With the state's economic stakes raised so high, Dawson Hodgson is not exactly getting a leisurely-paced orientation into the ways and mores of the R.I. General Assembly this year.
“I picked a heck of a year to go into the Senate,” Hodgson, (D-Dist. 35, North Kingstown, East Greenwich), said jokingly after holding a constituent forum at Town Hall Monday afternoon.
The North Kingstown Republican, elected in November to the seat vacated by longtime Democratic incumbent J. Michael Lenihan, has found himself in the middle of a heavy legislative season.
While membership on the Senate Judiciary Committee and roles in the hot-button debates over same-sex marriage and sentencing of violent criminals have raised his profile, the state budget crisis has been foremost in the minds of the constituents he has met in both towns.
The viability of a future in Rhode Island, Hodgson said, is at stake for a number of residents with the debate over Gov. Lincoln Chafee's proposed budget, which calls for a number of sales tax increases.
“I've actually had some reasonable members of the community tell me this is the last straw, that they are prepared to pack up and leave Rhode Island,” Hodgson said.
“With the economic impact of additional taxes, I'm worried about slowing or stopping our economic recovery,” he said.
Hodgson, a former state prosecutor, campaigned on a platform of attacking state deficits and cleaning up government last fall as he claimed victory over former East Greenwich Town Councilman Dr. Mark Schweiger, the Democratic nominee, in November.
Last week, Hodgson submitted a bill in response to the possible upcoming release of convicted child killer Michael Woodmansee, who has served 28 years of a 40-year sentence and has accumulated enough good behavior time to win release this year.
The senator is proposing a moratorium on the accumulation of good time credit, at one day for every three days of good behavior for violent offenders imprisoned on long-term sentences.
“It would effectively prevent Woodmansee from gaining his release until the psychiatric study (by two independent doctors to determine if he should be held for treatment after his prison release) can be completed. With ten days being taken away each month, that's an extra 40 days to complete the study,” Hodgson said.
The bill faces two obstacles: its late submission, requiring special permission from Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport) for consideration, and competing legislation supported by Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.
“I have no reason to believe (Paiva-Weed) won't allow it to be heard,” said Hodgson, adding his disappointed with the Kilmartin-backed bill addressing the Woodmansee release.
“I was waiting for the attorney general to take the lead on this, but this is rushed legislation, which doesn't do justice to review of the good time laws,” he said.
Hodgson added that his bill is not intended as ex post facto legislation intended solely to keep Woodmansee behind bars.
“As much as a lot of people would like to do that, it's not possible,” he said.
Same-sex marriage has also kept Hodgson busy. While both the House and Senate judiciary panels have held hearings on the issue, he has also that would allow domestic unions.
“They can be entered into by any two qualified parties. I don't like to call them civil unions because it implies separate but not equal,” he said.
His bill is one of five same-sex marriage-related bills under consideration by Senate Judiciary, even though he conceded much of the debate involved the two bills that would either legalize SSM or propose a state constitutional referendum that would explicitly ban it. He said he wouldn't take a position on either of those bills, with his own still in committee.
“I don't if there's going to be a vote in the Senate,” Hodgson said, as most observers wait for the House panel to take action first.
“I think it's a result of effective lobbying and testimony on both sides,” he said of the hard-fought SSM debate.
“No one elected me to comment on what marriage is or isn't. They elected me to guarantee equal protection