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. We’ll run the responses as we receive them.

Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Dist. 75, Newport

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. 

“Quite frankly, I am still preparing for the 2021 session.  At this point, the virus is raging, and I know that the new House leadership is working hard to determine when and how we can meet safely. There is also a discussion on delaying the session startup following the constitutionally required swearing in date, which is the first Tuesday in January and is chaired by the senior House representative from Newport, Chairman Marvin Abney. 

“At this time, I am reviewing all of my introduced legislation from the past two years to determine which bills to continue working on. 

“Last year I began working on some new initiatives, many of which I will re-introduce studying the condition of our historic cemeteries and creating an Ombudsman for RI parents of special needs students.  I continue to pursue the municipal registration of third-party hosting platforms, training for municipal zoning and planning boards on their statutory authority and waste reduction in Rhode Island public schools.  I co-sponsored legislation on climate change, reduction of toxic chemicals in drinking water, extension of the motion picture tax credits and the Civics Literacy Act requiring that civics education be taught in Rhode Island schools, which was at the request of the Newport City Council.”

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

“The 2020 legislative session was unlike any other.  Our last full session was March 12, barely getting one third of the way through our work.  We did meet three times over the summer with an emphasis on budget, spending issues and municipal bills.  Many bills were introduced and very few were passed.  All of my bills for 2020 can be found by following this link: http://status.rilin.state.ri.us and by identifying “CARSON” as the sponsor.” 

What did you feel were the legislature’s greatest accomplishments in 2020?

“Unfortunately, our 2020 accomplishments as a state legislature are very few. Due to COVID and a lack of protocols for meeting during a pandemic, we did not meet, which was a disappointment to me personally.  I expect the 2021-22 legislative sessions to be very different. 

“As of this writing, the Legislature will be meeting before the end of the year to finally pass a 2021 budget, which under the new leadership of the House will be a great accomplishment given the financial impact COVID has had on state and municipal resources.

“But I also think it is very important for your readers to know that we were still very busy all year. I spent many more hours on constituent services this year than any other year.  I intervened on dozens of unemployment claims, motor vehicle registrations and license renewals and assisted small businesses with COVID grants. I met with stakeholder groups during the initial phases of COVID.  I personally meet remotely with Aquidneck Island businesses, tourism businesses, non-profit organizations, parent of special needs students, teachers, and city and state leadership to support all and any efforts to direct us during COVID.  Sometimes these efforts and services fall below the radar screen, but much effort has gone into creating and maintaining the new normal.

“As you can see, I was very disappointed that the Legislature lacked ingenuity and did not find a way to conduct legislative business this year.” 

What do you see as the state’s greatest challenges in 2021, besides the obvious – budget and pandemic?  

“Yes, the pandemic and the 2022 budget will be great challenges for the State of Rhode Island but getting the full understanding of the impact that COVID has had on our culture, our organizations and systems will take a while to process, as will getting to understand the new normal.  There are other challenging issues before us as a State: distribution of the COVID vaccine; tackling racism and creating more equity; and envisioning a 21st economy for Rhode Island that educates a workforce that can embrace the jobs of the future, to name a few. In addition, affordable housing continues to be a very pressing Rhode Island issue, so we need to pass the housing bond that is now slated for a special election in late winter. 

“It is also important to note that the Legislature will probably need to address the many issues that have resulted from the COVID virus and the changes we have experienced in 2020.  I would hope that the Oversight Committee will review COVID spending and pandemic policies. We might review the impact remote learning has had on our school systems and Rhode Island students, for example.  In essence, even with the vaccine ready to go, our work on COVID will still dominate the 2021 session.  And in my opinion, we will need to make that a priority.

What do you see as the region’s greatest challenges in 2021?

“The greatest challenges that face our region: climate change and sea rise.  We can no longer ignore the impact of climate change and sea rise, especially on Aquidneck Island. Our waterfront homes and businesses must be prepared for the dramatic changes that science is telling us are coming. We have seen the storms; the power outages; and November 2020 was the hottest month, only preceded by the hottest months and years over the past 5-8 years. 

“The Rhode Island Legislature must begin to act on climate, and I will make that a priority over the next two-year session. And the top priority will be finding resources to invest in resilience. “

Lest we forget 2019 and the gas crisis, perhaps we should revisit and see if we have made any progress.   

“Right now is the time to address energy security on Aquidneck Island. Let’s be clear, the 2019 gas outage was not about supply; The RI Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (RI DPUC) has made clear that the 2019 Outage resulted directly from a combination of multiple equipment failures and management failures in meeting contractual capacity of individual delivery points. 

“Rather than focusing on expanding yesterday’s technology, we need to continue to make progress toward decarbonization by (1) expanding energy efficiency programs and electrification, (2) implementing a demand response system, and (3) exploring opportunities for other green technology innovations such as geothermal micro districts to reduce demand.   Economic development and growth are not reliant on an expansion of gas infrastructure. Aquidneck Island municipalities can continue their development plans without increasing reliance on gas. New buildings can easily be designed to meet their energy needs with a combination of efficiency measures and modern green technologies. 

“It is my advocacy and hope that Grid will re-direct its supply and security efforts and embrace 21st energy systems to meet energy demands on Aquidneck Island.” 

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. 

“With the virus showing no signs of going away, it is hard to imagine that it won’t dominate the statehouse landscape for the foreseeable future.”

Are you satisfied with the way Gov. Raimondo has handled the crisis? 

“COVID has changed everything: work, play, government, holidays, school, parties and so much more. In general, I am pleased with the way Gov. Raimondo has handled this crisis – even today as we face overwhelming spread of the disease during this special time of the year. Yes, I would have preferred that the House had more input on strategies for fighting COVID as well as additional Oversight of programs designed to fight the virus and keep our society and economy moving.  

“But I was pleased to see that RI House Speaker-nominee Joe Shekarchi (Warwick) has appointed a RI House Vaccine Task Force.  The new task force is to ensure that Rhode Island’s distribution of the vaccine is done in a timely manner following the CDC guidelines and that front-line workers, the health-compromised and the elderly are given access first; and also to make certain the needs of the underserved populations are appropriately addressed. The task force will work closely with the Rhode Island Department of Health and learn about the state’s vaccine plan. This type of Legislative activity on COVID can begin to make the House an active partner in fighting this deadly virus.”

Do you favor the legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island?

“I do favor legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island. Today, if you live in Tiverton, you can drive, even walk across the street into Massachusetts to legally buy marijuana. If we think for one moment that keeping marijuana illegal is stopping and curtailing its use in Rhode Island, we need to think again.  

“Today, many states have crossed over to legalization.  There is much to learn from these states around the many questions that people raise: youth use, use on the job, distribution, and equity for those currently incarcerated for sale and use over the years. 

“It is time to have this serious discussion and examination about how to make this work in Rhode Island.” 

Is there anything else you would like to share with your constituents? 

“2021 will be a new year. The time has come to reduce the tension across party lines. The time is now for elected officials to collaborate on issues that our constituents want addressed, debated, and hopefully solved. Thank you for this opportunity to address our communities. And the very best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday season to everyone in Newport.” 

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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. Prosnitz began his journalism career as a sportswriter at the Asbury Park (NJ) Press, moving to The News Tribune (Woodbridge, NJ), before joining the Providence Journal. Prosnitz hosts the Morning Show on WLBQ radio (Westerly), 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and It’s Your Business, also on WBLQ, Monday and Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Prosnitz has twice won Best in Business Awards from the national Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW), twice was named Media Advocate of the Year by the Small Business Administration, won an investigative reporter’s award from the New England Press Association, and newswriting award from the Rhode Island Press Association.