and JOHN HOWELL
The interview was over, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarci and Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey were on their way out of the office. They paused to chat about the upcoming …
and JOHN HOWELL
The interview was over, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarci and Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey were on their way out of the office. They paused to chat about the upcoming Christmas holiday. Politics and the business of government was put aside. This was two friends talking.
It’s been this way ever since the two Warwick legislators have ascended to leadership roles. Annually they visit the paper in December to talk about the upcoming legislative session. Their perspectives and what they consider priorities may differ, but if they do, each listens and there’s discussion.
The question seemed appropriate therefore: to their recollection has there been such open communication between the leadership of the House and the Senate? Might what we have in Rhode Island not only be unique to this time but also to other states? It surely is in contrast to what is happening nationally where difference of opinions become divisive.
Larry Berman, who has served as public information officer for multiple House Speakers, barely waited for the question to be completed saying in his experience he’s never seen the lines of communication between the House and Senate as open. Shekarchi chimed in that he and McCaffrey have been friends since their days at Suffolk Law School. Rarely a day goes when they aren’t calling one another, a practice that has been accelerated by the pandemic and the issues it raised from how to safely conduct legislative business to ensuring public access to government.
Shekarchi jokes that he and McCaffrey talk more frequently now than when they attended law school and no less so when the General Assembly is out of session. It’s not surprising then that they were on the same page when highlighting the issues to come before the General Assembly in the New Year. Shekarchi was frequently the first to answer and he started off reflecting on the accomplishments of the 2021 session.
He pointed to legislation guaranteeing pay equity, creating a housing czar position, and making the CCRI Promise Program permanent.
“I can go on and on with all the good things we did last year,” said Shekarchi.
Before adjourning this year’s House session Shekarchi noted that there is some legislation that may see veto overrides including for the short-term rental legislation introduced by Sen. Dawn Euer, and Rep. Lauren Carson, both of Newport.
The legislation which would create a statewide short-term rental registry passed both chambers last year but was vetoed by Gov. Dan McKee.
Shekarchi said that in order for the legislator to successfully override the veto they would need a 3/5 vote.
”You have to make sure the votes are there for that,” said Shekarchi.
McCaffrey said in the Senate they will be voting on five judgeships and two magistrates before they adjourn last year’s Senate Session.
Shekarchi hasn’t made it a secret that he thinks that the housing crisis is a top issue in Rhode Island.
In fact, on his campaign website it reads, “as Speaker, Joe's top priority is addressing Rhode Island's housing crisis.”
Aside from adding a housing czar, Shekarchi pointed to adding $6 million to address long-term homelessness, and creating a housing production fund and pre funding it by $25 million as two accomplishments regarding housing.
“We brought a lot of people together, a lot of different ideas and got things done,” said Shekarchi.
Shekarchi knows however, that the state is a long way away from the crisis being over.
He said that through the Low and Moderate Housing Commission and Land Use Committee, Shekarchi said he is looking for a lot of legislation to come out of them this year.
“It's a long term problem, it's going to require a long term solution,” he said.
Shekarchi pointed to a “boom” of real estate in Pawtucket and Central Falls near where the new train station is planned, saying that public transportation is important for where developers want to build housing.
In Warwick Shekarchi pointed to the old Sheraton Hotel on Airport Road which is expected to be turned into workforce housing. He thought that the project was a good idea.
While Warwick has a MBTA line that goes as far as Boston north and as far south as Wickford, Shekarchi and McCaffrey pointed to the fact that it doesn’t stop in Warwick enough.
Currently the MBTA stops 10 times coming from Boston during the week and 20 times in Providence. During the weekends it doesn’t stop in Warwick, and stops in Providence nine times.
Shekarchi also said that he thinks they need to add an Amtrak stop in Warwick.
One of the big questions in Rhode Island currently is whether or not Lifespan and Care New England, which owns multiple hospitals in the state including Kent Hospital in Warwick. The merger application was submitted last March.
“We're just waiting for the decision from the federal government if they can do it and go from there,” said McCaffrey.
Shekarchi said that right now the merger is in the Federal Trade Commission process.
“Right now there's no role for the General Assembly to play at all,” he said.
Shekarchi said that he hopes that the Kent Hospital patient care is “still at a high level for residents,” and to make sure they can preserve the jobs there.
But like the vast majority of those in Rhode Island he and other legislators are simply spectators right now.
“We have to let the process play out,” said Shekarchi.
McCaffrey expects legislators will be looking to speed up the universal pre-k rollout.
Former Governor Gina Raimando’s plan would take about 30 years, McCaffrey said, and the Senate is hoping the state can do it in five years.
“We feel that pre-k is very important to all children in the state,” said McCaffrey.
According to Greg Pare, Communications Director for the Senate about 14,000 children would be enrolled in the universal pre-k per year, and right now they have 2,000 seats meaning they need to add 12,000 more. Pare said in an email that over the past three years, the State has added an average of 428 seats a year.
Shekarchi, as he has many times before, pointed to the budget as being the most important piece of legislation that is passed in the House each year.
“The single most important thing we do in the House is the budget,” said Shekarchi. “That always has been and probably will always be our number one priority.”
McCaffrey said he is planning on running for re-election. He is expected to face off against Rhode Island Political Candidate Jennifer Rourke, who previously announced her campaign. She ran against McCaffrey in the Democratic Primary in 2018, and 2020.
McCaffrey said that he hopes the COVID-19 pandemic will be better than it was during the 2020 election.
“Hopefully we aren’t in this COVID crisis and can get back to a normal election process, but who knows what that will be like,” said McCaffrey.
Shekarchi said that he intends to seek re-election.
“I have every intention to run for re-election,” said Shekarchi.
While he didn’t give any specific names he said that there have been rumblings of candidates possibly running against him.
Shekarchi said that based on his and McCaffrey’s records he thinks they accomplished a lot and that he will be running on his record.
“They (the legislative seats) don’t belong to Mike and I, they belong to the people. If people think we did a good job they will send us back. If they don’t they will make a change,” said Shekarchi.
American Rescue Funds
Shekarchi said that the leadership from the House and the Senate have been at the ARPA spending all summer, saying that approving a supplemental budget for the funds is on the top of their list for one of the first things they want to get done.
Shekarchi said that the state has around $1 billion worth of ARPA funds but they have around $4 billion worth of proposals from different organizations and individuals.
“For every one dollar we have we have four dollars in requests,” said Shekarchi.
Where will they meet?
For now Shekarchi and McCaffrey said that the plan is for both chambers to meet at the State House, and will evaluate it weekly.
Shekarchi said that if they run into a problem with COVID they may utilize the Veteran’s Auditorium located next door the State House.
And for what else 2022 might bring?
“There's always surprises, there's always things that come up,” said Shekarchi.
ON THE SAME PAGE: Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi chat following a recent interview about the upcoming session of the General Assembly. (Beacon Communications photo)
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