PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island General Assembly’s top Democrats signaled Thursday they are preparing to move forward with an initial allocation of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act funding, as Gov. Dan McKee and others urge them to take action.
In a joint statement to 12 News, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio declined to lay out a specific timeline for when their chambers’ respective Finance Committees will schedule a vote on spending some of the money, but indicated it could happen soon.
“The House and Senate Finance Committees are in the process of conducting a series of hearings on potential ARPA expenditures, including the governor’s proposal and ideas from other groups,” they said. “We are meeting regularly with Governor McKee, as recently as yesterday.”
“Our intent remains to act in the near future to address the immediate needs of Rhode Island residents and businesses,” they said.
President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, back in March. The relief measure included billions of dollars for Rhode Island, but the State House debate has focused primarily on the state’s $1.1 billion allocation under the law’s State Fiscal Recovery Fund. Congress attached few strings to how money from that fund can be spent, giving state leaders wide flexibility.
McKee filed a supplemental budget bill in October to spend $113 million of the $1.1 billion — or 10% — on what he described as immediate needs. He recommends allocating $45 million to business and tourism; $38.5 million to services for children; and $29.5 million for housing and broadband.
In the weeks since the governor put forward his proposal, Assembly leaders have also faced increasingly urgent calls from some rank-and-file lawmakers and outside advocates to start getting ARPA money out the door to deal with issues such as homelessness and an increasingly dire labor shortage in social-service agencies.
Legislative leaders have countered that there is already a significant amount of money available to the executive branch from different pots of ARPA and other federal funding.
Separately, a recent report showed the state is presently on pace to run an unusually large $618 million budget surplus for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
McKee’s office announced earlier this week that administration accountants had identified an additional $24.5 million that was still available from the $1.25 billion Rhode Island received under the CARES Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund last year. McKee immediately allocated $4.5 million of that money to a round of grants to nonprofits. He has not yet announced how he plans to use the remaining $20 million.
Rhode Island’s largest union of state employees, AFSCME Council 94, voted Thursday to approve a new four-year contract negotiated with the McKee administration that includes controversial $3,000 vaccination bonuses for workers. The cost of the bonuses is expected to be covered with federal funds.
In Massachusetts, Beacon Hill lawmakers on Wednesday night unveiled a compromise package of $4 billion in supplemental spending from a combination of ARPA and budget surplus funds, after increasing criticism from Gov. Charlie Baker for dragging their feet.
Ted Nesi (email@example.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