RI Senate eyes initial vote on American Rescue Plan spending after Thanksgiving

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The head of a powerful Senate panel announced this week that Democratic leadership in his chamber is hoping to call a vote as soon as the end of November to start spending Rhode Island’s $1.1 billion allocation under the American Rescue Plan Act.

At the close of a hearing Monday examining Gov. Dan McKee’s plan for the federal funds, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ryan Pearson set out a timeline “so we could potentially act by either later this month or early into December to move some of those pieces forward.”

State lawmakers are under increasing pressure to start using the $1.1 billion from the law’s State Fiscal Recovery Fund, which is a mostly unrestricted pot of funding within the larger pool of roughly $3 billion that Congress sent Rhode Island’s state and local governments under the Rescue Plan Act. President Biden signed the measure back in March.

The Senate and House finance panels have been holding hearings on a proposal put forward last month by McKee to spend $113 million of the money right away. The governor has recommended allocating $45 million to business and tourism; $38.5 million to services for children; and $29.5 million for housing and broadband.

McKee renewed his call for a vote during a news conference Wednesday morning at an affordable-housing development in East Providence, where he touted his proposed spending on programs that could spur more similar projects.

A similar dynamic has played out in Massachusetts, where for months Gov. Charlie Baker has been pressing Beacon Hill lawmakers to move quickly on his proposal to spend some of the Bay State’s billions of Rescue Plan Act dollars. The Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a bill Friday to spend $3.8 billion of the money, but the Senate has yet to act.

Pearson, D-Cumberland, indicated Rhode Island senators see McKee’s plan as a starting point for discussion but not necessarily the final word regarding how the money should be used initially. Lawmakers plan “to work with the administration to really make this proposal into one that is ready to be voted on,” he said.

“Something that consistently comes up that we’ll hear is, ultimately … what are the goals we’re looking to achieve?” Pearson said. As an example, he cited setting a goal for the number of additional building permits that would be yielded by spending on housing programs.

“We’d like to move to specifics where we can,” he said.

Senate Finance will hold a hearing next week where the Rhode Island Foundation will testify about its recently released plan for spending most of the $1.1 billion. Its recommendations included spending $50 million on addressing immediate needs such as food insecurity and domestic-violence prevention.

Additional Senate Finance hearings will be held on Nov. 15, 16 and 22 where other organizations will be invited to testify about their own ideas for the money. “They could be things that are time sensitive, or they could be things that are broader-reaching and take more time,” Pearson said.

House Speaker Joe Shekarchi is still deciding next steps, spokesperson Larry Berman said.

“Speaker Shekarchi is still in discussions with his membership and the Senate president about establishing a timetable regarding the ARPA funding,” Berman told 12 News. “No decisions have been made yet. The House Finance Committee has already held two hearings to review different aspects of the governor’s proposal, and a third hearing is scheduled for Nov. 16.”

Spending federal money isn’t the only issue lawmakers could tackle before the end of the year. State leaders are closing in on a deal to legalize recreational marijuana in Rhode Island, and senators are also awaiting a new batch of judicial nominations from the governor.

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, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram

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