Political Scene: RI legislature reopens Tuesday with votes on spending, veto overrides [The Providence Journal]
Providence Journal (RI)
PROVIDENCE -- Rhode Island lawmakers return to Smith Hill on Tuesday with the dark cloud of COVID still looming over the state, $1.13 billion in unspent federal relief dollars awaiting their sign-off and a hornet's nest of election-year clashes already in the making.
Driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. A power struggle over who gets to award R.I.'s first marijuana licenses. The once-a-decade redrawing of legislative districts. And guns. This year, every year, guns.
On Day One, before officially adjourning the 2021 legislative session that ended six months ago, lawmakers plan to:
Confirm the lifetime appointment of five new state judges -- including one of the Senate's own legal advisers, Kevin McHugh, for a $170,545-a-year seat on the Superior Court.
Approve the distribution of the first 10% of R.I.'s $1.13-billion American Rescue Plan windfall, including $32 million for "small businesses impacted by COVID-19," $29.5 million "to promote affordable housing," and a swath of "bonuses" for select groups of workers.
Override two of Gov. Dan McKee's three summer vetoes, including one obliging the state's auto insurers to pay auto-body shop markups and another creating a registry for Airbnb, Vrbo and other short-term rentals deviling communities like Newport.
For what it's worth: the auto-body shop owners handed out at least $99,050 in political donations between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2021, with the vast majority of those dollars going to state lawmakers.
The outcome of all of these opening-day votes is not in doubt. They're a go.
Then, they're off to another year of law-making -- and election-year fundraising -- in advance of the fall elections for seats in a legislature currently dominated 98-to-15 by Democrats.
The most potentially contentious first-day issue may be mask wearing. The leaders of both chambers have alerted their colleagues that masks will be required during floor sessions and hearings.
With some legislative Republicans adamantly against masks, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio felt compelled to send out a plea to all senators to please put their "personal convictions" aside.
"This is not meant to be a political request. Rather it is a simple, preventative step that helps keep everyone safe while a highly contagious virus rages through the community."
The state's powerful labor unions have their agendas.
They go from the push by the Laborers International Union of North America for more publicly subsidized construction to the teacher unions' push to limit the expansion of publicly funded "charter schools" to the drive by unions across the spectrum for "retention bonuses" for public and private workers.
AFL-CIO President George Nee told The Journal the labor coalition will also resume the pushes to make wage theft a felony offense, make rides on Rhode Island Public Transit Authority buses free and double the length of time Rhode Island workers can collect Temporary Caregiver Insurance benefits to 10 weeks.
And the unions have a new take on a familiar proposal: shoring up the Providence pension system by selling the Providence water system.
Mayor Jorge Elorza's past plans to lease the city-owned water system to an outside entity -- with the proceeds going into the pension fund -- went nowhere in the General Assembly, but Nee said his organization backs the idea if the state buys the water system.
The business lobby has its own agenda.
It includes estate tax relief, anything that "would make Rhode Island more attractive to remote workers," and elimination of the current requirement that employers give their workers "Sunday and holiday premium pay," according to Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce President Laurie White.
But much of the Chamber agenda is aimed at defending business owners "against unfair or unnecessary mandates" that could raise health-care costs, or expand legal liability for "allegations of workforce bullying," as an example.
Some of the big issues to watch as the session, which starts at 2 p.m. Tuesday, gets underway:
Most years begin with dire warnings from the state's numbers-crunchers about the potential for ocean-sized deficits unless lawmakers make "hard choices."
Not this year.
Rhode Island is awash in federal money, with a potential $618-million year-end surplus, the $1.1 billion unspent from the American Rescue Plan's State Fiscal Recovery Fund, and the billions more from other pots of federal money, including the infrastructure bill signed by President Biden.
Needless to say, there are lots of ideas about how to spend these dollars already.
For example: Ruggerio, a retired, long-time administrator for the LIUNA, is intent on building a new psychiatric residential treatment facility for girls in state care in Rhode Island; repairing dams, replacing underground lead pipes and building new schools.
The lawmakers' starting point this year is a state budget that swelled from $9,377,352,180 in 2019 to $13.1 billion this year.
Only one sure bet so far: a new public health laboratory, to be built with a targeted $81.7-million federal Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity grant, at alocation still to be determined.
The state health lab is ground zero for the initial investigation -- and testing -- of life-threatening diseases, including COVID-19. Insufficient laboratory space limited the COVID-19 testing the state could do early in the pandemic, before commercial testing services were more widely available,
Ruggerio also proposes a student-loan forgiveness programs for folks who commit to working in Rhode Island in professions facing employee shortages, such as nursing.
Governor McKee suggested this approach: extending to recent graduates in health-care fields the state tax credits currently available to graduates in the science and technology fields who agree to stay in Rhode Island.
In terms of process: the House, not the Senate, crafts the budget. And House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi says: "We are not going to be handing out money like it's lollipops."
More: Lawmakers unveil new $119M spending plan with childcare-worker bonuses
What a difference a year makes, as evidenced by what the Senate's long-serving, centrist Democratic leaders told The Journal a year ago -- and then more recently -- about the perennial "tax-the-rich" drive.
Days after left-leaning Senate candidates made gains in the 2020 election, Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey signaled support for the income-tax hike for top earners long sought by the state's unions and progressive Democrats.
And Ruggerio said the Senate was working on a proposal to increase the state's top marginal income tax rate from 5.99% to "in the vicinity" of 8.99% on income above $475,000 per year, to raise an additional $100 million annually.
"Obviously it is an issue that we are going to look at because we want a fair tax system in this state'' he said at the time.
Last month, however, Ruggerio told The Journal: "I don't see that on the table this year. We're flush with money."
And "I don't think it is a good idea," he said, to layer more taxes on people in the higher income brackets, "who are job producers for the most part."
More: Senate leaders back income tax hike, legal marijuana and eviction ban
One of the first big votes the lawmakers will need to take will be on new political boundary lines for each congressional and legislative district -- including their own -- to reflect shifts in population since the last census a decade ago.
The deadline for a special commission to recommend the new maps to the full General Assembly is Jan. 15.
Over the course of multiple hearings, critics in the far-left wing of the Democratic Party cried foul.
For example, Enrique Sanchez, the political director of the BLM RIPAC, denounced what one of the potential maps did to Lenny Cioe of North Providence, who is challenging SenatePresident Ruggerio for the second time.
Cioe wasn't moved out of his district, but neighborhoods of Providence where he did well in the last election have been removed.
"How is that not deliberate? How is that not an attempt to mess with democracy, to play the political corruption game within R.I. state politics?" Sanchez asked.
More: Redistricting maps denounced as 'incumbent protection' by displaced challengers
It's an untapped billion-dollar industry in Rhode Island.
And it is discussed by legislative leaders as the next best way to raise gobs of new money for both the state -- and the investors -- and provide "social equity" grants (and criminal record expungements) to people who might not otherwise be able to go into the business.
Who controls the licenses: the legislature or the executive branch?
You've heard it before: "We're close. Very close."
McKee looks at 2022: COVID, driver's licenses for undocumented, marijuana legalization
Those two words have meant a lot of different things to different people over the years.
In the 1980s, then-Gov. Edward DiPrete backed a bill tying state aid to community efforts to end "snob zoning."
More specifically, this 1987 bill would have given state planners the power to tell communities how much land they must make available for quarter-acre housing construction to qualify for aid from the state's new revenue-sharing program.
The legislation was billed by its supporters in the real estate and development industry as an attempt to provide "affordable housing" to young families shut out of the market by "snob-zoning."
Not everyone was enthused, however. Irate city and town officials rushed to the State House to protest.
"Quarter-acre zoning isn't going to make property affordable in Narragansett," said then-Town Council President Joan Bartolomeo, quoting $125,000 as the starting price for small-lot homes there.
But "I think it will be a windfall for developers."
But a few weeks back, Shekarchi, D-Warwick, told The Journal: "Housing has been the priority of the House since I became speaker" and remains so. "Will we allocate [federal] ARPA money for housing? Probably."
Asked if lawmakers might also give a second look at the 1980s "end-snob-zoning" approach, he said:
"Yes, yes, yes ... I think the zoning laws need to be looked at. I think they are impediments to affordable housing."
When asked for his view, McKee, a former Cumberland mayor, said: "I look at local zoning as a local decision."
More: Could building homes in a school parking lot ease Providence's housing crisis?
It's a recurring battle.
The goals of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence this year are the same as they were last year and every year since the Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school massacre.
Limit the capacity of ammunition-holding magazines to 10 rounds; "regulate" assault weapons; pass a "safe storage law."
"We have been advocating for these bills for nine years -- and for nine years [they] have been held for further study as we witness mass shootings here in Rhode Island and around the country,'' RICAGV board chair Sydney Monstream-Quas told The Journal.
"School was just moved from in-person to remote learning in Barrington due to a threat of a shooting,'' she said in an email exchange just before Christmas.
House Minority Whip Michael Chippendale is ready to carry the flag of gun rights again for the other side.
Among his many arguments: "Their [top] two proposals are both tried and true failures ... deemed to make no appreciable difference in violent crimes with firearms [because] criminals don't follow the laws."
He said the next gun crimes report from the attorney general "will indisputably establish what Second Amendment advocates have been saying for decades."
And that is, "the vast majority of crimes are committed by individuals with often lengthy criminal records who have no regard for our laws, [and] our criminal justice system is a revolving door for criminals who use guns on the streets."
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