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Can RI pols make the most of this moment?

Posted 7/9/21

The end of Rhode Island's legislative session last week was largely drama-free, with none of the curious sticking points or cross-chamber clashes that have sometimes punctuated the final countdown. It helps, of course, that the state is flush with cash,

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NEW

Can RI pols make the most of this moment?

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The end of Rhode Island’s legislative session last week was largely drama-free, with none of the curious sticking points or cross-chamber clashes that have sometimes punctuated the final countdown.

It helps, of course, that the state is flush with cash, thanks to federal stimulus, although concerns about the sustainability of the spending in the current $13.1 billion budget remain.

The change in leadership in the House from Nick Mattiello to Speaker Joe Shekarchi is also significant. It explains the lighter mood in that chamber, with a more collaborative process and a newly empowered role for female legislators.

One example: the forward motion of the pay equity bill that stalled under Mattiello. In a disappointment to progressives, Democratic legislative leaders held the line against broad-based tax increases this year. But other initiatives advanced, including support for doulas, heightened nursing home staffing, a new focus on housing, a statewide body cam program, a climate action plan, and the path to a $15 minimum wage. House GOP Leader Blake Filippi credited Shekarchi with raising the level of civility in the House of Representatives.

Across the metaphorical rotunda, in the Senate, President Dominick Ruggerio’s majority of establishment Democrats still has the numbers, but what happens in 2022 bears watching (for more on that, see item #3). Now, with the pandemic waning, the state faces the matter of how to spend an additional $1 billion in federal stimulus. The central question is whether Rhode Island’s elected officials can build on this moment to improve education, the economy, and other key challenges facing the state.

Special session ahead

Lawmakers appear likely to return for a fall session to focus on the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana, and possibly two other matters – driver’s licenses for the undocumented and the unresolved drive to change the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

A tale of two chambers

At age 72, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has remained nimble in leading a chamber marked by growing cross-currents between progressive and establish Democrats. There’s nonetheless a clear generational contrast between Ruggerio and his cohort of like-minded Democrats (Whip Maryellen Goodwin, Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, etc.), and the younger insurgents in the chamber (including such senators as Sam Bell and Tiara Mack).

Progressives made significant gains in the Senate in 2020, so they can be expected to redouble their efforts next year. The upshot? The chamber that not that long ago was the stumbling block to same-sex marriage could be poised for dramatic changes.

Paralysis on payday lending

Back in April, it was noteworthy when state Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Warwick), chairman of the RI Democratic Party, called out payday lenders while speaking in support of a financial literacy bill.

“In my district alone, if you enter from Cranston, going down Warwick Avenue, before you get a mile and a half in, you’ll see two franchises for payday loans, national payday loan businesses, that charge horrendous rates and take advantage of our citizens,” McNamara said.

To hear these comments, it seemed that state lawmakers were open to clamping down on payday lenders after years of paralysis. Rhode Island allows these lenders to charge the highest interest rate in the Northeast, the equivalent of 260 percent APR. Critics say that traps poor people in a cycle of debt.

The situation remains unchanged after yet another legislative session. In explaining why things haven’t changed, advocates like to cite how former speaker William Murphy is the top payday lobbyist. But it’s also true that the same half-dozen or so advocates speak at legislative hearings each year, and that they haven’t mustered a broader grassroots campaign to amplify their message to lawmakers.

The leadership difference on gun bills

Supporters of increased restrictions on guns were disappointed that the legislature didn’t vote on proposals to cut magazine capacity or to ban semi-automatic rifles. Rep. Justine Caldwell (D-East Greenwich) didn’t like changes to her bill meant to enforce the use of gun safes, so she pulled it from committee consideration last week. At the same time, without committee votes by House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and House Majority Leader Chris Blazejewski, two of the bills backed by “gun safety” advocates would have been defeated in House Judiciary. The same is true of one of the bills voted on in committee by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey.

As a result, the legislature approved three gun measures: 1) one bans people other than police or contracted security from possessing guns at schools, and requires others to secure their guns in their cars; 2) another prohibits people from buying guns for people who aren’t supposed to have them; 3) a measure backed by Second Amendment supporters requires the state attorney general to compile an annual report on the number of gun cases in state courts, and how many are resolved.

Backing away from the war on drugs

In the past, the RI ACLU has criticized what it calls the Statehouse to Prison Pipeline – the criminalization of growing amounts of behavior. This year, the General Assembly decriminalized some drug possession charges (a move previously sought by Attorney General Peter Neronha), and lawmakers supported the creation of the supervised drug-injection facilities known as harm reduction centers.

How far does this go in unwinding what critics consider the excessive effects of the war on drugs? RI ACLU Executive Director Steve Brown praises these as positive steps, along with the expected legalization of recreational marijuana later this year.

At the same time, during an interview on Political Roundtable, he said the tendency toward prison-based legislation remains strong: “This is going to be an ongoing issue, not just in drugs. Every session there are literally dozens of bills introduced whose sole goal is to increase prison sentences for various crimes or create new crimes even though the conduct is already prohibited under another law.”

What happened to police reform?

While the lack of action on the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights stands out, Steve Brown said other police-related legislation also fell by the wayside in the legislative session: “Just to give a few examples, there was a bill, a comprehensive bill, designed to address issues that some other states have addressed, about limiting police physical force like use of chokeholds. There was a bill designed to reinstate the data collection of traffic stops that police departments have engaged in for many years – that did not pass. There was a bill to strengthen the Open Records law to give the public more access to records of police misconduct. So there was a whole host of legislation out there we were hopeful to see some positive action on. And it unfortunate that, at least at this point, that none of it has passed.”

Wedding bells

Congratulations to West Warwick native and strategy consultant Paul Tencher, who served as CoS during Elizabeth Roberts’s time as lieutenant governor, who recently married his sweetheart, media consultant Regan Page …. Congrats, too, to Brenna McCabe, senior adviser to Gov. Dan McKee, and PR man extraordinaire Chris Raia of Duffy & Shanley, on their nuptials set for later this month at the Hotel Viking in Newport. Sagacious AP reporter David Klepper will perform the ceremony. The best man will be Mike Raia, the former comms director for ex-Gov Gina Raimondo, now VP for strategic communications at Johnson & Wales. Mike was unable to land an appearance by Jacob deGrom for his long-suffering Mets-fan sibling, so offered this preview: “It’s kind of fitting that the first major in-person event since early 2020 is going to be a celebration of two people who make it a point to never be the center of attention. I’m still working on my toast, so I don't want to give away anything I might use at the wedding, but I will say this: One of the greatest privileges of being an older brother is watching your younger siblings grow up and find and choose the perfect partners. There is no doubt in my mind that Chris found his in Brenna.”

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. Follow him on Twitter @IanDon. For a longer version of this column, visit thepublicsradio.org.

politics, Donnis

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