State senators Monday voted to guarantee firefighters tax-free disability pensions if they get cancer and make it more difficult to revoke occupational licenses for criminal convictions.
But Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said he does not support a move by the House of Representatives to send all Rhode Island voters mail ballot applications.
The firefighter pension bill would legally presume any cancer diagnosed in a firefighter or retired firefighter was caused by their work, entitling them to two-thirds of their pay in a lifetime tax-free pension. It passed 32 to 3.
The bill was inspired by a Supreme Court ruling last December in which the high court sided with the state’s argument that firefighters had to prove their cancers were caused by firefighting to get disability pensions.
The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns argued that the bill is one of “the most generous in the nation” and would make it impossible for municipalities to deny disability pensions to firefighters even if their cancers appeared to be caused by other risk factors.
State actuaries estimate that the change in the law will create one new disability pension across all municipalities every two years.
Sen. Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston, the bill’s sponsor, said there had been 11 cancer-related firefighter disability pension cases since 1986, of which six were approved.
“I think we have to say thank you to our firefighters who have been recognized for at least 35 years for all the poisons and toxins they face in their lives,” Lombardi said.
Sen. Jessica De La Cruz, R-North Smithfield, tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to end disability pensions for cancer survivors who make full recoveries and are able to return to work.
The occupational licensing bill, introduced by Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, would prohibit state licensing authorities from revoking or suspending licenses for prior convictions, unless those convictions “relate to the occupation to which the license applies.”
It passed unanimously and the House is expected to vote on it Thursday along with the firefighter bill.
The Senate also confirmed Louis DeSimone to the state Board of Elections.
DeSimone, a former lawyer for then-secretary of state Ralph Mollis, replaces Board of Elections vice chairman Stephen Erickson.
Sen. Sam Bell, D-Providence, said he was concerned Erickson was being replaced in retaliation for referring House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s former campaign operative Jeff Britt to the attorney general for prosecution.
Bell was one of six senators who voted against DeSimone’s confirmation.
The Senate also passed a bill that will allow the state to condemn land in state airport runway approaches where there are obstacles to airplane takeoffs and landings.
On Monday afternoon, the House introduced a new version of an elections bill that would make the secretary of state send all voters mail ballot applications for the upcoming primary and general elections.
Mailing every voter a mail ballot application for both the September primary and November general election was supported by Common Cause Rhode Island as a way to encourage voting while preventing the spread of COVID-19.
But Ruggerio said he opposes moving to a predominantly mail ballot election because of the cost and problems the state had conducting the June presidential primary.
“It did not work well last time when we had a presidential preference primary — low voter turnout, results came in later,” Ruggerio told The Journal. “If people want a ballot, they know how to apply for it. If they want to go to their city or town hall they can do that and it goes straight into the machine and goes straight to the Board of Elections.”
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