PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island General Assembly launched the 2023 legislative session Tuesday, re-electing House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio to their leadership positions.
The session begins with two new Republican leaders in House Minority Leader Michael W. Chippendale and Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz.
The 75-member House re-elected Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, casting 63 votes for Shekarchi and eight for Chippendale, a Foster Republican.
Shekarchi received votes from 61 Democrats, one vote from Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, of Cranston, and one vote from independent Jon D. Brien, of Woonsocket. Three Democratic representatives abstained: Brianna E. Henries, of East Providence, Enrique G. Sanchez, of Providence, and Jennifer Stewart, of Pawtucket. Representative Stephen M. Casey, a Woonsocket Democrat, was absent.
The 38-member Senate re-elected Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, with 36 votes. Senator Samuel W. Bell, a Providence Democrat, voted “no,” and Senator Hanna M. Gallo, a Cranston Democrat, was absent.
“We have made progress in tackling Rhode Island’s housing crisis. However, we need to do much more,” Shekarchi said. “Our state’s lack of affordable housing has been exposed in recent months. There can be no doubt we have a housing crisis and a homelessness crisis. As long as there are people without safe and permanent housing, our work isn’t done.”
Shekarchi said he is looking forward to recommendations from two legislative commissions — one studying the state’s Low and Moderate Income Housing Act and the other studying land use more generally.
“In order to find solutions to our housing crisis, we need to bring all parties to the table, including cities and towns,” he said. “As our commissions have already heard, some of the barriers to housing production must be addressed at the local level.”
He also warned that tough economic times might lie ahead.
“While we have weathered the storm of COVID-19, there is another real and impending storm on the horizon: the recession of 2023,” Shekarchi said. “While we continue working to strengthen our economy now, we must anticipate and prepare for the economy of tomorrow.”
He called for making Rhode Island a leader in the bioscience field, saying, “Our world-class healthcare and higher education institutions, combined with our proximity to other metropolitan areas, uniquely positions Rhode Island to become a hub for life sciences.”
The “green economy” also offers opportunities for Rhode Island, Shekarchi said. “We must continue striving to meet the renewable energy goals and the guidelines outlined in the Act on Climate,” he said.
Shekarchi also voiced support for open government. “We will continue to maintain the transparency that has been the hallmark of my speakership,” he said. “We better serve the public when our government is open and accessible.”
Representative Brian C. Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican, called Shekarchi “an excellent choice to lead Democratic Party in this state,” but he said the House should have a choice for speaker. So he nominated Chippendale, the House GOP leader, saying that would make news on a day when attention is focused on Washington, D.C., to see whether Republicans make US Representative Kevin McCarthy speaker of the US House of Representatives.
“Whatever happens down there today is going to be all over the national news. If we want to trump it – no pun intended – we should nominate and vote and elect Mike Chippendale as speaker,” Newberry said, drawing laughs.
The Assembly has 20 new members this session, with 12 new members in the House and eight in the Senate.
In his speech, Ruggerio noted that two years ago the Senate convened the 2021-22 legislative session at Rhode Island College Hall because of the “very difficult circumstances” during the pandemic.
“I am thankful that as we embark on the 2023-2024 legislative session, our situation has improved and that we have returned here, to the people’s house, to do the people’s business,” he said.
Ruggerio said he was proud of the “incredible progress” made in the last session, but he said, “We continue to face many challenges, and we have unfinished business.” And he listed some of the Senate leadership’s priorities for the 2023 session:
“We will continue to strengthen and expand Rhode Island’s early childhood care and education system, including universal pre-kindergarten access,” Ruggerio said.
“We will undertake a much-needed review of our education funding formula to ensure resources are being distributed equitably and effectively,” he said.
And, he said, “We will address the mental health crisis among our children, take action to replace all of Rhode Island’s lead pipes, and continue our work to ensure all Rhode Islanders have access to safe and affordable housing.
During the session, some legislators wore green in support of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would would let Medicaid recipients and state employees use their health insurance to cover the cost of abortions.
“Green is internationally recognized as the color of solidarity for abortion rights,” said Representative Teresa A. Tanzi, a Narragansett Democrat.
She said it is “unconscionable” that thousands of women lack access to abortion coverage in Rhode Island, and she noted that Governor Daniel J. McKee has said he would provide funding for that coverage in his budget proposal.