PROVIDENCE — From housing to finally building a life sciences hub in Providence, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Majority Leader Chris Blazejewski are gearing up for another busy legislative session in 2023.
The two powerful Democrats sat with the Globe to discuss their priorities when lawmakers return in January. Here are six key issues on their radar.
Not thrilled with housing secretary
Last year, Shekarchi had talked about the need for the state to have someone in the cabinet to coordinate programs to address homelessness and the housing crisis. Now, the state has made Josh Saal the Rhode Island housing secretary.
So what letter grade would Shekarchi give Saal’s performance thus far? “I for incomplete,” he said. “The jury is still out, and I plan on having these discussions. What I am looking for from any housing director — all housing directors — is production, production, production.”
So is Saal producing? “Not yet,” Shekarchi said. “But we are going to have these discussions when we convene in January, and I want to know why we are not or what we can do to help him, or what we need to do to make changes.”
When asked if Saal should play a role in addressing the homeless encampment outside the State House, Shekarchi said that is a question for the executive branch. “We created the position, we provided the funding, we elevated it to the Cabinet level,” he said. “They have to deliver.”
Other possible housing solutions
Shekarchi said he is “strongly considering” having the state step in to buy properties — like empty dorm buildings or vacant schools — to convert them to immediate temporary shelters and affordable housing if local housing authorities and nonprofits don’t do it themselves.
He said Montgomery County in Maryland has a pilot program where the state invested money to build an apartment complex with market rate, low-income, and workforce housing and then borrowed money against the complex to build even more housing — essentially creating a revolving fund that gets paid for by renters over time. He said there isn’t a state in the country with a similar program, but it’s one he wants to look at.
Shekarchi also wants abandoned industrial mills to be converted to residential housing without forcing building owners to go through burdensome zoning processes in various municipalities. A legislative committee studying land use is expected to release other recommendations earlier this year.
Shekarchi talked about perhaps curtailing the early voting period that this year allowed Rhode Islanders to cast votes in person at city and town halls in the 20 days leading up to Election Day.
He said many parts of the state’s election system worked well this year. But, he said, “Maybe we can reduce the early voting period.” He talked about scaling the 20-day period back to two weeks or 20 days.
“I heard a little bit of pushback from some of the boards of canvassers that it was too long of an early voting period,” Shekarchi said. “They had to open a polling station at the city or town and man it for 20 days, and the first five, six days no one showed up. They came on the last part of that.”
But, he said, “If someone can convince me that we need it, I’ll keep it. But if someone can convince me to adjust it, maybe we’ll look at adjusting it. I’m not going to eliminate it because I think it has a great benefit.”
The incoming secretary of state, Representative Gregg Amore, has called for letting people register to vote on Election Day, but Shekarchi expressed concerns about that proposal.
“I’m open to listening to the idea, but to me it’s a logistical nightmare,” Shekarchi said. “When you talk about an idea, you need to look at the practical effects. Where’s the Board of Elections on that? Does that mean you can register the same day and then you can run?”
State takeover of Providence schools
There’s a push from the Providence Teachers Union, the school board, and a handful of lawmakers to have the state return control of the school district to the city, but Shekarchi isn’t yet supportive of the idea. He pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the first two years of the takeover, and said other states have shown that it can take several years to determine if similar interventions can work.
“It has to be a period of time where you judge, and unfortunately that period is usually 10 years,” Shekarchi said.
He said the House Oversight Committee is planning to call in Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green to discuss the takeover on Thursday, and will hold more hearings in the new year.
Rhode Island Biotech and Life Science hub
At the recommendation of Shekarchi, the Rhode Island Foundation earlier this year commissioned a market assessment of the state’s biotech life sciences. Among the recommendations from the report was the creation of a quasi-public agency called the Rhode Island Biotech and Life Science hub and a $50 million commitment over several years to strengthen the state’s life sciences sector.
Shekarchi said he wants to kick-start the conversation about those recommendations, but he stopped short of making a $50 million investment in the next budget. He said he’ll seek more buy-in from the colleges and hospitals, especially Brown University. He said he hasn’t talked to Brown President Christina Paxson about the idea, but he plans to do so in the coming weeks.
“Unilaterally the state cannot do it alone,” Shekarchi said.
Shekarchi said a study commission came up with a good proposal for the shoreline access bill that the House passed in the last legislative session. But that bill went nowhere in the Senate.
Shekarchi said the House passed the measure late in last year’s session, so it will try to get the bill over to the Senate early in the 2023 session. But also, the Senate has a “constitutional concern” that the bill would take property from private land owners, he said.
“I personally don’t believe that it’s a taking, or I wouldn’t have passed the bill if I thought it was unconstitutional,” Shekarchi said. “But there are ways to resolve that issue.”
For example, he said the legislature could ask for an advisory opinion from the state Supreme Court on that legal question.
Last year, Shekarchi told the Globe his New Year’s resolution was: “to lose weight, eat right, and keep my blood sugar under control.”
How’s that going? “All very good. That is the one benefit of having a primary and general election. I lost 20 pounds and my A1C (blood sugar level) has never been better in my life.”
He said he campaigned door to door in Warwick with state Representative Terri Cortvriend, a Portsmouth Democrat, on a summer day when it was 102 degrees.
This year, he said his goals include keeping the weight off and learning from his mistakes in the last legislative session. What was his biggest mistake in the last session? “Talking too much to the press,” he joked.