Wow, what a year. Last year when we sent out a legislative survey, no one could have imagined the impact or even the existence of a virus that would, at times, bring the world to a virtual standstill. Add to that the chaos in Washington, the reluctance of President Trump to concede to former Vice President Joe Biden. Then, there’s the change in leadership in the Rhode Island House and the rise of progressives in both the House and Senate. All this is sure to add to the list of issues that will need attention, from local councils and school committees, to the legislature and governor’s office.
We’ve reached out to the area’s legislators and asked their perspective on 2020 and their vision for 2021. First up:
Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown
What legislation do you hope to introduce in the 2021 legislative session? Please give a brief description, and why it’s one of your priorities.
“I’m getting the band back together and we’re rewriting legislation on Broadband (similar to what we discussed last year). I’m also looking at the Small Cell Siting Act on 5G as a result of public concern over potential EMF (electromagnetic field) of 4G and 5G.
I’m also deeply interested in resolving the nursing home wage issue for CNAs and increasing wages for Direct Support Providers (DSPs) who care for those with intellectual developmental disabilities. Congregate settings have been the epicenter of this pandemic. These essential workers are caring for our most vulnerable constituents and they deserve a living wage.
What legislation did you introduce in the last legislative session and what was the outcome?
“COVID caused business, schools, and General Assembly to shut down except for a two day session in July to pass the 2020 budget.”
What did you feel were the legislature’s greatest accomplishments in 2020?
“When we returned to do the 2020 budget in July for two days, we passed the bill that allowed EARLY VOTING 20 days prior to an election. Voters could go to Town/City Hall with a mask, show ID, and cast a ballot into the voting machine. Fast, easy, and safe. Most voters became aware of this new law by the general election. The primary election though was mostly mail ballots, but the general election saw an increase in early voting ballot and it helped mitigate the crowds on Election Day during a pandemic.”
What do you see as the state’s greatest challenges in 2021, besides the obvious – budget and pandemic?
“The biggest challenge will be the policy issues around navigating the budget and the pandemic! The distribution of the vaccine is critical. It’s not only ensuring that residents in nursing homes and healthcare workers receive the vaccine, but what do we do, from a policy standpoint, if doctors and nurses refuse the vaccine?“
What do you see as the region’s greatest challenges in 2021?
“My two major concerns for our region continue to be housing and food security, especially for our more vulnerable citizens. My fear is that we are going into the cold months of December, January, and February, which will be the worst three months of this pandemic.
“The growing inequities of this pandemic are being felt by many in great ways. The data from the RI FOOD BANK is real – one in four Rhode Islanders don’t have enough food.
“I also believe resiliency is important. The climate crisis is an environmental issue, a public health issue, and an economic issue. The impact on our coastline, our infrastructure, and our drinking water is a great challenge in 2021 and the years ahead. I plan on co-sponsoring the Climate Crisis Act again in 2021.”
Lest we forget 2019 and the gas crisis, perhaps we should revisit and see if we have made any progress.
Are you satisfied that the state and federal government and National Grid have done enough to assure Newport area residents that there will be no repeat of the 2019 gas crisis?
“There are still many concerns. A group of Aquidneck Island legislators have signed on to a letter to National Grid raising concerns. We believe that any LNG storage facility siting should be subject to the Energy Facility Siting Board’s (EFSB) oversight. Special thanks to Sen.Dawn Euer for coordinating this effort. If you haven’t seen the letter, here’s link: https://bit.ly/NG_AILegislators”
COVID – 19 has consumed our lives for most of this year. It has made many family and friends ill, some even died. It has disrupted our economy, forcing some small businesses to close, many restaurants to shutter. It has struck our tourism industry incredibly hard, leaving tourism workers unemployed or underpaid.
Are you satisfied with the way Gov. Raimondo has handled the crisis?
“I give the Governor high marks on her leadership through this pandemic. She’s been calm, empathic, and decisive. Rhode Island remains in a state of emergency declared by the Governor in March pursuant to Article IX of the Rhode Island Constitution. This is necessary to ensure the state’s eligibility for critical federal funding to cope with this unprecedented health crisis and economic crisis.
“In hindsight, returning patients to nursing homes after rehab or a hospital stay without quarantining them was short-sighted. Scientists know now that this virus works best in larger groups. Congregate living (group homes and nursing homes) contributed to the early spread of virus cases. My fear is that we are going into the cold months of December, January, and February which will be the worst three months of this pandemic.
Are you ok that the legislature has had little input into any of the governor’s decisions in this process?
“No. The federal government was pretty specific in giving total discretion to Governors in spending the federal CARES ACT in their states specifically for COVID related issues (which has been everything!). I believe the Rhode Island General Assembly must have oversight as to where/how she spends the dollars.
“I lobbied then Speaker Mattiello to change our House Rules (as Senate did) so we could meet remotely. Fifth graders were remote learning so there was no reason for legislators not to pivot to distance ‘voting’ on ZOOM. He was adamant about only meeting in the State House.
“Our Speaker-elect Joe Shekarchi is planning on revising House Rules so we can have a 2021 session. We’ve been in many conversations on how to do it legally and constitutionally. It won’t be perfect, but there will be public input and we need to be in session in 2021.”
Do you favor the legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island?
“I believe the state will legalize marijuana, but HOW it’s done is more important to me than WHEN. From a policy standpoint, I don’t believe the state has gotten medical marijuana right. Over the past five years there have been many statutory changes (mostly through the budget) for caregivers, growers, and 70 licensed marijuana cultivators who can only sell to the three state licensed compassion centers.
“There are still many unanswered questions for me: Should 113 legislators be the only deciders on this economic and social policy issue? Should voters have a say? That’s what Massachusetts did in 2016. Voters had to approve legalization (they did); and voters in every Massachusetts municipality had to approve legalization in their city or town by 51% for a retail shop to be licensed (much like casino gambling in each municipality). Marijuana became legal two years later in Massachusetts once the legislature framed the policy. So, robust public testimony will be essential. Framing and administering this policy will take time and requires thoughtful consideration.”
Is there anything else you would like to share with your constituents?
“I will co-sponsor the CLIMATE ACTION CRISIS bill again in 2021. The climate crisis is an environmental issue as well as a public health issue and an economic issue. Can’t say it enough- the consequences are devastating for everyone from farmers and fishermen to homeowners. We see the impact on our coastlines, our drinking water, and our infrastructure.”