Rhode Island General Assembly adjourns for 2014; votes cast on graduation requirements, casino

Rhode Island's General Assembly adjourned for the year early Saturday after pushing through legislation outlining a plan to expand gambling in Newport and scores of other bills, including one suspending the use of standardized tests as a graduation requirement.

The Senate adjourned at 3:36 a.m., and Speaker Nicholas Mattiello sounded the final gavel in the House at 4:06 a.m. With that, the curtain came down on a six-month session that featured an abrupt House leadership change and — once again — a high-profile debate over whether the state should honor the debt related to ex-Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling's defunct 38 Studios.

Legislation related to a proposed $40 million overhaul of Newport Grand held up adjournment for hours. But lawmakers eventually approved a hastily crafted measure that outlined increased payments to the city of Newport from the state — $1.5 million annually for the first six years, guaranteed — if table games are authorized by voters.

Final passage came on many other measures. One would place a moratorium the New England Common Assessment Program, or any standardized test, as a diploma requirement until 2017. Mattiello had earlier been opposed.

Lawmakers also endorsed a measure requiring state courts to submit records to the national criminal background check system used to screen gun purchases. Limited information would be provided only on those who are involuntarily committed for mental health treatment and are deemed a danger, not those who seek treatment on their own.

On a lighter front, calamari won the endorsement as the official state appetizer. The measure died in the Senate last year.

Bills approved by the General Assembly go to the governor for his signature.

The session is likely to be most remembered not for any legislative achievement but rather the resignation of House Speaker Gordon Fox. The Providence Democrat relinquished his leadership post in March, a day after authorities raided his Statehouse office and home as part of a criminal investigation about which little is still known.

Mattiello, Fox's majority leader, was elected the following week in a lopsided vote, promising a "pro-business" agenda focusing on jobs and the economy. The shake-up served as a mid-session reset, with a shuffling of committee chairs just as lawmakers headed into the critical budget-writing time.

The speaker said the session's highlight was passage of the fiscal year 2015 spending plan, which included two of his top priorities: a reduction of the corporate tax rate from 9 percent to 7 percent and an increase in the estate tax exemption to $1.5 million.

The budget creates a fund for transportation infrastructure projects. While the Sakonnet toll was eliminated, the gas tax and some fees will go up to raise revenue.

"I think we had a great session. We passed a bold budget," Mattiello told members before adjournment. "We're moving the state in the right direction."

The spending plan also includes $12.3 million for the next 38 Studios bond payment. But there remains a split among members who want the House Oversight panel — or an independent counsel or commission — to probe the deal, which gave Schilling's video game company a $75 million state-backed loan.

In voting Friday to eliminate the NECAP, critics called the test unreliable in measuring student achievement and said it disproportionately disadvantages students who are poor, have special needs and learning English as a second language. Education Chairman Joseph McNamara called a system that allows superintendents to grant waivers inconsistent and discriminatory.

Education Commissioner Deborah Gist expressed disappointment and said she'd continue to work with districts to prepare successful students.

In other action, lawmakers voted to:

— Raise the minimum wage from $8 to $9 an hour beginning next year;

— Eliminate on state ballots the so-called master lever, which allows voters to select all the candidates of the same party with one ballot mark;

— Boost the pensions of Central Falls retirees who saw them cut — some by 55 percent — during municipal bankruptcy proceedings;

— Create a commission to study the possible redevelopment of the Superman building in downtown Providence.

A measure to restore ethics commission oversight over lawmakers died. Good-government groups had called it watered down and urged members to start over.