review a draft report with the goal of preparing and approving a final report to submit to the Senate at the beginning of next year.