RI lawmakers return for 22 session, consider federal windfall, veto
PROVIDENCE – On the first day of their return from a six-month hiatus, lawmakers in Rhode Island approved $ 119 million in one-off federal spending and were set to approve a set of new judges and magistrates.
They also overrode two of Gov. Dan McKee’s vetoes, including one of a bill guaranteeing payment of body shop mark-ups pushed by a persistent State House lobby that handed out more than $ 99,000 worth of money. political donations last year.
In the Senate, returning lawmakers found quick COVID-19 test kits on their desks, which they were asked to take before heading to the Senate, with no positive report.
The House chose not to do so.
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Speaker of the House K. Joseph Shekarchi explained in an opening email to his colleagues: “Like many of you, I have been disheartened by reports that our voters are being forced to wait. in long lines at state-run COVID test sites, and I share their frustration at waiting far too long to receive test results.
“I don’t think it’s safe at this time to hand out test kits to our members at State House.”
The most controversial subject of the day: masks.
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While Democrats who hold a 98-15 majority in both chambers wore masks, as they did during months of out-of-session committee hearings, the leader of the House GOP’s small caucus protested to advance against this requirement.
Anticipating the problem, Shekarchi sent an email on December 20 which read: “For those who do not comply with the mask’s mandate, we will offer accommodation and a seat permit in the House Gallery (opposite the grandstand )… Where a member or members could vote via their iPad and participate in debates with a microphone. ”
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But House GOP leader Blake Filippi of Block Island responded, “The Minority Caucus has determined that members of the House without masks cannot be unwittingly relegated to the House Gallery.
“They have the right to conduct legislative business on the floor of the House. No rule of the House can de facto usurp that right.”
Instead of relegating unmasked Republicans to the galleries, Filippi suggested any uncomfortable Democrats go to the House gallery, which “would be safer for them: away from most members, regardless. masks ”.
Ultimately, however, only three of the eight House Republicans in attendance for Opening Day went without a mask. Even Filippi wore a mask.
When asked why, he replied: I am polite and we are very close … and I choose to wear this mask on my own accord. I am not wearing it due to illegal executive orders or speaker’s dictates.
“It’s my personal choice,” he said.
But a handful of lawmakers with seats close to where unmasked Republicans Justin Price, David Place and Robert Quattrocchi sit in the chamber have moved into empty seats elsewhere.
Representative Teresa Tanzi, D- South Kingstown
And that’s how it started.
By the end of the day, McKee had signed legislation allocating the top 10% of the $ 1.13 billion US federal bailout package from Rhode Island to a base of widely described efforts ranging from “affordable housing” to ” small business help ”, with“ premium retention ”included for various groups of educators.
In his welcoming speech, President Shekarchi praised the opening day approval of the “first down payment of $ 1.1 billion in federal funds that will boost our economy and help families and businesses.”
Looking ahead to the next six months, Shekachi said: “Much of our work – as was the case last year – will focus on the health and economic issues associated with the pandemic, which still holds us in its grip. . “
“We have a historic opportunity to make critical, long-term investments to ensure that our state is in a better place for everyone. Including businesses, workers, families, children and the elderly – for decades to come, ”he said.
McKee’s initial proposal released in early fall was for $ 113 million, and included $ 45 million in aid and $ 12.7 million in retention bonuses for educators.
State lawmakers kept the bulk of McKee’s proposal and added $ 6 million to the child care program, bringing the total price to $ 119 million. With the additional funding, workers can claim up to $ 3,000 in premiums per year instead of $ 2,000 per year under McKee’s original plan.
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Small Business Assistance includes $ 32 million in assistance to businesses with revenues of less than $ 1 million affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other elements of the spending plan include $ 15 million for developers of affordable housing, $ 13 million for the hotel industry and $ 12.5 million for the Ministry of Children, Youth and Families.
The Assembly was to confirm five of McKee’s appointments to life judge positions and approve two new magistrates.
The judges are Kevin McHugh of the Superior Court; Jeanine Perella McConaghy and Shilpa Naik in family court; William J. Trezvant in the District Court and George J. Lazieh in the Workers’ Compensation Court.
The magistrates are Gina K. Lopes and William P. Rampone.
DELETION OF VETO:
Lawmakers overrode two of the governor’s summer vetoes, including one forcing state auto insurers to pay bodywork shop surcharges and a less controversial measure creating a registry for Airbnb, Vrbo and other disruptive short-term rentals communities like Newport.
On the auto body shop bill, McKee’s veto message read: “The National Association of Insurance Commissioners … ranks [Rhode Island] 7th in the country for highest auto insurance premiums. As we seek to restart our economy after the pandemic, we cannot implement measures that could result in even higher costs for consumers and small businesses. ”
The brother of one of Shekarchi’s former clients – the owner and developer of the Johnston Body Shop Thomas Casale – led a campaign for the waiver, which included submitting an editorial to the Journal.
The editorial said in part: “The governor was wrong … The law does not add any new costs. Payment for industry standard markup and sublease services has always been honored by most companies. insurance.
“However, a small number of insurers, mostly out of state, take premium payments from their clients, but after an accident they want to get away without paying for the repair of the vehicle.”
Body shop owners also gave at least $ 99,050 in political donations between January 1 and September 30, 2021. The vast majority of those dollars went to state lawmakers.