PROVIDENCE — House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and House Majority Leader Christopher R. Blazejewski on Tuesday outlined their priorities for the 2022 legislative session and responded to criticism. Here are six takeaways:
Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, said one of the top priorities for the House will be continuing to address Rhode Island’s housing crisis. “We will certainly move forward on housing,” he said. “We need to increase the housing stock. We have to make it more affordable. We need to look at cluster zoning, tiny houses.”
Shekarchi said he is proud the legislature took steps last session, such as creating a dedicated funding stream for affordable housing. And now he is looking to see what comes from a commission studying the state Low and Moderate Income Housing Act.
State law sets a goal that 10 percent of the housing stock in every city and town qualify as low- or moderate-income housing. But just six of the state’s 39 municipalities meet that threshold: Providence, Newport, Woonsocket, Central Falls, Burrillville, and Block Island.
“We are looking at that, at incentivizing or penalizing or maybe both,” Shekarchi said. “Every community, even the rural communities, have to do their part. It’s not just an inner-city problem. Every community in Rhode Island has to do its fair share.”
Response to State House encampment
Shekarchi cited the housing legislation passed in the last legislative session when asked about criticism from Senator Cynthia Mendes and gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown, who slept outside the State House for 16 days while calling for Governor Daniel J. McKee and Assembly leaders to tap federal funds to address homelessness.
“I stand by the record,” he said, citing his opinion piece detailing the Assembly’s housing initiatives. “Housing didn’t become an issue in the last 30 days or when the weather got cold. Housing was a priority for this House, for this General Assembly, and this Speaker from Day One. I said it in my inauguration speech, and we moved forward and we delivered. We didn’t just talk the talk, we walked the walk.”
Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat, said he worked with Representative Liana M. Cassar, a Barrington Democrat, to enact her proposed “pay for success” program to address chronic homelessness.
“It’s about providing permanent supportive housing,” Blazejewski said. “It’s about temporary housing when necessary, and wraparound services. Housing is a human right, and we need to continue to institute policies to help people stay in places that are warm and safe.”
He encouraged McKee’s administration to implement the program as soon as possible.
Marijuana legalization “framework”
Shekarchi said he sees a “very strong” likelihood of legalizing recreational marijuana in Rhode Island in 2022.
Last session, the House, the Senate, and the governor’s office held widely divergent views on the proposed marijuana legislation, he said. One of the last remaining sticking points was how to regulate the new industry — whether through the Department of Business Regulation, as the McKee administration favored, or through a new Cannabis Control Commission, as the Senate favored.
But now, Shekarchi said, legislators are looking at a “hybrid model” that New York uses to regulate marijuana, with a cannabis control commission working with a state agency, including full-time staff and outside representatives. He likened it to the way Rhode Island now runs the public utilities commission and the parole board.
“We have come together on a framework that will probably be introduced in mid-January,” Shekarchi said. “But that doesn’t mean that’s the end. That’s the beginning of a process — a very robust, public, transparent process where I’m sure the bill will continue to change and evolve.”
He said he does not known how much revenue marijuana sales would generate for the state. But he said, “I don’t have these illusions that it will generated hundreds of millions of dollars for the state.”
Returning to the State House
Amid the pandemic, the House met for months in the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, but Shekarchi said the House will begin the 2022 session meeting at the State House.
“We will evaluate it on a weekly basis, depending on what the Department of Health says,” he said. “But I think if everybody acts respectfully toward their fellow colleagues, we should be able to accommodate those who will wear masks and those who won’t wear masks in the House.”
He noted the House chambers contain two galleries, above the House floor, where some legislators could take part in the legislative sessions. He said the House will keep the occupancy of the chamber under 200 people and will not allow guests or lobbyists to attend. Members of the media will be able to attend if they wear masks, he said.
Shekarchi sent House members a message on Monday, saying, “In light of the Governor’s executive order, the House will be requiring masks to be worn on the floor and in committee hearings when we return for legislative business beginning Tuesday, Jan. 4.”
But, the message, “For those who do not comply with the mask mandate, we will offer an accommodation and permit seating in the House Gallery (facing the Rostrum). The gallery would be set up in similar fashion to the Veterans Auditorium last year, where a member or members could vote via their I-pads and participate in the debates with a microphone that would be stationed in the gallery.”
Act on Climate goals
In recent months, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut have announced they are pulling their support for the so-called Transportation Climate Initiative, likely sounding the death knell for a controversial cap-and-invest pact that would have led to substantial cuts to transportation emissions, the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gases.
But Shekarchi said he’s not sure Connecticut is pulling out for good, and he said Rhode Island will explore other ways to meet the goals contained in the Act on Climate, which makes the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable.
Blazejewski noted that Massachusetts is planning to tap money from the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill to address climate change, and Rhode Island could do the same.
Also, Shekarchi noted the state is now reviewing a petition to transfer ownership of the Narragansett Electric Company — National Grid’s electric and gas business for customers in Rhode Island — to PPL Corporation, based in Pennsylvania.
“National Grid has a fund of ratepayer money that could could easily be used to meet our goals for climate,” he said, adding he’ll be interested in hearing how PPL would administer that program. “TCI was a funding mechanism to do a lot of good things,” he said, but “there are other ways to fund those achievements that TCI would have done.”
Driving privileges for undocumented residents
Last session, the Senate passed a bill to provide driving privileges to undocumented residents, but the House did not pass that legislation.
“Last year, that issue arose after we passed the budget, with an approximately $7 million price tag,” Shekarchi said, referring to estimated costs of new employees at the Division of Motor Vehicles. “We didn’t account for that, so we are working with the governor’s office to get that number down to a more reasonable level.”
Shekarchi said Rhode Island is looking at the model used in Virginia, where undocumented drivers receive a driving permit that only provides driving privileges and can’t be used for other purposes. He said that’s preferable to the licenses provided to undocumented drivers in Connecticut. “I think it’s easier to get across the goal line,” he said.
On a final note, Shekarchi offered his New Year’s resolution: “I want to lose weight, eat right, and keep my blood sugar under control.”