PROVIDENCE — As the General Assembly rushed toward the conclusion of this year’s legislative session Thursday night, House Republicans uncorked a late-night surprise, announcing that House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi won’t seek re-election.
The eight-member House GOP caucus named Representative Michael W. Chippendale, a Foster Republican, as the new minority leader, and it tapped Representative David J. Place, a Burrillville Republican, to replace Chippendale as House minority whip.
Fillipi, a Block Island Republican, did not give a specific reason for why he won’t run again.
“I’ll talk more in the future,” he told the Globe after the session. “The time was right. It’s a large life decision. When big decisions are in front of you, you need to see signs that guide the way. I’ll listen to my instincts and my heart, and we will see where the universe takes me. It’s a big world out there.”
The announcement came one day after Filippi broke with his Republican counterparts and voted to provide driver privilege cards for undocumented residents.
But Chippendale, who announced the news, said Filippi was not leaving because of any friction within the GOP caucus or the party, and he said Filippi had made the decision not to seek re-election well before the last days of the session.
“Perhaps what you may have seen was an unencumbered man speaking more freely about something he’s always spoken about,” he said of Filippi’s floor speech on the driver privilege cards.
“Emphatically, this was his decision,” Chippendale said. “It was a personal decision – a very well-founded and rationale decision that, once you learn about it, you will understand why. No bad reasons. He is not leaving to take care of a medical issue, nothing like that.”
So is it a business decision? “It’s related in a lot of ways to that, sure,” Chippendale said.
Filippi, 41, is a Block Island family business owner, lawyer, and organic cattle rancher.
“With a person like Blake, opportunities are like blueberries,” Chippendale said. “You just got to pick them – they are everywhere. He will always have opportunities because he creates them.”
Speaking for the House Republican caucus, Chippendale said, “We have nothing but the utmost respect for him.” He said Filippi, who is known for his libertarian views, has often prompted Republican legislators to reassess their stances on issues.
“Blake has always been Blake,” he said. “When he is making very these very passionate speeches on the floor that people may perceive as bucking the party, it’s not that at all.”
Chippendale said Filippi led by example and taught him “about how to think issues through and to not be afraid if where you land might not be the most popular place to land. He set the mark by which all other future minority leaders will be judged.”
Filippi was first elected as an independent in November 2014 to represent House District House District 36, which includes all of Block Island and Charlestown, and portions of Westerly and South Kingstown. He soon joined the GOP and became House minority leader in November 2018.
In December, Filippi announced that he would not run for governor in 2022. “Representing the people of Charlestown, Block Island, South Kingstown, and Westerly is the best job, one which I hope to continue in the years ahead,” Filippi tweeted at the time.
Democratic and Republican legislators stood to speak in praise of Filippi on Thursday night. And Filippi told them he was thankful for the relationships he had formed in the House.
“To all my colleagues, the art of politics as is the art of life,” he said. “It is who we meet and the relationships along the way that count. It has been an honor to serve with every one of you and to be your friend.”
Filippi emailed a message to constituents, saying, “Now having served in the General Assembly for eight years, nearly 20 percent of my life, I have struggled about whether to seek another term in office. The time is now to step aside and for new public servants step up and serve our communities in the House. While I will not run for reelection, I intend to remain deeply engaged in our beautiful corner of the world.”
Earlier in the evening, the Senate voted 33 to 5 along party lines for the state budget after turning back amendments proposed by outnumbered Republicans. The House had approved the budget by a vote of 61 to 9 last week. Democratic Governor Daniel J. McKee plans to sign it during a ceremony Monday.
Working with $1.1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds and a state budget surplus of $878 million, Rhode Island lawmakers had the cash to achieve many goals this year.
“It’s nice to have money to spend,” said Senator Walter S. Felag Jr., a Warren Democrat. “This is the first time in a long time that we had a budget where we could establish some sort of priorities that we wanted to initiate in the state of Rhode Island.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ryan W. Pearson, a Cumberland Democrat, ticked off some of those priorities.
“We all know that, as well as the economy is doing, costs are up for families,” he said. “So this budget very intentionally was drafted and created with a package of targeted tax relief to help Rhode Island families.”
For example, he noted the budget provides $64 million to move up the final step in the phaseout of the automobile excise tax to this year, rather than next. The budget reimburses cities and towns for the lost revenue.
Pearson said the budget also made major public investments, including $250 million for housing. “Just compare that to the amount of money we would normally bond for affordable housing,” he said.
But Republican legislators argued that the budget fell short in several areas.
Senator Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, proposed an amendment that would have suspended the state gas tax for 180 days. She noted that President Joe Biden has called for Congress to suspend federal gasoline and diesel taxes for three months. And she said suspending both the federal and state tax could save up to 54 cents a gallon, easing the “pain at the pump.”
Pearson said Senate leaders looked for ways to address the rising gas prices, but they found that when states suspend gas tax, it doesn’t result in much savings at the pump. He said gas prices in states like Connecticut, which has suspended its gas tax, are only a couple cents cheaper per gallon than in Rhode Island.
So Senate leaders chose instead to eliminate the car tax and to provide a one-time child tax credit of $250 per child for Rhode Island residents making up to $100,000, Pearson said.
De la Cruz’s amendment failed by a vote of 5 to 32.
Senator Jeanine Calkin, a Warwick Democrat who is a co-chair of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, tried to amend the budget to increase the minimum wage to $19 an hour over three years.
But Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, ruled that her proposal was “not germane” before the Senate could vote on it.
In other action, the General Assembly passed legislation to require the state’s electric utility to contract for up to 1,000 megawatts of new offshore wind capacity. The bill lets the Public Utilities Commission decide whether the company will get an “incentive payment” of up to 1 percent of the contract amount.
“When we enacted the Act on Climate last year, Rhode Island made a historically firm, enforceable commitment to rapidly adopt renewable energy and get serious about our climate obligations,” said Senator Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat who sponsored the Act on Climate. “Projects like the one we’re seeking with this legislation are an important part of our energy future.”
But the Assembly did not provide final approval for a shoreline access bill.
On June 7, the House unanimously passed legislation that would give people more lateral access to the shore than they get under the law as it’s often enforced now.
But the Senate did not take up the bill. “It is a complex issue involving property rights legislation that could lead to a lawsuit and potential financial liability for the state,” Senate spokesman Greg Pare said.
While the House had a chance to analyze the issue through a commission and the committee process, the Senate did not have its own version of the bill and received the House bill a few weeks ago, Pare said. “We just ran out of time,” he said.
House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, issued a statement, pledging to work on the issue with Ruggerio and the Senate next year. “Shoreline access remains a robust priority of the House and the sponsor, Representative Terri Cortvriend,” a Portsmouth Democrat, he said.
The Assembly also went another year with taking action to overhaul the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), which dictates how departments around the state deal with police officer misconduct.
Representative Anastasia P. Williams, a Providence Democrat, had introduced the LEOBOR bill in 2021 following an outcry over the killing of George Floyd. But legislative leaders said they were unable to reach consensus on the legislation last year or this year.
“The House and Senate worked independently on this issue and neither chamber could come to a consensus with the stakeholders as to the length of potential suspensions and the makeup of the hearing board,” Shekarchi said. “I am committed to working with the Senate again next year on this issue.”
At 12:40 a.m. Friday, Shekarchi marked the end of this year’s legislative session, saying, “That’s a wrap.”
“I’m proud we have enacted three budgets that have not raised taxes,” Shekarchi said. “Indeed, they have cut taxes, eliminated the car tax a year ahead of schedule. Plus, all the investments helping those in need in our state is a tribute to the many talented people in this room.”