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The Providence Journal

Should RI legislation be looked at through an 'equity lens'? These bills would make it law.

By Katherine Gregg, The Providence Journal,


PROVIDENCE – A plea to state lawmakers to look at every piece of legislation through an "equity lens" began with a song that became this lament:

"I am Black. I am a voter. I am a taxpayer with talent and thoughts and unique perspectives ... Yet somehow a few voices decide for all ... Entire races, the poor, queer and trans folk, veterans without homes, so many are silenced, ignored."

"We are all human, not contraband to be seized and appeased with hollow [slogans] at your campaign speeches, like 'I stand for equity' or 'I don't see color'."

"Do you see ... the Black, Brown and Red history being whited-out in classrooms and libraries or the blue beating the black over and over and over again?"

The singer/speaker was Alisha Pina, a former Providence Journal reporter-turned-activist/consultant who led off the Zoom news conference held Tuesday by backers of bills introduced in the House and Senate to require that every state agency produce a "racial impact assessment" on request, on every bill, including the state budget.

More: Should Rhode Island have a full-time legislature? We asked and here's what lawmakers said.

What's in the bills?

The bills differ in some respects. But their aim is reflected in the preambles to H 5736 and S 636.

The "Equity Impact Statement Act" introduced by Rep. Rebecca Kislak, D-Providence, and others begins : "Persistent, widespread and unacceptable disparities exist in Rhode Island for individuals and families as a result of structural inequities and past discrimination."

The "Racial Impact Assessment Act" introduced by Sen. Tiara Mack, D-Providence and others begins: "The General Assembly recognizes that criminal justice policies adopted by state legislation [have] disproportionally impacted communities of color across our country and within the state of Rhode Island ... [And] this disproportional impact has ... increased rates of incarceration, increased public health risk and increased involvement with state agencies."

Both bills suggest Rhode Island take a cue from Connecticut and Massachusetts, which "began implementing racial impact statements to address racial disparities in their criminal justice systems" more than a decade ago, and then go the next step by looking at the "disproportionate impact on historically disadvantaged populations prior to enacting [any] new legislation."

The House bill is scheduled for a hearing by the House Committee State Government & Elections Committee on Friday.

More: A new assault weapon ban will be introduced this session. Will it finally pass?

Group releases equity review of McKee's budget

To bolster the case for the legislation, the coalition backing the legislation went public with a report compiled by the Economic Progress Institute of Rhode Island titled " An Equity Review of the Proposed FY2024 Rhode Island State Budget ."

Among the findings: In 2013, Rhode Island was one of the first states in the nation to provide paid leave to workers to care for a seriously ill family member or to bond with a new child, through a "Temporary Caregiver Insurance (TCI)" program, financed entirely by employees.

Under current rules, the program provides 60% wage replacement - up to certain limits - for up to six weeks every two years. But "Rhode Island state employees remain unable to access TCI" and many low wage workers – "who are disproportionately women and people of color" – cannot take advantage of the benefit because they cannot live on 60% of what is barely a sustenance wage.

Looked at through an equity lens, the report released Tuesday suggests raising the wage replacement rate for lower-income workers, "ideally to the level of their regular paychecks," extending the paid time off from six weeks now to 12 weeks, and "shifting some of the burden" of the employee funded insurance program to employers.

The group backing the "Equity Impact Campaign" includes the ACLU of RI, the Black Lives Matter RI PAC, the Center for Southeast Asians, Common Cause RI, Rhode Island Kids Count, the Rhode Island Black Business Association, United Way, the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness and the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty, among others.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Should RI legislation be looked at through an 'equity lens'? These bills would make it law.

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