As pandemic drags on, RI lawmakers to hold their first all-virtual hearing

Politics - Government

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Nearly six months after Rhode Island reported its first coronavirus case, state lawmakers are making their first leap into fully virtual legislative activity.

The Senate Finance Committee announced it will hold a virtual hearing on Tuesday at 4 p.m. to hear testimony on Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposed 2020-21 state budget, including various items related to borrowing and capital projects. (The budget is usually enacted in June, but passage has been postponed while state leaders wait and see if Congress sends more federal relief aid.)

While House and Senate committees have held multiple hearings in recent months where some members or witnesses participated virtually, the Senate Finance hearing will be the first time either chamber holds an entirely remote meeting. It comes after committee hearings were cancelled for the last two weeks due to a small number of COVID-19 cases among legislative staffers.

Both Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello have been resistant toward implementing virtual legislating, but Senate spokesperson Greg Paré said it’s acceptable for Tuesday’s hearing because no votes will be taken.

So far the House has not held any all-virtual hearings, House spokesperson Larry Berman said.

“Most of our committee hearings have included people – department heads, etc — testifying remotely, but not members,” Berman said in an email. “We have made accommodations for members of the public to call in and talk to committee members to offer testimony as well.”

The two leaders’ preference for the Assembly to continue gathering in person during the pandemic has been an ongoing source of controversy. John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said legislatures in other states with similar constitutional language as Rhode Island have been quicker to move their activities online.

“Five months since the lockdown and the Rhode Island Senate is only now recognizing that fully remote committee meetings are possible,” Marion said in an email. “They owe the people of Rhode Island an explanation for why they believe committees cannot conduct votes remotely where there is clearly no constitutional restriction on such behavior.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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