PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island lawmakers on Tuesday closed out their 2021 session by overriding two gubernatorial vetoes and passing a major spending bill, before beginning their work for 2022.
Members of the General Assembly gathered at the State House for their opening session, with various COVID-19 protocols in place for the second January in a row. In the House, Republicans protested Speaker Joe Shekarchi’s policy that unmasked lawmakers should sit in the gallery, and a handful were seen in their seats without masks.
On the Senate side, all 30 senators present for the proceedings appeared to be masked. In a letter to members, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said rapid antigen tests would be provided on the senators’ desks before each session.
“We strongly encourage you to take advantage of these tests for the sake of your colleagues and staff,” Ruggerio said. “Taking a rapid test prior to each session is a fast and effective way to protect the health of everyone in the chamber and to enable us to safely conduct the people’s business.”
Both the House and Senate met outside of the State House last year to allow for more physical distancing and ventilation than their chambers allow; the House met at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, while the Senate met at Rhode Island College. Both were back in their chambers on Tuesday.
Despite the start of the new year on the calendar, lawmakers technically opened their session still in the 2021 legislative year, allowing them to take up three measures left hanging from last year.
The first was a widely supported bill to spend $119 million of the federal money Rhode Island has received from the American Rescue Plan Act’s State Fiscal Recovery Fund. The measure passed the House 61-0 and the Senate 37-0, and the governor signed it immediately after the votes.
State Sen. Cynthia Mendes, D-East Providence, criticized legislative leaders for waiting so long to start spending ARPA money, calling it “overdue.” That drew pushback from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ryan Pearson, D-Cumberland, who argued they’d moved as quickly as possible and that Mendes had not been engaged in the process.
Modeled on a proposal that Gov. Dan McKee put forward last year, the ARPA spending bill allocates funds across three categories of programs: $45 million on business and tourism; $38.5 million on services for children; and $29.5 million on housing and broadband. The final version also adds an additional $6 million for child care.
The other two votes on legislation involved bills McKee vetoed last year: one to create a registry of short-term rentals, and another involving the perennial Smith Hill tug-of-war pitting lobbyists for the auto-body shops against those representing insurance companies over the laws around car repairs.
A three-fifths vote is required to override a veto, and as expected, Assembly leaders had the numbers they needed. The short-term rentals override passed the House 55-7 and the Senate 27-3, while the auto-body override passed the House 43-17 and the Senate 24-6.
There were no veto overrides during Gina Raimondo’s governorship. The most recent one was in 2012, when Lincoln Chafee was governor, of a bill involving sewers in Warwick.
After wrapping up those matters, the state’s 113 lawmakers turned to the official business of starting a new session. As is customary, Assembly leaders used the opening day of session to give short speeches recapping last year’s actions and laying out their agendas for the upcoming session.
“We did great work together last year under historic circumstances, rising to the occasion again and again,” Shekarchi said in his prepared remarks, adding that there is “much more to do.” Noting that 10 committees and commissions have met in the months since last year’s formal session ended, Shekarchi said, “There is no such thing as an ‘off-season’ anymore.”
Looking ahead, he said, “A good deal of our work, as was the case last year, will focus on the health and economic issues related to the pandemic, which still has us in its grip.” He also indicated that legislative leaders expect to release a draft bill “soon” to legalize recreational marijuana in Rhode Island, amid ongoing tension between the governor and the Senate over how to regulate the new market.
Ruggerio echoed Shekarchi in his own prepared remarks, saying, “I anticipate the General Assembly will legalize cannabis this session.”
Other priorities for 2022 laid out by Ruggerio included mandating that Rhode Island electricity is 100% renewable by the end of this decade; creating “a path” to have universal pre-K available within five years; providing tuition forgiveness for nurses and teachers; addressing climate change and water infrastructure; and building a girls’ residential psychiatric treatment facility.
Earlier in the day, the Senate also confirmed five new judges: Kevin McHugh to Superior Court; Shilpa Naik and Jeanine Perella McConaghy to Family Court; William Trezvant to District Court; and George Lazieh to Worker’s Compensation Court. Two others were confirmed as Superior Court magistrate judges: Gina Lopes and William Rampone.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram