Rhode Island Legislative Session 2017: Free College Tuition Becomes Law … at Least for Community College

The Rhode Island General Assembly abruptly ended its 2017 legislation session on Friday evening, July 1, following a protracted disagreement between House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio related to the car tax. Eliminating the car tax was a high priority of Mattiello’s. But some lawmakers expressed concern that with revenues lagging by approximately $100 million, eliminating the car tax and funding a free college tuition plan could prove to be a big fiscal challenge. With that in mind, the Senate added an “escape clause” to the FY18 budget, which would kick in should the state find itself in a position without sufficient revenue as a result of eliminating the tax. Mattiello claimed he had not been told of the addition of the clause. Without a budget agreement in place, the speaker pulled the plug on the session, while the state limped along under a law that provides for the “availability of funds on failure of general assembly to pass an appropriation bill.”

The month-long stalemate ended on Aug. 4, when the House and Senate approved a $9.2 billion budget for FY18, which was subsequently signed by Gov. Gina Raimondo. Both branches agreed to take up a stand-alone bill will to address the car tax. The legislation mandates the Director of Revenue to produce annual reports to track revenues starting January of 2021.

At the top of Raimondo’s budget priorities was free college tuition for Rhode Island’s students at the state’s public colleges and the University of Rhode Island (URI). It was an ambitious plan considered by many in the Rhode Island General Assembly as too expensive, especially given the growing concern about declining state revenues. The final budget limits the free tuition to Rhode Island students enrolled at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI). The governor hopes to expand the plan in future budget cycles.

The budget also:

  • restores free bus passes for low-income and disabled residents
  • provides a 90-cent increase over two years in the minimum wage, which would rise to $10.10 in January 2018 and $10.50 in January 2019
  • increases funding for hospitals and nursing homes, which went against Raimondo’s request to cut the state Medicaid reimbursement rate to save $16.2 million
  • increases wages for home care and direct care worker.

The governor’s economic development package ended up as a glass half-full, with the General Assembly approving $19.1 million out of a proposed $36 million in economic development incentives. Lawmakers approved $8.1 million out of $10.1 million to advance development of I-195 land, $7.5 million out of $20 million for Rebuild Rhode Island tax credits and $500,000 out of $1.25 million for Main Street programs.

Lawmakers will return to work this month to take up a number of high-profile bills, including the following:

Sick Leave

SB 0290 An Act Relating to Labor and Labor Relations–Healthy and Safe Families and Workplaces Act

Requires all employers to provide their employees with a minimum level of 2 days paid sick and safe leave including time to care for the employee’s family members.

Protecting Families

HB 5510 An Act Relating to Courts and Civil Procedure—Domestic Assaults–Protect Rhode Island Families Act

Limits access to firearms when an individual is under certain types of domestic restraining orders or protective orders issued or renewed on or after July 1, 2017.

Legislation Passed, Signed Into Law

Human Trafficking

SB 0073 An Act Relating Criminal Offenses–Uniform Act on the Prevention of and Remedies for Human Trafficking

Would establish penalties and remedies for human trafficking and make human trafficking for purposes of sexual servitude, forced labor and commercial sexual activity felonies punishable by imprisonment and fines. This act would also establish a council on human trafficking for the prevention of such offenses and would establish programs to assist victims and make them eligible for compensation under the criminal injuries compensation act.

Accreditation, Distance Learning

SB554 An Act Relating to Education–Private Schools

Requires accreditation by a regional accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Dept. of Education for distance-learning institutions to transact business or grant degrees in Rhode Island.

College Crusade

S. 883 An Act Relating to Education—Rhode Island’s College Crusade for Higher Education

Establishes the Rhode Island College Crusade, a nonprofit organization registered with the secretary of state, as the entity that will administer and operate all program services and manage scholarship resources.

Children, Conversion Therapy

HB. 5277 An Act Relating to Health and Safety–Department of Health

Prohibits “conversion therapy” by licensed healthcare professionals with respect to children under age 18. Violations of this act would subject the healthcare professional to disciplinary action and/or suspension and revocation of the license by the director of the department of health.

Children With Disabilities

HB 6088 An Act Relating to Education–Children With Disabilities

Provides that benefits for students with disabilities will continue until the end of the public school calendar or semester, when the student turns 21 or when the student’s program ends in accordance with the student’s IEP, whichever occurs earlier.

Legislation That Failed

Non-Resident Tuition

HB 5237 An Act Relating to Education–Tuition Equity

Creates the “Student Equal Economic Opportunity Act,” which would identify those undocumented students who are exempt from paying non-resident tuition at public universities, colleges or community colleges. This act would take effect upon passage.

Tuition for Active Duty Military

SB 0422 An Act Relating to Education–Tuition for Active Duty Military

Grants in-state tuition status at state-operated schools to active-duty and reserve members stationed in Rhode Island.

K-12 Funding

The budget for FY18 increases local education aid by $46 million and an additional $2.5 million dedicated to schools with high numbers of English language learners. Also the budget provides $1.1 million in additional funding for early childhood programs.

Higher Education, Tuition, Fees

Rhode Island Promise Tuition Plan

Raimondo’s original plan was for two years of free college tuition adopted at all Rhode Island public colleges and the University of Rhode Island. The plan that was ultimately adopted by the General Assembly provides two years of free tuition at CCRI for students who graduate on time and keep a 2.5 grade point average. The plan also includes a provision that requires CCRI students to commit to living, working and/or studying for two years in Rhode Island after graduation.

In November 2016, the Rhode Island State Board of Education approved an approximately 7% increase in tuition and fees for in-state, full-time students at the state’s public colleges and URI, effective, July 1, 2017. Accordingly:

  • CCRI, rose from $4,266 to $4,564, an increase of $298.
  • Rhode Island College went from $8,206 to $8,776, up $570.
  • URI went from $12,884 to $13,792, up $908.
  • The Board also approved an increase in student aid, e.g. $5.1 million additional aid for URI.


Carolyn Morwick directs government and community relations at NEBHE and is former director of the Caucus of New England State Legislatures. Visit here for summaries of the legislative sessions in other New England states.


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