Talking Politics

Swift passage of abortion bill shows how Assembly has changed

By Ian Donnis
Posted 5/23/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: For supporters like state Sen. Bridget Valverde and Rep. Katherine Kazarian, the legislative sponsors of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, passing the EACA was unfinished …

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Talking Politics

Swift passage of abortion bill shows how Assembly has changed

Posted

STORY OF THE WEEK: For supporters like state Sen. Bridget Valverde and Rep. Katherine Kazarian, the legislative sponsors of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, passing the EACA was unfinished business. Although Rhode Island created a state-based law to protect abortion rights in 2019, “a right to a health care service is useless if we intentionally prevent people’s health insurance from covering it,” Valverde said during a floor debate Thursday.

Now that it is law, the EACA ensures abortion coverage for those on Medicaid or the state employee health plan. For some, that’s a point of pride, as abortion rights have been restricted in a series of red states. But this subject remains one of the most polarizing issues in America, so opponents have a sharply different view — objecting in particular to spending tax dollars on abortion care.

They also lamented the way in which majority Democrats sped the bill’s final passage through the General Assembly and onto the desk of Gov. Dan McKee, who signed it with alacrity. Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz (R-North Smithfield) accused Democrats of high-handedness in ruling non-germane her attempt to move an amendment. “You know [the bill] is going to pass,” she said. “You should allow the discussion and debate to go forward … Those that rule in this chamber do so with an iron fist, with very little regard for those who have minority views.”

In the end, the Senate passed the EACA by a two-to-one margin, 24-12, a far cry from the time when a tacit agreement kept abortion bills from reaching the floor of either chamber, and the Senate was a Bermuda Triangle for progressive bills. That changed dramatically in 2013, when grassroots activism propelled the passage of same-sex marriage. The composition of the General Assembly has moved to the left ever since, even though de la Cruz represents a marked contrast from predecessor Dennis Algiere’s decidedly more muted approach to partisan debate.

 

ENDORSEMENT: The Rhode Island Working Families Party has pursued a more low-profile approach than another progressive group, the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, while scoring a string of legislative victories since 2016. At the same time, CD1 candidate Sandra Cano cried foul this week when RIWFP decided to endorse a rival, Aaron Regunberg. “It is deeply disappointing to learn that the Rhode Island Working Families Party (RI WFP) has chosen to not endorse the type of candidate they claim to champion: a woman of color, an immigrant, a working mother,” Cano’s campaign manager, Sydney Keen, said in a statement.

RIWFP’s Georgia Hollister Isman was unapologetic about the endorsement, describing Regunberg as someone with a record of coalition-building and support for working people. “We think this is a race that Aaron can win, and we think he’s the best-situated progressive,” she told me. Those with a more critical view on the endorsement remember when WFP rallied behind another white male candidate, Laufton Ascencao, who won a state rep. seat in Bristol in 2018, but stepped down before being inaugurated and pleaded no contest to a charge of felony embezzlement. Cano, meanwhile, announced endorsements from two more of her colleagues: Sens. Pam Lauria of Barrington and Alana DiMario of Narragansett.

 

CRIMINAL JUSTICE: Rhode Island has the third-highest per capita rate of people on probation in the U.S., as my colleague Olivia Ebertz reported last week. By one estimate, judges hold people who violate probation without bail 85% of the time, sometimes with grim consequences.

 

EXIT STEINBERG: Neil Steinberg has led the Rhode Island Foundation, the state’s largest philanthropic group, for the last 15 years. After serving in key roles at Fleet Bank and Brown University, Steinberg said heading the foundation was his favorite job. “It’s a combination of all the other ones,” he said. “[It] allows me to bring all those together, and leverage the experience that I have and my network for good for Rhode Island.” The numbers tell part of the story: during Steinberg’s tenure, the foundation’s assets have grown from $455 million to $1.3 billion, and the number of nonprofits receiving grants climbed from 1,275 to 2,400. The foundation’s new era starts June 1, when U.S. Rep. David Cicilline succeeds the departing president/CEO.

Here are some excerpts from Steinberg’s exit interview with me on Political Roundtable.

 

On why R.I. struggles to create well-defined engines of growth: “We tend to do things for a few years, and then switch gears – whether it’s because of leadership changes or whatever. We need to stick with doing some things well.”

 

On how the state’s small size affects things: “[W]e should be able to get our act together. And we shouldn’t be as balkanized as we are. And I’m not talking about consolidating every service. I’m talking about leadership that says this is what’s best for Rhode Island. And lets all mobilize to do it, because in that small [a] state it should be a strength.”

 

On how the reduction of locally based companies over the last 40 years has affected advocacy by the business class: “I think it’s in the civic leadership front of where you see people, you know, those old stories of how the Biltmore was saved and how PPAC was saved when this person called that person and that person, and these key leaders, movers and shakers, got together and got things done. We don’t have as much of that. We have the chambers [of commerce], we’ve got the Partnership for Rhode Island, all working in that arena. But it is – there’s no doubt that it’s different. We’re not a headquarters city.”

 

HOUSING: The board of Rhode Island Housing last week approved the first outlay of housing-production money from the state budget approved last year. The award of more than $101 million (with $82.9 million from the FY23 spending plan) is meant to preserve and build close to 1,500 units of housing in communities around the state, the vast majority of which will be affordable. Gov. McKee spoke at the outset of the R.I. Housing meeting, hailing the spending plan as a sign of progress in the fight against the state’s housing crisis. 

 

STATE GOVERNMENT: After a long lag in filling various vacancies, particularly the Cannabis Control Commission – the new group whose responsibilities include choosing who gets retail licenses to sell cannabis – Gov. McKee has picked up the pace. His nominations for the CCC include his well-regarded deputy chief of staff, Kim Ahern, as chairwoman of the body. McKee nominated BHDDH Director Richard Charest as the new secretary of the wide-ranging Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which encompasses the state departments of Health, Human Services, Children, Youth and Families, and Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals. Other picks by the governor: former Providence police Deputy Chief Thomas Verdi as the next state Revenue director; and former OMB head Jonathan Womer as the new director of the Department of Administration. What explains McKee’s sudden flurry of nomination activity? Well, it could be how the General Assembly is aiming for a mid-June exit, and time for state Senate confirmations are quickly winding down.

 

GUNS: The proposed assault weapon ban appears unlikely to clear the General Assembly this year. Less clear is what happens with a bill calling for stricter gun storage requirements. Opponents generally cite concerns about being able to defend themselves in their home. But, as my colleague Lynn Arditi reports, having a gun in the home is associated with significantly increased risk for suicide, according to the CDC, and suicides accounted for 98 of 169 fatal shootings in the state from 2019-2021.

 

TAKES OF THE WEEK – Various views from a mix of Rhode Islanders.

Providence Foundation Executive Director CLIFF WOOD on how downtown is faring and what’s next with fewer workers returning to offices nationwide: “The anxieties and economic challenges that remote work has brought to traditional downtowns span the country, and their implications affect economies well beyond city centers. In many places these shifts are occurring at a massive scale. In Providence, our size combined with the revitalization work we have been doing for the last 25 years can be swung to our advantage. Some larger cities like Boston and New York are reimagining themselves by leaning into strategies supporting attractions outside of office hours and appealing to people who have not necessarily been frequent users of their downtowns.

“They are embracing the vibrancy of mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods that promote offices, museums, libraries, weekend festivals, pop-up retail, grocery stores, universities, parks, restaurants and bars. The multiplicity of healthy options can attract people of all income levels to populate downtowns as we share our common assets.

“Providence has spent the last several decades building just this kind of mixed-use neighborhood in our downtown, and we are already seeing the re-emergence of this vibrancy around non-office activity. Combining this with a long-overdue push to build more housing, it’s time to double-down on the placemaking that we do well. We can create environments where people want to be together. We did this from scratch 20 years ago and we’ll do it again now.”

 

State Rep. BRIAN C. NEWBERRY (R-North Smithfield): “The Durham report should put to rest any doubt that: A) The Trump-Russia collusion claim was a hoax; B) Any number of FBI officials and Democratic politicians like Adam Schiff repeatedly and brazenly lied to the American people over and over about the issue and C) the Hillary Clinton campaign was the source for all of it. The entire affair was an outrage and a serious assault on our system of government, an attempt to undermine an election followed by years of nonsense culminating in the Mueller Report, all designed to handicap the duly elected president and pushed by the FBI and other agencies who knew it was false.

“If we had a press corps in Washington that had a shred of integrity and was interested in actually doing its job rather than looking for any excuse to attack the Bad Orange Man, they might have exposed this for what it was, but they were far too interested in acting as Democratic Party flacks and collecting Pulitzers for fake news that Walter Duranty would envy. This isn’t about Trump. This is the biggest scandal in decades, but because it targeted the “right people” too many are burying their heads in the sand. A whole lot of people should be doing some serious self-reflection.”

 

LISA RANGLIN, president of the Rhode Island Black Business Association: “In November 2020, Rhode Island approved an amendment formally dropping the ‘and Providence Plantations’ suffix from the name, but what did this name change materialize for Black people? Despite dropping ‘Plantation,’ the disparities created by the plantation remain, and with equity conversations echoing in every room, equity is still not being integrated into Rhode Island’s entire infrastructure.

“Nationally, Black-owned businesses have demonstrated immense growth, generating $134 billion in sales annually, yet Rhode Island is stagnant in contributing to this growth by severely underinvesting in Black-owned businesses. We are missing out on a huge opportunity to stimulate our economic ecosystem with just one simple investment. The Rhode Island Black Business Association (RIBBA) is requesting the allocation of $100 million spread across 10 years, to fund the strengthening of minority business development in the State of Rhode Island. This is broader than providing capital – we are calling for a holistic approach to create a pipeline for minority-owned businesses, to bring families out of poverty and close the racial wealth gap in Rhode Island.”

 

State Sen. LOU DIPALMA (D-Middletown), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee: “Rhode Island’s gas tax is projected to generate approximately $145 million in fiscal year 2023. While most of this revenue goes to the state Department of Transportation (RIDOT), supporting the upgrade and maintenance of our state roads bridges and roads, the following agencies receive the remainder of the gas tax: RI Public Transportation Authority, (RIPTA), RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA), RI Department of Human Services (DHS) and the RI Department of Environment Management (DEM). And the gas tax revenue apportioned to RIDOT is typically matched four times with federal funding. With the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) we can expect to see the continued decline of the gas tax annually. As vice-chair of the Council on State Government (CSG) Eastern Region Conference’s (ERC) Transportation Committee, I was approached by the Syracuse University Dynamic Sustainability Laboratory to address the following: ‘The Road to Electrification: Navigating the Fiscal Impacts of Rhode Island’s Electric Vehicle Transition.’ We received their presentation and final report, which will form the foundation upon which Rhode Island will continue to build out the analysis and determine a way forward to address alternatives to the gas tax revenues.”

 

KICKER: There was a hint of Yogi Berra’s signature observations when former Sox 1B Kevin Millar offered this riff while doing color commentary on NESN this week: “I always said that Boston is a small state in Massachusetts, but you feel like it’s one big family member and it really is.” Of course, baseball has its own rich lexicon and malaprops are a staple. In that respect, Yogi’s real-life accomplishments are overshadowed by his deceptively expert observations. (I mean, can you do any better for Rhode Island’s long-running attempt to reinvent its economy than ‘It’s deja vu all over again’?). Representing a franchise whose ethos was once likened to U.S. Steel, Berra exuded amiability. He landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Despite all this, Berra was often underestimated because of his stumpy build. Now, a new documentary (via the NYT) makes the case for Yogi’s greatness – a three-time MVP, someone who showed early respect to Black players, and only one of two players to ever hit more than 350 home runs while striking out fewer than 450 times. (Perhaps most impressively, Berra struck out only 12 times during 656 plate appearances in 1950.) Yogi died in 2015, at age 90. We would all do well to remember him. 

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org

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