PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Senate Finance Committee plans to start the year by scrutinizing how the McKee administration is spending tens of millions of dollars in key areas including housing, an issue that’s come under the spotlight in recent weeks.
Senate Finance Chairman Lou DiPalma, who was appointed Tuesday, scheduled the hearing for 5 p.m. Thursday at the State House. He’s asking multiple members of Gov. Dan McKee’s team to provide lawmakers with an update on how the administration is spending funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, including $1.1 billion of State Fiscal Recovery Fund money.
Top lawmakers including House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, who has made housing a top priority, have expressed increasing concern in recent weeks about whether the administration is moving fast enough to tackle the issue. The General Assembly has allocated $250 million of the federal windfall to housing.
“We appropriated $250 million — what are we doing?” DiPalma said, adding, “What are some of the challenges agencies are facing with regards to getting the money out there?”
The Finance Committee will call on Pandemic Recovery Office director Paul Dion, Commerce Secretary Liz Tanner and Housing Secretary Joshua Saal to provide updates on spending, housing and commerce programs.
Saal has been under serious scrutiny in recent weeks, with critics arguing he’s struggled to get much done during his first year in the inaugural job. His position was created in 2021 to spearhead the state’s response to the housing affordability crisis, which has worsened in recent years.
State documents show the McKee administration has projected spending $126 million of the $250 million in housing money by the end of the current fiscal year on June 30. According to data provided by Dion’s office, the state had only spent about $8.3 million on housing-related projects as of Nov. 30, or less than 7% of the amount that’s supposed to be out the door by summer.
However, housing officials have countered that the expenditure number is artificially low because it doesn’t reflect funds that have been committed to projects but not yet spent. Officials at Rhode Island Housing — which is responsible for most of the $250 million — estimated last month they had either spent or committed nearly $30 million. Their target is to spend $114.5 million by June 30.
As for where that nearly $30 million is going, Rhode Island Housing expects to split it roughly evenly between affordable housing developments and acquiring sites for future development.
The $250 million figure also is often cited by state leaders to tout their efforts to address the housing crisis, as Rhode Islanders face a shortage of available units across income levels. The issue of affordability is exacerbating the state’s homeless problem, as well.
“I’m disappointed,” Shekarchi said Friday on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. “I want to hear from the secretary and find out why.”
Saal has been under the microscope after he clashed with homeless advocates last month, then missed a key year-end deadline to send the legislature a report about Rhode Island’s housing situation. When he finally filed it five days late, the report lacked key data and recommendations.
DiPalma was one of multiple new Senate committee chairs named for the 2023-24 legislative session on Tuesday. He is replacing Cumberland Democrat Ryan Pearson, who was tapped by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio to become majority leader this session. Other new chairs include Sens. Dawn Euer on the Judiciary Committee, Alana Dimario on the Environment Committee, and Mark McKenney on the Oversight Committee.
The House is expected to name its committee leaders later this month after adopting a rules package for the new legislative session.
Ted Nesi contributed to this report.