The Rhode Island General Assembly is expected to wrap up its current session later this week. The Public's Radio political reporter Ian Donnis discussed some of the top topics from the legislative session with afternoon host Dave Fallon.



Fallon: When you look back at this legislative year that's about to end what stands out the most for you?

Donnis: Well, clearly, the pandemic had a huge effect. As we know, the legislative year usually runs from January to June, and the pandemic was still raging in a very different way from what we have now back in January. So the House and the Senate left the Statehouse.

The House was meeting at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, the Senate at Rhode Island College, and the Senate is still at RIC, though the House came back about a month ago to the Statehouse. It seems almost like old times being back at the Statehouse, although there still are restrictions on the public coming into the building at certain hours. And of course, this affected how citizens can observe their government. There were limitations on the public coming to meetings, although much more of this was online.

Fallon: What should people know first about the budget?

Donnis: The budget is the most important thing the legislature does each year because it has such a big impact in affecting Rhode Islanders. The most recent budget is $13.1 billion for the fiscal year starting later this week. That was a big boost in the legislature from what Gov. McKee proposed in March. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi says that the state would be remiss if it did not use every single federal dollar available. And he says this federal largesse is helping to prepay some programs out to three years into the future. But Republicans have some concerns about whether this will cause raises for state workers that might be unsustainable in the future.

Fallon: There was some push-back about what happens after this large chunk of federal money is gone.

Donnis: That's right. And at the same time, the state still has an additional $1 billion in federal stimulus that is has yet to be decided how it will be spent. There's more public conversation taking place. And I think that's an issue we're going to hear more about after the legislative session ends,

Fallon: What were some of the substantial things that passed in the General Assembly?

Donnis: Well, there's a little bit of a start to an effort to try and address Rhode Island's housing crisis. Obviously, the housing market is red hot, home and apartment prices are way up. The budget uses a heightened part of the real estate conveyance tax on properties over $800,000 to create more money for affordable housing. This might be a drop in the bucket, but at least it's a start. And there's also the creation of new a new housing czar position in the office of Commerce, the state's economic development agency, to have one person who's going to have a close eye on housing and efforts to try and overcome some of the long-term obstacles to creating more affordable housing.

Of course, tax issues are always big. We've seen we saw how Democrats continue to hold the line against any broad-based tax increases. At the same time, the business community was not happy about tax on the PPP loans above a threshold over $250,000. For progressives, there was a hike in the minimum wage to put the state on the path to having a $15 hour minimum wage within a few years. And also the continuation of the CCRI promise scholarship program that had been championed by former Gov. Raimondo. Supporters really liked that program, although it's also had some adverse effects at Rhode Island College.

Fallon: You mentioned progressive state senators, a bigger influence now, right? 

Donnis: Yeah, in some ways. I mean, we saw there was pretty broad support for the Act on Climate, a measure that calls for the state to have a plan for dealing with climate change. Republicans were outspoken in expressing fears that this will lead to too much government control. But Democrats said that climate change is real and that this is an important issue to come to terms with. But at the same time, the progressives could not get their way on some other issues. They wanted to raise taxes on Rhode Islanders, for the portion earned over $475,000 a year, for people who earn that much money. That was pretty much DOA with legislative leaders. So the progressive caucus is growing, particularly in the Senate, but they don't yet have enough numbers to really wag the dog.

Fallon: And of course, there's new leadership in the Rhode Island House -- a new speaker. Is it too soon to assess his leadership?

Donnis: No. Joe Shekarchi came in as speaker in January, obviously since his predecessor, Nick Mattiello, lost his state rep re-election in Cranston last November. Shekarchi, he has a much better bedside manner, for lack of a better word. He's much better liked by many lawmakers. Mattiello has his successes and shortcomings as speaker but he's a kind of combustible personality. And I think the temperature in the house is a lot cooler with Joe Shekarchi, who knows how to play well with others and supported at least one noteworthy measure that Mattiello did not support -- an equal pay measure for for women to get the same pay as men for the same work.

Fallon: Let's move on to some other issues like race and justice.

Donnis: There's kind of some mixed results here. The budget includes money for police statewide to have body cams. Supporters will tell you that's an important measure for police accountability. Some drug possession charges have been decriminalized. That was something that Attorney General Peter Neronha sought a few years ago.

Also interestingly, this is an issue that's kind of flown under the radar, the legislature has signed off on a concept known as harm reduction centers. These are for people who use drugs like heroin or opioids, and the idea is that they go to someplace where they can be overseen by a healthcare professional and use clean equipment. So there's less of a risk of death or illness. This is controversial because critics would say you're encouraging drug abuse.

Of course, one big question is, what happens with efforts to change the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights? Critics say that this impedes effective discipline of police officers It remains unclear how that's going to shake out. [In a statement Wednesday, state Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said the issue is dead in the current session: “Over the course of many months, the Senate has engaged with all stakeholders in good faith efforts to responsibly reform the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, we have been unable to reach consensus at this time. We will continue to work with the sponsors over the summer in an effort to reach consensus on this important issue."

And of course, gun bills are always controversial at the Statehouse, we see how lawmakers have backed a few things. One measure would prevent so called straw man purchases of of one person buying a gun for someone who's not supposed to have a gun. Also, the AG will be required to compile data on gun cases in state courts. There are always people who are unhappy with the gun debate on both sides of that issue.

Fallon: And there may be a special legislative session later on this year to take care of some unfinished business?

Donnis: The big question is recreational marijuana. It seems likely that Rhode Island will finally move ahead with that this year. There are some competing proposals from the governor and different parts of the legislature. So this would allow an opportunity to focus in on that.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. Follow him on Twitter @IanDon. Sign up here for his weekly RI politics and media newsletter.