STORY OF THE WEEK: House Speaker Joe Shekarchi remains in an enviable political position heading into his second term in what is sometimes called the most powerful post in Rhode Island state …
STORY OF THE WEEK: House Speaker Joe Shekarchi remains in an enviable political position heading into his second term in what is sometimes called the most powerful post in Rhode Island state government. With an even-handed, consensus-oriented approach, Shekarchi remains well-liked by his membership – and he has an imposing $1.7 million in his campaign account.
After cutting his teeth while running Paul Tsongas’ Rhode Island campaign in 1992, the Warwick Democrat is at the center of the state’s political life. Shekarchi is 60, 13 years younger than Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and 11 years younger than Gov. Dan McKee, meaning that he could potentially have a longer political runway.
Then again, the more time speakers stay in office, the more controversy – and in some cases, scandal – tends to pile up. For now, Shekarchi remains characteristically reluctant to outline goals for the 2023 House session. Asked during a year-end interview how the state can best use an estimated $610 million surplus, Shekarchi would commit only to using some for shoring up the state’s rainy-day fund.
“A better barometer would be where we are in May, when we get the May revenue numbers,” he said. With a possible recession looming, it’s not surprising that Shekarchi is maintaining a cautious tone on financial commitments. Passing the budget is no small thing, since it touches the lives of Rhode Islanders in countless ways. The speaker steered clear of declaring the outcome of proposals to ban semi-automatic rifles and to extend abortion coverage to women on Medicaid and the state employee health plan, although he said hearings will be held.
Other priorities include the state’s ongoing housing crisis and efforts to build a biotech/life science sector in Rhode Island. Time will tell if the state can make meaningful progress on those issues during Shekarchi’s speakership.
GENERAL ASSEMBLY: Four former House speakers – Matthew Smith, John Harwood, Bill Murphy and Gordon Fox – returned to the chamber Tuesday for the unveiling of ex-Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s publicly funded Statehouse portrait. Mattiello ascended after Fox’s fall amid a state-federal probe and his candor marked a refreshing contrast to his predecessor’s word-jazz.
As Mattiello noted, their tenures coincided with the passage of same-sex marriage in 2013 and a state-based right to an abortion in 2019, along with a series of tax cuts.
To critics, Mattiello was too autocratic, and he lost favor with some of his members over time. After being defeated by state Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung (R-Cranston) in 2020, Mattiello, like Murphy, is now a lobbyist. While state law allows for former governors and speakers to request an official portrait, there is no such provision for the president of the state Senate – a post that has existed only since 2003, thanks to legislative downsizing.
BUDGETWATCH: Save the date: Gov. McKee’s budget proposal is slated to be unveiled Jan. 19.
GINAWORLD: Washington Post opinion columnist Catherine Rampell on some of the criticism from the left of U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo: “[E]even if you believe that corporate America could benefit from tougher regulation (as these progressive critics generally do), it’s hard to regulate companies effectively if you don’t take the time to understand how they work and how they’re likely to respond to any regulatory action you take.
“For example, let’s say you don’t bother to learn what oil companies’ incentives are and why they might be hesitant to ramp up drilling activity. You then might propose remedies — such as revoking drilling permits or imposing price controls — that earn you lots of retweets but accidentally exacerbate energy shortages. Raimondo, to her credit, seems to have taken the opposite approach: talk to businesses, figure out what policy changes might get them on board with the administration’s objectives, and then push for those changes if and when they seem reasonable.”
SCHOOLS: State lawmakers focused criticism on the state-managed takeover of the Providence schools after the Providence Teachers Union tweeted last weekend about plans to close two schools. Here’s my report from a House Oversight Committee hearing. Bonus: during the hearing, Providence Deputy Superintendent of Operations touted how the city is poised for $500 million in school construction and improvements. Here’s a breakdown of where that money is coming from, via PPSD spokesman Nick Domings: $160M bond approved in 2018; $140M bond approved in 2020; $125M bond approved in 2022; $50M in revolving capital fund; $15M in Facility Equity Initiative awards; $10M in ARTS, Technology and Equipment Fund, OER Lighting.
TAKES OF THE WEEK:
Ward 1 Providence City Councilor John Goncalves: “The greatest challenges facing Providence are the intertwined issues impacting our families: housing affordability, education, the economy, and quality of life. As a new Providence City Council and mayor take office in January, one thing is certain: we must forge greater partnerships and compel our large tax-exempt institutions to pay more of their fair share. Although I'm a proud two-time Brown alumnus and I fully acknowledge the enormous contributions of institutions like Brown, I look forward to working with Mayor-elect Brett Smiley and incoming Council President Rachel Miller to urge the city’s large tax-exempt institutions to alleviate the overwhelming burden from taxpayers, especially after the last revaluations in the city.
“It's all interconnected: more skin in the game from large-tax exempts like Brown will help the city further tackle underlying fiscal challenges, such as our unfunded pension liability, allow us to reevaluate our tax levy, and invest more in education in our attempt to dramatically rehaul our struggling Providence Public School system.
“In addition to our education woes, Providence has among the highest commercial property taxes nationwide, thereby hindering growth and reducing affordability. High taxes and lackluster education/quality of life continue to be a recipe for disaster, so we must tackle these issues with some serious gumption next term. Through greater PILOT payments, prudent fiscal management, and revamping our zoning laws to expand the tax base and spur greater development, we could help alleviate the tax burden from city residents and hopefully will make progress on education simultaneously, which would be an absolute game-changer for the city.”
Blogfather, lawyer and soccer dad Matt Jerzyk: “I was going to comment on the lurching-about of Twitter and the importance of local, online conversations, but this week, for me, was about Capital-T Trauma. Wednesday was the 10th anniversary of the brutal massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children between ages and 7 and six adult school professionals were shot and killed.
“On the anniversary date, U.S. District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell released a 59-page decision upholding the state’s ability to enforce a ban on large-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. He noted that Rhode Island has not had a similar mass shooting and the law is ‘a small but measured attempt to mitigate the potential loss of life by regulating an instrument associated with mass slaughter.’
“This got me thinking of all different kinds of trauma: The unspeakable trauma of mass shootings for parents and siblings and responding public safety officers. But also the trauma of the everyday. National data highlights how at least 70% of people experience one traumatic event before the age of 18 – that's 24 students in a class of 30. That drives much lower school scores, decreased functional IQ, a higher likelihood to attempt suicide, to develop obstructive pulmonary disease and to develop depression.
“If you ever listen to local education leader Kyle Quadros, you will be stunned at the data. And kudos to Sen. Sandra Cano and Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell for sounding the alarm and passing legislation to create trauma-informed schools. It is clear that we need to invest more in the mental health of our young people, especially in the age of computer screens and social media.
“While the stigma of therapy is disappearing, the gap in access to treatment is still huge. And what about the trauma facing our veterans? Since 9/11, 20 times more veterans have died of unnatural causes after coming home than died in combat. We must provide the necessary mental health services for those serving our country here and abroad.
“This holiday season, please lend your support to Operation Stand Down, HunterSeven Foundation or the Home Base Program. This new year, let's commit to tackling all of the big T and little T traumas in our state.”
State Rep. June Speakman (D-Warren): “It is no surprise that housing is top of mind for many state policy-makers these days. The homeless encampment continues at the State House. Speaker Shekarchi emphasized housing in his many media appearances this past week. And everyday Rhode Islanders continue to face escalating rents, sky-high home prices and high mortgage rates. Two House commissions are at work on revamping the state’s affordable housing laws and reframing its land use policies.
“Let’s hope that we can find new tools to put the governor’s allocation of $250 million to work to build thousands of units. This is hard work, with multiple stakeholders whose interests often are in conflict. But the money makes this the right moment to get this work done.”
State Rep. David Morales (D-Providence): “From the disastrous announcement of public school closures in Providence, the revelation that Lifespan’s top exec earned more than $3 million in 2020, and the state’s inability to effectively support people experiencing homelessness, recent headlines have demonstrated major gaps in our state’s public policy.
“For starters, while local control over the management of public schools is important, it is clear that we need uniformed policy across the state for how school closures are managed and communicated to students, families, and staff. On hospital executive pay, there should be a limit for how much a healthcare institution dependent on tax-payer dollars should allow its executives to earn, especially as frontline staff suffer from grueling, long hours due to a lack of staffing.
“As for the unhoused crisis in our state, the state was once again unprepared to support people, further demonstrating the need for our government to have a policy plan centered around supportive housing and wraparound services that go beyond limited shelter beds (though those are also important). All that said, it’s clear that all of us within the General Assembly will have a significant number of issues to urgently address when we return to the legislature in January.”
CLOSING TIME: “The race for an open U.S. House seat in 2000 was the first campaign I covered after returning to Rhode Island. Jim Langevin had a string of advantages in the four-way Democratic primary, not least being a Warwick resident who built his public profile as secretary of state for taking the legislature to task on good government issues. Now, with Seth Magaziner poised to be inaugurated next month as the new rep in CD2, Langevin has made his last floor speech and his congressional archives will be hosted at the Adam Library at his alma mater, Rhode Island College.
“According to RIC: 'The materials are expected to be available for public access sometime in April. This work will include the creation of a finding aid/collection guide that will be available on the Rhode Island Archival and Manuscript Collections Online, and the curation of a permanent, rotating exhibit of the Langevin Papers within the library. Although the entire collection will not be posted online, Denison will curate a digital exhibit that will be hosted on the library’s website sometime in 2023. The archived materials will be available to the general public in the Adams Library Special Collections Reading Room by appointment only, Monday through Friday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.’ ”
KICKER: “Santa, can you give the Sox a time machine to travel back to the time when Boston had Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, and perhaps the perspicacity to retain their services?”
Ian Donnis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org