By Katherine Gregg
Published September 25th 2007 in The Providence Journal
PROVIDENCE — With legislative leaders signaling the likelihood of a one-day, special session in October, banner-carrying advocates gathered outside the State House yesterday to chant their pleas for lawmakers to override Governor Carcieri’s “irresponsible” vetoes of a platter full of bills, including last session’s high-profile bills to ban mandatory overtime for nurses, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and allow 16- and 17-year-olds to “pre-register” to vote.
And their wish-list went on, as they chanted “Override for workers rights … Override for civil rights … So the governor doesn’t have the last word.”
In response, Carcieri’s press secretary Jeff Neal said: “Governor Carcieri outlined very specific and legitimate policy reasons for vetoing each one of the bills mentioned at today’s press conference.”
“Rhode Islanders and, in particular, liberal activist groups are free to disagree with the governor on matters of policy,” he said. “Likewise the General Assembly has the right to attempt to override any veto issued by the governor.”
Both House Speaker William J. Murphy and Senate President Joseph A. Montalbano have stated their intent to bring the lawmakers back for one day next month. As of yesterday, however, they had not yet set a date or laid out an agenda, feeding speculation among the more seasoned lobbyists at yesterday’s demonstration that the lawmakers are waiting for Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank Williams to go public with his choice for the new $132,062-a-year position of chief magistrate at the state Traffic Tribunal.
House spokesman Larry Berman said he had not heard that rumor before, but after checking with Montalbano, Senate spokesman Peter Capineri said the Senate is not averse to the idea.
“If we are in possession of the nomination, there is no reason why we wouldn’t take it up before the next session,” he said. The candidates include William R. Guglietta, 46, of Cranston, chief legal counsel to House Majority Leader Gordon D. Fox, D-Providence; Special Assistant Attorney General Kelly A. McElroy, 35, of Warwick; Bruce W. McIntyre, 54, of Jamestown, deputy legal counsel in the state Health Department; Gail M. Valuk, 42, of Richmond, a lawyer and deputy state court administrator and lawyer William J. Vescera, 46, of Woonsocket. A Williams spokesman said the announcement should be soon, possibly by the end of this week.
But yesterday the attention was on a handful of the 52 bills Carcieri vetoed just before or just after the 2007 session wrapped up, including one to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions that was atop the legislative agenda for some minority legislators and the community group Direct Action for Rights and Equality.
The lawmakers voiced hope it would ease overcrowding at the state prison and give judges discretion to sentence offenders to drug treatment, rather than prison time. But Carcieri, in his veto message, said state law already gives judges so much discretion the minimums “exist more in theory than reality.”
The state police opposed the bill because, in addition to eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, it would have substantially shortened the maximum sentences for serious drug offenses. Carcieri wrote that he shared those concerns.
But yesterday, a tearful Sheila Wilhelm, stepped up to the makeshift podium to give her perspective on this vestige of the Reagan-era war on drugs and the “classist, racist” court system that denied bail to her then 18-year-old, Richaud, and then sentenced him to 10 years in jail, with 3 to serve for cocaine possession.
“Lock ’em up and throw away the key,” she lamented. “There was no plan and no talk of rehabilitation, no talk of education, or treatment or building the changing of life. Just getting rid of populations of people.”
“We’re coming from a whole community where we’re losing our sons, we’re losing our brothers, and we’re losing our men,” she said. “My son didn’t need 10 years in jail. My son needed 10 years’ worth of education.”
Also front and center yesterday was Carcieri’s veto of a bill banning forced overtime for nurses that Linda McDonald, regional president of United Nurses and Allied Professionals — the union that represents nurses at Memorial and several other hospitals — called a health and safety issue for patients.
In his veto message, Carcieri said forced overtime is something that “should be negotiated through the collective bargaining process.” McDonald called the veto a “travesty” that puts patients, in the hands of over-tired nurses, at risk.
Yesterday’s demonstrators also called for the override of Carcieri’s veto of bills to allow teens to pre-register to vote, apply affirmative-action laws to the governor’s appointments to boards and commissions, and extend pension benefits to domestic partners who have resided together for one year and are financially interdependent.
Of the latter bill, he wrote, “I believe the public is now demanding that their state leaders be ever more vigilant in protecting their tax dollars from unwarranted and unnecessary expansions of state employee benefits.” Jenn Steinfeld, executive director of Marriage Equality, urged lawmakers to take the opportunity to distance themselves from the governor’s “hateful rhetoric.”