The man expected to be the next speaker of the Rhode Island House, Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi, said he’s focused on exploring how representatives can meet remotely.

While the House of Representatives is required to convene at the Statehouse, a big spike in COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island and a December 30 deadline for using federal CARES Act funds is sparking an exploration of other options.

“We need to adopt somehow, some way, review the constitutionality of it, but remote voting,” Shekarchi said Thursday, when asked about his focus, during a taping of Political Roundtable at The Public’s Radio. “And we need to make those changes swiftly, because I think unfortunately even with the good news with the vaccine that could be coming soon, whatever soon means, we’re going to be operating under very strict COVID guidelines for a long time.”

In related news, the House Oversight Committee plans to hold a meeting next Thursday, October 19, featuring an appearance by state Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott. The focus will include COVID spending and restrictions.

The full House and Senate have not met for months due to the pandemic.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio last week suggested the possible use of the Rhode Island Convention Center as a remote location for Senate meetings.

During a House Democratic caucus last week, Shekarchi received the support of representatives to succeed House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who lost his state representative seat in Cranston to Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung.

As it stands, Mattiello will preside during a lame duck House session to pass a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Shekarchi is expected to be elected speaker by representatives at the start of the next House session in January. Due to his caucus support, he has taken on some of the responsibilities of the speakership, including meeting this week with Gov. Gina Raimondo.

Shekarchi said a current budget deficit, previously pegged at about $900 million, is thought to be closer to the neighborhood of $300 million to $450 million.

The Warwick Democrat said he expects the current year spending plan to be “a skinny budget,” with perhaps just one or two articles.

Shekarchi said he is open to discussion (and non-committal for now) on a range of topics in the next session, including legalizing cannabis, outlawing semi-automatic rifles, and raising taxes on Rhode Islanders who earn more than $400,000 a year.

Ian Donnis covers politics for The Public's Radio. He can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org