PROVIDENCE -- The 2020 legislative session kicked off at the Rhode Island State House on Tuesday with prayers for the poor, calls to end housing discrimination, and new signs of movement on some gun-control legislation.
House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio have “A” ratings from the NRA, but both mentioned gun control bills during their session-opening remarks.
“While I strongly support Second Amendment rights,” said Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, “we need to get guns out of the hands of those with mental illness, as well as those who do not follow the laws.”
He called for the House to “take a close look at adding provisions to our background check laws to require police chiefs, in each community where the person attempting to purchase a gun resides, to review applications.”
Following a fatal shooting in Westerly last month, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha called for firearm purchase applications to be submitted to police departments where the buyer lives, not just where the gun is purchased.
Matteillo said, “We will also be looking at banning 3-D printed guns and ghost guns.”
On New Year’s Day, a Pawtucket woman was fatally shot with a gun that police say appears to have been made with a 3D printer.
During his opening remarks, Ruggerio said “each and every one of us remains committed to issues” that have passed the Senate but not the House, and the first example he cited was the 3D gun bill introduced by Senator Cynthia A. Coyne, a Barrington Democratic and retired State Police lieutenant.
But neither Mattiello nor Ruggerio offered support for three pieces of gun legislation that Governor Gina M. Raimondo and Neronha sought last legislative session: bans on so-called “assault-style” weapons, high-capacity magazines, and guns on school grounds.
Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, underscored housing issues.
He said “one area that doesn’t need any more study” is a bill introduced by Senator Harold Metts, a Providence Democratic, to prohibit housing discrimination based on source of income, such as Section 8 vouchers.
“This chamber has passed the bill each of the last two years,” he said. “It is time to end housing discrimination in our state.
Ruggerio also called for considering a bond or a permanent source of funding for affordable housing in Rhode Island, although he stopped short of backing a new tax to cover the costs.
“We should also look at the approach taken in other states, such as Massachusetts, which
incentivizes cities and towns to increase housing through both direct payments and
reimbursement of education costs,” he said.
Mattiello underscored a Forbes article that places Rhode Island 41st in the ranking of “best states for business.” While that’s up two notches, he said, “We must continue with our focus on ‘jobs and the economy’ to improve even further.”
And he had a barbed message for the Raimondo administration, which is on track to spend millions more than budgeted in agencies such as the Department of Children, Youth and Families.
“We have provided the necessary funding to take care of the most vulnerable among us, including children and those individuals who are intellectually challenged under the state’s care, the sick and the elderly,” he said. “These funds need to be managed properly in order to take care of people who need it the most.”
Before the House and Senate sessions, the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty held its 12th annual vigil in the State House rotunda. Religious leaders took turns calling out the names of elected leaders, starting with President Trump, and repeating the refrain: “May you governor with wisdom, care, and compassion.”
Raimondo, a Democrat, spoke during the vigil, saying she looks forward to it every year. “It’s the right way to begin because it focuses our priorities in the right place,” she said.
Among other issues, Raimondo offered support for raising the minimum wage. “We should have done it last year,” she said. “I want to call on the Assembly again to do it this year.” She did not say how much she would propose raising the minimum wage, which now stands at $10.50 per hour.
Raimondo said she is troubled by poverty and societal problems. “But really what is troubling is the rise in religious intolerance, anti-semitism, anger, hatred, divisiveness,” she said. “Every time you see it, stand up against it. Every time you hear it, speak up against it. It’s not OK.”
Ruggerio also addressed the vigil, saying the Senate will work to increase the minimum wage. Last session, the Senate passed a bill by Senator Erin Lynch Prata, a Warwick Democrat, to increase the minimum wage to $11.50 per hour, he noted.
“While that bill ultimately didn’t pass the House, we are hopeful that we this year we will be successful in our efforts to again increase the minimum wage to keep pace with our neighboring states,” he said.
The Rev. Tom Wiles, executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island, said the coalition invited Mattiello to speak but he did not take part in the event. A spokesman said Mattiello had a busy schedule Tuesday and was unable to attend.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org