PROVIDENCE – The pomp and circumstance of the opening of the General Assembly has faded away and now lawmakers are settling into the routine of legislating.
Two of the hot-button social issues expected to be near the top of the legislative agenda this session – gay marriage and illegal immigration – are already percolating in the Assembly’s first week. Woonsocket Rep. Jon Brien is playing a lead role in both.
Brien told The Times he plans to introduce legislation calling for a statewide referendum on whether marriage in Rhode Island should be defined as a union of one man and one woman, a counterbalance to a measure introduced Thursday in both the House and Senate that would legalize same-sex unions.
The Woonsocket Democrat said Thursday he will also submit, for the fifth year in a row, a bill to require private employers in Rhode Island to use the federal E-Verify website to determine whether new hires are in the country legally and are eligible to work.
Brien is also signing on to two other bipartisan efforts regarding immigration co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Peter Palumbo of Cranston and Republican Rep. Joseph Trillo of Warwick. One would revive in legislative form the executive order on illegal immigration issued by then-Gov. Donald Carcieri in 2008 and revoked on Wednesday by Gov. Lincoln Chafee. The second would mimic a controversial Arizona law that allows law enforcement to detain individuals suspected of being in the country illegally and makes it a crime for immigrants to not carry immigration documents on their person at all times.
Palumbo introduced the Arizona-type legislation last year, but did so late in the session so it did not move far in the legislative process. This year, he said, “I’m putting it in in a timely manner. This year I am really excited about putting it in and getting a hearing, getting people up here to testify and hopefully we can get some movement on it.
Palumbo noted that Carcieri’s executive order did little but “codify existing law.” Pointing to the language of the order, Palumbo read: “nothing in this executive order shall be construed to supersede, contravene or conflict with any federal or state law or regulation.”
He said that by rescinding the order, Chafee is saying to law enforcement, “I don’t want you to enforce existing law.”
Trillo and Palumbo visited Arizona last year to discuss the law and immigration issues with government and law enforcement officials there. Both lawmakers acknowledged that the two immigration bills would have to garner enough support to overcome a likely veto by the governor.
Brien said several of his colleagues have come to him this year saying they had heard about E-Verify from constituents while campaigning door-to-door, “they have been asking me if I am going to put it in this year and can they sign it” as co-sponsors.
“There is more support for E-Verify in this chamber than ever before,” he said.
Brien’s E-Verify has passed the House in each of the past three years only to have identical legislation in the Senate introduced by fellow Woonsocket lawmaker Sen. Marc Cote die without even getting a hearing. Cote managed to use the Senate rules to get his bill brought up on the floor last year, only to see it killed by a parliamentary maneuver engineered by Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, who opposes the measure, and then-Majority Leader Dan Connors of Cumberland.
On the marriage referendum Brien said, “This year, obviously, there seems to be a full-court press on for gay marriage and now there is going to be a full court press to bring this to the people of Rhode Island.
Quoting figures from a poll conducted for the National Organization for Marriage-RI, Brien said 80 percent of Rhode Islanders want a chance to vote on the marriage issue. Same-sex marriage proponents say this is a civil rights issue and as such shouldn’t be put to a popular vote.
In response to that, Brien said, “I don’t think there is any greater civil right than the right to vote.”
“This is about the redefinition of marriage,” Brien said, “and not only that, but the redefinition of what it means to be a husband, a wife, a father, a mother. This is about putting on its head the idea of a social structure in this state and I don’t think it is a question that should be decided by 113 people (75 representatives and 38 senators) in a state of one million.
He said the rallying cry when the issue of a casino came to a vote in Rhode Island was “let the people decide” and that should be the rallying cry on the marriage issue as well.
Cranston Rep. Arthur Handy, who on Thursday introduced a bill to legalize same-sex marriage for the ninth year in a row, said, “I feel this is a right everyone should have. I feel the time is right for it. I really, really feel strongly about that. Our neighboring states have done it and I think more and more Rhode Islanders realize that their neighbors deserve the same rights and responsibilities that my wife and I have.”
Handy said he is “confident” that this is the year his bill could win passage. “With a supportive governor, I think House members are ready and I think the Senate is ready too. I’m not going to say it is going to be easy over there.”
Asked about Brien’s referendum bill, Handy said he is “frustrated by it. Equality of civil right is guaranteed by the constitution. The legislature has the responsibility to ensure that people have access to those civil rights.
He noted that there was an election in November, “and people voted for many, many marriage equality supporters.”
Sen. Rhoda Perry, who introduced a marriage bill in the Senate identical to Handy’s said, “Our state must stop institutionalizing discrimination. Marriage guarantees dozens of legal rights and protections, and all loving Rhode Islanders, regardless of their orientation, deserve the opportunity to have them.”