PROVIDENCE — Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio and Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey on Friday provided an overview of their priorities for the 2022 legislative session and responded to criticism. Here’s six takeaways:
Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, said the Senate is looking to speed up the process of making pre-kindergarten available to all children who want it in the state. Under the current program, it would take the state close to 30 years to reach the “universal pre-K” level statewide, and he wants use an additional $120 million to achieve that goal in five years.
“We want to look to accelerate that,” Ruggerio said. “We think that is very important. There is a learning loss. Young people should be starting school earlier. I think that’s something the Senate is going to focus on, and I have three or four senators working on that particular issue.”
Legalizing recreational marijuana
McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, said he expects to see legislation passed early in the session to legalize recreational marijuana in Rhode Island.
One of the main sticking points has been the Senate’s desire to create a Cannabis Control Commission to regulate the marijuana sales, while Governor Daniel J. McKee’s administration wants the Department of Business Regulation to handle those duties.
“We are working on that right now,” McCaffrey said. “We haven’t come to a resolution with the administration, but we are working with the House to come together on things.”
He said Massachusetts has a cannabis commission that seems to be working well. “We know DBR does a lot of good things with the cannabis, but we believe that having a separate independent commission is important,” he said.
Water and sewer improvements
Ruggerio said one of his top priorities will be using money from the federal infrastructure bill to improve the state’s aging water and sewer systems. “It’s important to get rid of the lead pipes and have potable drinking water,” he said.
Last year, amid the pandemic, the number of children poisoned by lead for the first time rose from 388 to 472, according to state Department of Health data. That 22 percent increase was even more alarming because it occurred as 17 percent fewer children were being tested. Advocates and state legislators have called for tapping $500 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds or other federal money to replace the estimated 100,000 drinking water pipes that still contain lead.
“I think we can get rid of all the lead pipes,” Ruggerio said. “That is something that is really immediate because, obviously, lead pipes have a detrimental effect on young children.”
New school construction
Ruggerio said he backs a $250 million bond proposal for new school construction. “Our schools need that,” he said. “Looking forward, I think you need probably $1.5 billion to really fix and renovate all our schools to where they should be.”
Ruggerio, a retired administrator of the New England Laborers Labor Management Coop Trust, said he support a proposal made by Climate Jobs Rhode Island. The coalition of labor unions and environmental groups is calling for Rhode Island to tap federal and state funds to “decarbonize” public school buildings by shifting them from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
Ruggerio responded to criticism from Senator Cynthia Mendes, an East Providence Democrat running for lieutenant governor, who just spent 16 days sleeping in a tent outside the State House, calling for state officials, including Ruggerio, to tap an influx of federal funding to address homelessness.
“I don’t know what Senator Mendes was screaming about,” Ruggerio said. He said she voted against a state budget that included a permanent revenue stream for affordable housing. “I just felt what was going on out there was cheap political theatrics.”
Ruggerio said the state had already allocated millions of dollars for housing and addressing homelessness. “We did what we said we were going to do,” he said. “We had more than enough money.”
Ruggerio also responded to criticism from his political opponent, Lenny Cioe, who claims that proposed new Senate district maps are designed to protect Ruggerio in next year’s elections.
The state is in the process of redrawing political boundaries to reflect new census data. And Cioe, who lost to Ruggerio in 2020, said new Senate maps remove his area of strength in some of the Providence sections of the district, including the Elmhurst neighborhood around Providence College.
But Ruggerio said Cieo remains in Senate District 4 in all the proposed maps. He said five senators now represent portions of North Providence, and he is the only one that lives in the town. “I’ll tell you the truth, I haven’t even looked at any of my maps, but from what I understand, it’s not really that much different from anyone else,” he said. “I don’t know what he’s talking about. From what I understand, he’s in the district on all the maps.”
On a final note, Ruggerio was asked to make a prediction for 2022. “I predict eventually this year we are going to get rid of the virus,” he said of COVID-19.