Talk about a sudden turn.
For six years, the General Assembly – or at least one chamber of it – was controlled by House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a conservative-leaning Democrat, much like the Cranston district he represented.
And then there was then-Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, a Democrat with more liberal leanings who had been in the state’s top office since 2015. Raimondo and Mattiello, the two most powerful politicians in Rhode Island government, were often at odds on budgetary priorities and policy decisions.
Now they’re both gone.
Wounded by several controversies during his tenure, Mattiello was unseated in November 2020 by Republican challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung. A term-limited Raimondo left office in early 2021 to take the job as U.S. commerce secretary under President Joe Biden.
They left behind new House leadership, a new group of progressive lawmakers, a new governor and a state that’s still trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
With Mattiello, who stood in the way of legalized recreational marijuana for years, out of office, state leaders looked poised to make legalization happen. House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio and Gov. Daniel J. McKee have each backed different versions of legislation that would accomplish essentially the same thing: The establishment of a system that will allow for the regulation of legalized recreational marijuana.
Agreements between the executive branch and the legislative branch have been rare in recent years. despite all top political seats in Rhode Island being controlled by Democrats.
One of the more high-profile examples of disagreement in recent years came when state leaders attempted to negotiate a plan to keep the Pawtucket Red Sox in Rhode Island. In 2017, Raimondo backed a deal for a new $83 million stadium paid for mostly with bonds, spreading the costs between the state, the city of Pawtucket and the team.
While the Senate approved the agreement, Mattiello stalled the decision in the House, saying he wasn’t comfortable with some aspects of the deal.
By August 2018, with no agreement finalized between the team and the state, the team announced that it was moving to Worcester, Mass. The Worcester Red Sox – the WooSox – started playing at Polar Park in spring 2021.
As a consolation prize, the R.I. Commerce Corp. board of directors gave the go-ahead in February 2021 to provide more than $46 million in public, tax-increment financing and tax credits to a proposed Pawtucket development project that will include a minor league soccer stadium.
Another public dust-up took place in 2019, when Raimondo agreed to a deal that would keep International Game Technology PLC in the state and a promise of increasing the number of jobs based here in exchange for a 20-year contract to oversee the state’s massive lottery system.
The problem: The deal was negotiated without input from state legislators and had casino operator Twin River Worldwide Holdings Inc. – now called Bally’s Corp. – publicly unhappy, so much so that it made a similar offer to run the lottery system.
Legislative leaders delayed approving the agreement, and eventually a compromise was hammered out that satisfied IGT, Bally’s and most lawmakers. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t approved by the General Assembly until the spring of 2021.
The political discord was mostly put on hold when the pandemic arrived in March 2020. The General Assembly largely went into hibernation, clearing the way for Raimondo to take nearly full command of the response to the crisis.
Declaring a state of emergency, Raimondo ordered the shutdown of schools, restaurants, bars and other businesses that were not deemed essential. In daily briefings from the Statehouse, Raimondo gave updates on case counts and fatalities, and to those who were gathering in groups without masks, she had a message that went viral: “Knock it off.”
By the end of 2020, masked lawmakers felt more comfortable meeting face to face, as long as the proper precautions were taken – the Senate met during the 2021 session at an auditorium at Rhode Island College, the House at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Both venues allow for social distancing, unlike the chamber at the Statehouse.
But even with new faces in the leadership positions – namely McKee and Shekarchi – the disagreements continued.
Leaders generally agreed that legalizing recreational marijuana must move forward, or the state will see potential revenue flow across the border into Massachusetts, where recreational marijuana has been legal for years. But by the fall of 2021, they still didn’t see eye to eye on how to tax and regulate it. Measures included various methods of oversight and different rates of taxation.
Another simmering issue was the spending of the state’s slice of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act – about $1.1 billion. As of late October, Rhode Island remained the only state in the Northeast that had not spent a dollar of the recovery funds.
McKee has lobbied to tap into the federal funds but had been rebuffed by the General Assembly. In early October, the governor unveiled a proposal to spend 10% of Rhode Island’s ARPA funds on short-term needs. The plan was submitted to the General Assembly as a supplemental state budget amendment that needed the approval of legislators.