Steps Forward: A 2021 legislative wrap-up
by Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy, and Jed Thorp, advocacy coordinator
The Rhode Island 2021 legislative session—like so many things of late—looked and operated a bit differently than usual. Save The Bay staff are accustomed to trekking to Smith Street to offer verbal and in-person testimony, speak with bill sponsors, and interface with elected officials; but, this year, our policy team members learned new virtual processes and kept up with a fast-paced session by submitting testimony by phone and in writing.
Despite all the changes in the format of this year’s session, we’re pleased to share that the environmental community saw many steps forward, from addressing climate change to reducing plastic pollution in the Bay.
We’ll have many more steps to take in September, including securing funding for our top legislative priority, but for now, we’re celebrating the progress made so far.
Save The Bay’s top priority this year was the passage of the Ocean State Climate Adaptation & Resilience Fund (OSCAR). The legislation is designed to help cities, towns and the state implement projects to help Narragansett Bay and communities throughout the watershed adapt to rising seas, increased erosion, and flooding that threaten ecological health and public safety. The news on OSCAR is mixed. The Assembly passed OSCAR, but with one important omission: a dedicated source of revenue.
Save The Bay is pleased that the Assembly established OSCAR in policy, and disappointed that the revenue stream was cut. However, we will continue to work with Rep. Vella-Wilkinson and Sen. Pearson to continue the battle for funding when the Assembly re-convenes in a special session this fall. Stay tuned for updates and action alerts!
CRMC Study Commission
The House passed resolution “creating a special commission to study the effects and procedures for the reorganization of the Coastal Resources Management Council.” The Senate, which has passed a similar resolution in 2018 but has not convened its CRMC study commission, is expected to begin its work later this year. Both resolutions name Save The Bay as a commission member.
Save The Bay’s shoreline cleanup volunteers remove thousands of pieces of marine debris Rhode Island’s coast every year, with much of that debris being made of plastic. Several bills have been introduced in recent years aimed at reducing some of the most pervasive and problematic items routinely removed from the shore. Two of those bills – dealing with single-use straws and balloons, respectively – passed this year, while others dealing with single-use plastic bags, beverage containers and food service containers did not. We remain hopeful that those that did not pass will become law next year.
Single-Use Plastic Straws
H 5131 Sub A (Rep. David Bennett) / S 155 Sub A (Sen. Michael McCaffrey)
Known as the “ask first” straw bill, this legislation prohibits food service establishments from providing a single-use plastic straw to consumers unless requested by the consumer.
H 5376 Sub A, as amended (Rep. Sue Donovan) / S 38 Sub A, as amended (Sen. Sue Sosnowski)
Recognizing the danger that balloons and balloon strings pose to wildlife and marine animals, this legislation prohibits the intentional release of lighter-than-air balloons into the environment.
Shoreline Access Study Commission
H 5469 SUB A (Rep. Terri Cortvriend)
The issue of the public’s right to walk along and enjoy the shore has become a source of increasing conflict. People who exercise their constitutional right to walk along the shore are sometimes charged with criminal trespassing by shoreline property owners, despite the fact that “public” part of the beach is not clearly defined. This House resolution will create “a special legislative study commission to study and provide recommendations on the issues related to lateral access along the Rhode Island shoreline.”
Act on Climate
For several years, Save The Bay has been a part of a broad coalition of organizations pushing to make Rhode Island’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals mandatory and legally binding. The “Act on Climate” was arguably the biggest legislative win for Rhode Island’s environmental community this year, and puts the state on a path toward “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Many thanks to the Environment Council of R.I., Conservation Law Foundation, Audubon Society of R.I., Green Energy Consumers Alliance, and Climate Action R.I. for their leadership in getting this landmark legislation passed.
The Forest Conservation Act
The health of Narragansett Bay depends in part on the health of its upland forests, which serve as habitat for birds and wildlife, and help keep rivers and streams cool for freshwater and migrating fish. While Rhode Island has laws and regulations to protect wetlands, habitat and water quality, the state lacks similar protections for forests. The Forest Conservation Act will provide a framework for the conservation of forested lands. Kudos to Grow Smart R.I. for moving this important legislation forward.
Land Use Study Commission
H 5950 (Speaker Joe Shekarchi)
The House passed a resolution “creating a special legislative commission to study the entire area of land use, preservation, development, housing, environment and regulation.” Age-old conflicts around land use, development and environmental protection spurred the passage of this resolution. Save The Bay is named a member of the commission and will be bringing our many years of experience to the table, while advocating for environmental protections in any policy recommendations made by the commission.
While 2021 was one of the more productive legislative sessions Rhode Island has seen in years, several good bills that we supported did not pass. Among the list of missed opportunities was legislation to reduce waste from beverage containers, plastic bags and polystyrene food containers, as well as bills to keep harmful chemicals—like neonicotinoids (a type of pesticides) and PFAS (a group of common chemicals used in manufacturing that is increasingly present in our waterways)—out of our environment. We look forward to building upon our momentum this year to get these bills and others passed in 2022.