Representative Deborah Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown)

With the start of the legislative session, I reached out to the area’s legislative delegation to survey what legislation is important to each of them, the challenges ahead, and their perspective on the upcoming legislative session. 

Initially, I expected to wrap the answers into a single story. But the responses were so extensive and informative that I decided it would be more beneficial running these separately. Over the next several days to few weeks, these will appear as a feature: “Under the Dome.” This is the fourth in our series.

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, Dist. 74

What legislation do you hope to introduce in the 2020 legislative session?   

My priorities as of now for 2020 legislative session:  

  • Stopping what are called ‘surprise’ medical bills that people don’t expect and can’t afford
  • Accessing fiber optic so everyone in Rhode Island- especially businesses and residents on Aquidneck Island and Jamestown- can leverage economic opportunities.
  • Expanding composting to help reduce the food waste and 100,000 tons a year that’s dumped in our landfill.     

What legislation did you introduce in the last legislative session and what was the outcome?  

Two important bills of mine passed in 2019 session:   

  • Small Business Sustainability Law that enables business to establish standards for corporate responsibility to attract employees, customers, and investors. Doing business in the 21st century means putting money where values are in creating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria.    
  • Sponsor of the Innovation Waiver that authorized the Office of Health Insurance Commissioner (OHIC) to create a Reinsurance Program at HealthSource RI to help small business and families with health insurance costs.  Reinsurance program pays for some of the most expensive insurance claims, resulting in lower premiums for consumers. OHIC says this will reduce premium rates by up to 7 percent for consumers in the individual market in 2020.  

What did you feel were the legislature’s greatest accomplishments in 2019? 

  • Reform to House Rules:  Several Democrats and Republicans pushed for changes to the House Rules and one that passed was that bills should be posted 24 hours before a vote, so legislators (and the public) could read them.  For the first time in decades, the House Rules were NOT suspended at the end of session, so you didn’t see that ‘flurry of bills’ passing in the middle of the night. It meant we ran out of time for some good bills that didn’t pass this session like the parentage adoption bill, but it also meant a slew of ‘bad bills’ didn’t get passed!  
  • Statute of limitations on sexual abuse was extended to 35 years, a major victory for victims of childhood sexual abuse.  
  • Codifying a woman’s right to her reproductive health choices.  
  • Increasing education aid $33 million dollars.  

What were your greatest disappointments in the 2019 legislative session? 

  • Article 15 of the budget allowing the six new Compassion Centers to cultivate and sell marijuana, which would seriously hurt 53 cultivator businesses in the state. The Department of Business Regulations issued the rules/regulations last November that the new dispensaries could only sell and detailed how the licenses would be issued. There will be more debate and legislation around this.  

What do you see as the state’s greatest challenges in 2020?   

  • The budget!  Having spent six years on House Finance, the budget is the conscience of the state. It highlights our priorities. 
  • The economy and workforce development are critical.  
  • Rhode Island needs to invest in education.  Employers talk about young people needing to know fractions, math, having writing skills. It was the business community in MA in the mid- 1990s that talked about education because it was their future workforce. MA set a course for education and stayed the course. Funding education even in a down economy, passing bonds for school building improvements.   We are on a new course with the new Education Commissioner. But we have a 5-10-year plan ahead of us.  

What do you see as the region’s greatest challenges in 2020?   

I’m concerned about another gas outage on Aquidneck Island that impacted over 7,000 people last January. Other Aquidneck Island colleagues and I have called on Division of Public Utilities and Carriers to investigate and ensure that it never happens again.  We will be vigilant to ensure that the $25 million cost to National Grid is not recouped at the expense of ratepayers. We need reliable and resilient gas/electric transmissions.  

No doubt the most challenging event in 2019 was the gas crisis. Were you satisfied with the outcome of investigations by the state, feds, and National Grid, including the time it took to complete and release these reports? Do you feel enough has been done to prevent a repeat of the gas crisis?  What do you believe still needs to be done long-term to assure an uninterrupted gas flow on Aquidneck Island? 

There were some demonstrated strengths and some areas for improvement.  The Rapid Engagement of the Red Cross, the municipalities, and the spirit of human kindness in the community to respond and set up emergency shelters for heat and food—remember it was January the coldest days of the winter. Gaudet School in Middletown so many food pantries and the community really rallied.  The collaboration between the munis, the state agencies, the local police departments, EMA, state police doing wellness checks and going to every home impacted by the gas shutdown.  

The DPUC report placed blame and rightly so on National Grid and Enbridge. Failure of the Grid plant in Providence, the closing of the LNG storage facility at Naval Station Newport in 2010,   extreme cold temps, and a valve not being programmed properly at Enbridge’s station in Weymouth, MA- that caused the drop in pressure in parts of Newport and Middletown, and National Grid not correcting a faulty power system at its LNG plant that failed the previous year.    

 It was a perfect storm of errors! This points to a larger policy issue about gas pipeline infrastructure – what is Grid doing to maintain and update that structure? Shouldn’t we be looking at alternative energy solutions?  

Grid worked around the clock to prevent a disaster, but this never should have happened in the first place. My concerns in 2020 are the overall safety and preparations at Old Mill Lane LNG facility; questions and concerns about how effective and comprehensive Grid is working and planning with local EMA folks.  

There needs to be more exercise planning amongst state, local and utility to prepare for contingency plans.   

Grid should look at using the LNG facility at Newport Navy Base.   

The elected and the DPUC are meeting every other month to get updates.   

My concern (along with other legislative colleagues) is that the $25 million that GRID spent in the outage MUST NOT be put on the backs of the rate payers of RI.  We are watching. The PUC MUST not allow Grid a rate increase to recoup these losses. Grid’s poor decision making, and lack of planning cannot be a burden to rate payers.   

Frank Prosnitz

Frank Prosnitz brings to WhatsUpNewp several years in journalism, including 10 as editor of the Providence (RI) Business News and 14 years as a reporter and bureau manager at the Providence (RI) Journal....