PROVIDENCE — The new legislative session in Rhode Island starts Jan. 2, and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said housing is once again a top priority, along with reforming Rhode Island’s police misconduct law and balancing the state budget.
“There’s a lot of fiscal cliffs coming,” Shekarchi warned during a sit-down interview in the House chamber with the Globe and Rhode Island PBS on Monday. He wouldn’t rule out any tax changes, but said the House is unlikely to revisit a cut to the 7 percent sales tax this year. (Governor Dan McKee submits his tax-and-spending plan to the General Assembly in January.)
The interview can be viewed on Rhode Island PBS Weekly this Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
Here are some highlights:
Build, build, build
Shekarchi’s top focus is building new housing units, and he plans to make another push to streamline the process of building “accessory dwelling units,” small housing structures built on an existing home’s lot that are sometimes known as granny flats or in-law apartments. Legislation giving homeowners the right to develop the accessory apartments passed the House last session but died in the Senate, in part amid concerns about the units being used for short-term rentals like AirBnB, even though such rentals were banned in the proposed legislation. (“People who are opposing this haven’t read the legislation,” Shekarchi argued.)
A slew of other housing bills supported by Shekarchi this past year take effect Jan. 1, which he hopes will increase housing production. The speaker noted cities and towns have been “fearful” about new mandates from the state that may impinge on local interests.
Asked if the state might take a heavier hand with municipalities on housing issues, Shekarchi said: “We’re not afraid to take more drastic measures and more drastic action if needed, but we’re not there yet.”
Rent control not on the table
Shekarchi said he doesn’t support restricting how much landlords can increase the rent on tenants, known as rent control or rent stabilization, even as rent prices skyrocket in Rhode Island. By one measure, the Providence market saw the highest year-over-year rent increases in the country this year, with the average apartment renting for more than $2,000.
The way to get rent prices down is to build more housing, Shekarchi said, not to regulate what private landlords can charge.
“If you create more units then you have competition and prices will come down,” he said. “That’s the answer.”
Reforming the police misconduct law
The General Assembly failed to reform the controversial Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights for the third year in a row this past session, despite support from leadership in the House and Senate. The big hang-up was the makeup of the board that determines discipline for a police officer accused of misconduct. As it stands, the panel is made up of three current and former law enforcement officers, and advocates for reform want to add civilians to the panel.
Those working on reforming the law also want to extend the number days a police chief can suspend an officer before their right to a LEOBOR hearing kicks in (it’s currently two days) and they want to lift the so-called “gag order” on chiefs that prevents them from speaking publicly about officer misconduct while a case is pending.
Shekarchi said a new bill has been worked on all summer and he expects it to get a vote early in the session. He declined to comment on the specifics of the new proposal, calling it a work in progress.
“I think this is the year,” he said.
Public school districts are facing a dramatic drop in enrollment, prompting potential concerns about school budgets since the state’s education aid formula is based on enrollment. It comes as districts are also facing a potential “cliff” following the COVID relief spending deadline in September.
Shekarchi noted the General Assembly has increased education funding every year despite the declining enrollment.
“And unfortunately I don’t see a lot of results,” he said. “I don’t think money is the answer. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know we need to look at all aspects of it.”
He said local government agencies should have planned ahead for the expiring COVID cash, and noted he already has “a billion dollars in asks” for various priorities.
Shekarchi said his top priorities for education include adequately funding the system, getting more teachers, and addressing chronic absenteeism.
Providence schools takeover
Shekarchi said he is not inclined to take action to try and end the controversial state takeover of the Providence public schools, which is scheduled to end its first five-year term in 2024 but can be extended.
“I don’t think that’s a decision a politician should make, that’s a professional decision made by the people at the Rhode Island Department of Education,” Shekarchi said. “I don’t see enough evidence to change the path we’re on at the moment.”
Watch the interview on Sunday at 7:30 on Rhode Island PBS Weekly, where Shekarchi will also weigh in on improving the struggling early intervention system for infants and toddlers with development delays.