By JOHN HOWELL If members of the Rotary Club of Warwick hoped for a rosy picture of the state of the state, they didn't get it Thursday afternoon from House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi. Shekarchi put response to the pandemic and in particular
If members of the Rotary Club of Warwick hoped for a rosy picture of the state of the state, they didn’t get it Thursday afternoon from House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi.
Shekarchi put response to the pandemic and in particular distribution of the vaccine as the most pressing issue in a long line of concerns dominated by state finances. Calling himself an eternal optimist, Shekarchi is hopeful of returning to something reflective of “normal” State House operations by June.
One definitive piece of good news over efforts to balance the state budget is that the gantries used to toll trucks won’t be used for car tolls. But other avenues of raising funds, from an increase in the gasoline tax to higher taxes on high-income earners and higher transfer fees on home sales exceeding $500,000, are on the table. Shekarchi also expects an increase in the minimum hourly wage to be a major issue in the upcoming session of the General Assembly.
And while Shekarchi agreed with club members that new taxes and an increase in the minimum wage could adversely impact business, causing them to close or leave the state, the speaker said with the makeup of the General Assembly has changed.
But foremost is the pandemic and the vaccine.
“The hottest issue that we’re facing in the General Assembly in the last two weeks is the vaccine distribution. Who’s getting it? How come we don't have enough supply? What’s happening,” the speaker said.
He added: “We never were built for a pandemic. We’re learning as we go.”
Shekarchi said the state was allocated to receive 30,000 doses of the vaccine every period, but the amount is between 16,000 and 17,000 doses. “So, we're being under supplied,” he said. “We’re hopeful that will change.”
He said COVID has impacted all aspects of life, whether directly or indirectly. Apart from the state budget and revenues, he said it has affected “people's jobs, children in school, our health, our family members, our good friends. So it’s a very real thing. And people who say there’s no such thing as COVID or whatever – and they’re out there, because they write to me all the time and email me asking, ‘When are we going to lift the restrictions on the gyms or … lift the restrictions on the businesses, because there’s no such thing as COVID, it’s just a common cold.’ Well, it’s a lot more than a common cold.”
Shekarchi was slotted to speak for 15 or 20 minutes during the club’s weekly Zoom meeting. He joined the group of 25 – including former Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, who had tuned in about 12:30 – and after a 20-minute summary of State House events opened it up to questions and comments.
Shekarchi personally knows many in the club. He made a point of talking about Donald Morash, a club member and Warwick Realtor who died of COVID in December. Morash was active in the community, and as chairman of the Warwick Zoning Board of Review frequently dealt with Shekarchi as he represented developers seeking zone changes and exceptions to the building codes. Shekarchi was pleased to learn of the club’s plan to memorialize Morash’s community contributions.
After citing the need to plug a projected $500 million budget deficit, hopes for federal assistance and legislative pressures for new taxes and a hike in the minimum wage, Shekarchi was asked if truck tolls might be broadened to include cars.
“Absolutely, 100 percent, no … that’s not an area that we’re looking at revenue. The law is very clear on that, you have to get approval from the voters.” He called the prospect of tolling cars a “myth propagated” by the trucking industry.
Shekarchi faces pressure from legislators.
While he did not label them as progressives, he pointed out many new members of the Assembly have an agenda and unless they hear otherwise from constituents they will be pressing for those agendas.
He said they want to raise taxes to fund initiatives in a variety of areas, from the environment to education.
“Whether it’s raising a gas tax or raising an income tax, that is the prevailing mantra of many of the newer, younger members of the General Assembly in both houses, the Senate and the House,” he said.
He added: “Everybody has a difference of opinion. But what I’m just trying to emphasize is, if you have a different opinion, you just can’t be home, calling up the speaker or somebody or your local rep and saying, ‘I don’t want it.’ You need to get active in the legislative process. But you also need to get active in the electoral process.”
Marijuana and nursing home caregivers were also on Shekarchi’s list. He noted that there has been a big push to address the legalization of recreational marijuana. He didn’t offer a guess how it would turn out, rather calling it a two-step process.
“What we have to figure out first is, do we want to legalize the recreational use of marijuana? And the second part of that question, if we answer yes, is how are we going to regulate it? How are we going to distribute it, who’s going to do it … [a] state system, a private system, some kind of quasi-state private sector?” he said.
He cited the medical marijuana dispensaries, the growers and the cultivators, concluding, “everyone … seems to have a stake in the marijuana game. And if we make this decision, I look at the fact that we have to make it in a very careful way that preserves the best possible outcome for the state.”
Asked about the transition from Gov. Gina Raimondo to the incoming administration of Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, Shekarchi forecast that it would happen sooner than later, with Raimondo’s State of the State address on Feb. 3 being her final public presentation as governor. He’s optimistic over McKee.
“He’s trying to do the best thing. His passion, as most of you all know, is small business, which is very appropriate … We all want the same thing. We may want to get there differently, but we all want to succeed. So, we will look at the governor and his appointments,” he said.