PROVIDENCE — Governor Dan McKee called on the Rhode Island General Assembly to end its recess and reconvene “immediately” to restore his emergency powers so he can “respond” to the ongoing pandemic.
“The General Assembly recently limited some — but not all — of my power to respond to emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, and its emerging, more contagious variants,” he said during a COVID-19 press conference Thursday. “That is particularly troublesome since the General Assembly may not return before January of 2022.”
He urged the General Assembly to act to “extend and confirm the useful legal tools that any Governor needs” to effectively counter COVID-19. But it’s unclear if legislative action is necessary.
Some of McKee’s powers were limited under the newly passed state budget in June to prevent countless orders and mandates. But he still has Constitutional power to prevent the spread of the Delta variant and other emerging variants. Under the new law, McKee does not have the power to touch $1.1 billion in federal funding Rhode Island received without getting legislative approval.
Senator Ryan Pearson, a Cumberland Democrat, and chairman of the finance committee, said it was intentional for the governor to still have the power to act on protecting the health and safety of Rhode Islanders under the new budget. Pearson added the American Rescue Plan funding represents a “once in a lifetime opportunity to invest” in the state and that it “needs a full public vetting.”
“Governor McKee [is] welcome to ask for specific changes,” he said.
In a joint statement, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Speaker Joseph Shekarchi, both Democrats, said they met with the governor earlier Thursday afternoon when he made “no mention” of reconvening the General Assembly, but only said he was exploring declaring another state of emergency related to the Delta variant. They said they wished the governor had been more “forthright” in their conversations.
“Governor McKee has mischaracterized the provisions contained in the budget, which he signed into law. He retains all of his executive authority relative to health and safety,” they said.
McKee attempted to clarify to reporters what executive powers he needed the General Assembly to restore for him. He said he wanted executive powers to be extended until January instead of expiring 180 days from the date of the emergency order or proclamation of the state of disaster emergency.
Ruggerio and Shekarchi said if the governor believes current circumstances require a new state of emergency, then he has the “full authority to issue one” and they support it.
McKee told reporters that would meet again with the leaders next week to “discuss this very issue.”
Shortly after the press conference, McKee officially signed a new declaration of emergency in Rhode Island through Sept. 18, which he said targeted the Delta variant.
But House Minority Leader Blake Filippi, a Block Island Republican, said the General Assembly has “clearly limited” the governor’s emergency powers to 180 days.
“The attempt by the Governor skirt this limitation by simply declaring a ‘new’ emergency is a dangerous and cynically act,” wrote Filippi on Twitter.
Senator Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, took to Twitter and said, “Before the ink is dry on McKee’s new state of emergency, I call on my colleagues in the General Assembly to reconvene and terminate his order by concurrent resolution.”
Rep. Patricia Morgan, a West Warwick Republican, said McKee’s call to the General Assembly to return to the State House is a “leadership failure” and one power that lawmakers stripped when they passed the budget this past June.
Morgan added, “Governor McKee is apparently desperate to continue the one-man rule of executive orders.”
But other lawmakers, such as Rep. David Morales, a Providence Democrat, declared, “We are ready!”
“With over a billion dollars in federal funding, it is absolutely necessary we allocate this money and provide relief to our working people,” Morales said.