PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The three most powerful figures at the R.I. State House began laying out their priorities for 2023 on Tuesday, with education and housing at the top of their agendas.

Gov. Dan McKee, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio — all Democrats — used the speeches they made after their respective swearings-in to lay down markers for what they will prioritize in legislative jockeying over the coming months.

McKee used much of his inaugural speech to tout what he accomplished during his first two years in office and to call for unity among Rhode Islanders. But he also reiterated a bold pledge on K-12 education that he also made on election night.

“We must be all-in on improving education because that is the key to the long-term economic future of our state,” the governor said in his prepared remarks, setting a goal of “raising education outcomes for our children to reach Massachusetts levels by 2030.”

Ruggerio also got specific on the issue of K-12 schools, making clear that he and his new majority leader, Cumberland Democrat Ryan Pearson, are going to push for big changes to the decade-old funding formula that allocates state aid to school districts. Pearson headed a task force that unveiled a list of recommendations in early 2020, but the findings were quickly overshadowed by public school challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We will undertake a much-needed review of our education funding formula to ensure resources are being distributed equitably and effectively,” Ruggerio said.

However, Shekarchi has expressed reservations about tackling the complex funding formula during this year’s legislative session, despite agreeing on the importance of public education.

“We also need to make sure that the next generation of our workforce is trained and ready – we must ensure that all of our students are able to achieve greatness and are prepared for success,” he said.

In his own prepared remarks, Shekarchi emphasized his top policy priority as speaker: housing.

“We have made progress in tackling Rhode Island’s housing crisis,” the speaker said. “However, we need to do much more.”

“Our lack of affordable housing has been exposed in recent months,” he said. “There can be no doubt we have a housing crisis and a homelessness crisis. As long as there are people without safe and permanent housing, our work is not done.”

Shekarchi said he is awaiting recommendations from two legislative commissions — one on low- and moderate-income housing, and another on how the state legislates land use — so the House can “aggressively and creatively tackle this critical issue.”

“In order to find solutions to our housing crisis, we need to bring all parties to the table, including cities and towns,” he said. “As our commissions have already heard, some of the barriers to housing production must be addressed at the local level.”

The speaker’s remarks came after he and Ruggerio recently expressed some frustration with the state’s first-ever housing secretary, Josh Saal, who just missed a deadline for a key report soon after publicly struggling to find enough shelter beds for homeless individuals camped out at the State House.

“While we have built and funded a solid framework over the past two years, now we must ensure that the directives we have set forth are executed swiftly and efficiently,” Shekarchi said.

McKee made no mention of housing in his speech, listing his two top priorities beyond education as “raising incomes in all 39 cities and towns” and “creating a healthier Rhode Island where we reduce chronic illness and improve health outcomes.”

Ruggerio nodded to the housing issue, though, saying the Senate wants “to ensure all Rhode Islanders have access to safe and affordable housing.”

While McKee is expected to lay out more of his agenda when he gives his State of the State address on Jan. 17, the two legislative leaders took the opportunity Tuesday to tick off a number of other issues they expect the Democratic-dominated legislature plans to tackle over the coming months.

Shekarchi indicated the House plans to closely monitor how the McKee administration spends over $1 billion in federal relief funds that were allocated last year due to his chamber’s lead role in the annual budget process.

“We have allocated unprecedented investments in housing, health care, and human services,” Shekarchi said. “We must ensure these dollars are deployed effectively, expeditiously, and prudently. We must be steadfast in ensuring that the legislation and funding we have all worked so diligently to craft is implemented.”

He also expressed concern about the economic outlook, warning the state has “another real and impending storm on the horizon: the recession of 2023.”

Expanding Rhode Island’s life-sciences sector and reducing reliance on fossil fuels were also cited as crucial in Shekarchi’s eyes.

Ruggerio cited additional education initiatives beyond revamping the funding formula as priorities for Senate leadership, such as expanding mental-health resources and moving toward universal pre-K for all students. He also said he wants Rhode Island to replace all lead pipes.

Additionally, the Senate president suggested shaking up the structure of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the umbrella agency for a host of key state departments like the Department of Human Services, the Department of Children, Youth and Families and the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Development Disabilities and Hospitals. A commission recently recommended a new governance model there.

Ruggerio — who is the Assembly’s longest-serving member, first elected in 1980 — closed his remarks with a memorable quip directed at the seven new senators taking their oaths of office for the first time.

“To my new colleagues: today is the best that it gets,” he said. “Today, we get sworn in. Tomorrow, we get sworn at.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook