Shekarchi, Ruggerio reflect on 2023 legislative session

At left, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi in his Warwick law office and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio on the final night of the 2023 legislative session. / RHODE ISLAND CURRENT / NANCY LAVIN

Just days after the Rhode Island General Assembly ended in a marathon, 10-hour session, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi is back at work.

Sitting in his fourth-floor Warwick law office Tuesday morning, the Warwick Democrat traded his suit and tie for a more casual look – checkered, collared shirt, top button open — but his approach to policy making was no less relaxed. He rattled off a half-dozen meetings he’d had with representatives and business groups in the aftermath of the session, discussing legislative victories as well the bills that didn’t pass.

Also on Shekarchi’s agenda: the June 30 declaration deadline for candidates to enter the 1st Congressional District race. Though Shekarchi previously said he wasn’t running, he played it coy on Tuesday, bringing up the special election filing deadline unprompted.

“Let’s see what happens,” he said.

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That wait-and-see approach is also how Shekarchi, and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, are looking ahead to next year’s legislative session. Especially amid expected slowdown in state revenue growth and the end of federal stimulus money, which bodes for a much leaner tax-and-spend plan compared with the record $14.0 billion fiscal 2024 budget.

Which is not to say that the two top lawmakers aren’t planning out their priorities for the next year.

Topping Shekarchi’s list: a bill to promote creation of “granny flats” (also known as in-law apartments), which was the only piece of legislation in his 14-bill package not to clear the Senate.

“It’s a big issue but also probably the most misunderstood,” he said, pointing to concerns raised about how the bill would interact with municipal zoning powers, septic systems and (according  to some critics) proliferate short-term rental problems.

On the Senate side, Ruggerio called lack of progress on reforming the Law Officers’ Bill of Rights his “greatest disappointment.” An amended version of the bill, which expanded and redefined membership on hearing panels for officers under investigation, cleared the Senate on the final day of session in an overwhelming 32-2 vote, but never made it out of committee on the House side.

“I take the blame for that,” Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, said in an interview Tuesday. “We sent it to the House too late so they couldn’t give it the proper attention they would normally give it.”

Shekarchi and Ruggerio each pledged to re-up their respective granny flat and LEOBOR bills next session.

But, as Ruggerio acknowledged, sacrifices are also in store as lawmakers cut down spending to match the anticipated revenue slowdown.

“I do think it’s going to be more difficult,” Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, said in an interview on Tuesday. “We’re going to have to pare down on some programs.”

But, he added, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next year, or next month. We can’t predict so it’s kind of a reactive kind of thing.”

Of course, it wasn’t all losses — especially with state coffers flush with surplus tax revenue and federal stimulus funds. Indeed, Shekarchi’s no. 1 win was the $14 billion budget, not only for its contents but the process through which he garnered rare bipartisan support.

The sub-three hour House floor debate on the tax and spend plan was the shortest in his memory, featuring “yes” votes from five of nine House Republicans. Shekarchi chalked up the success and speed to his communication with lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Mike Chippendale.

“I made a conscious effort to reach out to Leader Chippendale and include some items in the budget that he wanted,” Shekarchi said.

Wouldn’t he do that anyway? Not necessarily, especially considering that the previous House Minority Leader, Blake Filippi, had sued Shekarchi and other members of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services.

“It’s hard to have a relationship with someone who’s suing me,” Shekarchi said.

By contrast, Shekarchi found Chippendale, a Foster Republican, to be professional communicative, and willing to support a compromise budget rather than condemning it as Republican lawmakers have opted to do in the past.

“It’s not glamorous to do what he did, but I think it’s honorable,” Shekarchi said.

Ruggerio also had high praise for the budget, calling it “one of the best I’ve seen.”

Between the record-level spending plan and the 482 bills passed during the session, victories abounded on high-profile issues like housing, education, tax breaks for small businesses and shoreline access.

Another notable win, in Ruggerio’s eyes, was a “sleeper bill” that aims to minimize how many times the same road gets ripped apart for repairs. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Robert Britto, an East Providence Democrat, requires utilities to coordinate with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to minimize the number of times a road undergoes separate repair projects.

For Shekarchi, one success with personal significance was legislation setting standards for hospitals, urgent care centers and other health care operations to screen for and treat sepsis. Having met with the family of Gianna Cirella, a Warwick teeneager who died from sepsis that went undetected in 2017, Shekarchi said he felt particularly attached to the cause and the legislation.

“It’s not world shattering, but it has a huge impact on those people, and it helps make the state better,” he said.

Then there are the bills that, in Shekarchi’s words, “come out of left field.” This year’s top contenders: magic mushrooms and human composting, both of which failed to pass but certainly sparked conversations among lawmakers and residents.

“You would never have seen those when I first got to the building and became an elected official,” said Ruggerio, who was first elected to the Senate in 1984. “It’s interesting. Issues are getting more complex, everything is a little different than what it used to be.”

One thing that hasn’t changed: the importance of behind-the-scenes negotiations as lawmakers make trades and hammer out the details of what their policies mean (and cost). Ruggerio credited Shekarchi for including the Senate in the budget process, which is a responsibility traditionally led by the House.

Asked about the possibility of losing Shekarchi in the State House if in the next 10 days he announces a run for, and wins, the 1st Congressional District seat, Ruggerio said, “Selfishly, I hope that the Speaker stays where he is, because we have a great relationship. However, I do think he would do an excellent job.”

Nancy Lavin is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.

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