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

WhatsUpNewp reached out to Newport County legislators to get their perspective on where we have been and what they hope to achieve in this next legislative session. Rep. Deb Ruggiero, D-Dist. 74, is the second legislator to reply. Representative Ruggiero chairs the House Committee on Innovation, Internet, and Technology. She also chairs the Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC) Study commission, We previously published the survey answer from Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, Deputy Majority Leader.

What legislation do you hope to introduce in the 2022 legislative session? Please give a brief description, and why it’s one of your priorities.

  • Legislation that will set a standard practice for rate setting for reimbursement for health and human services in Rhode Island. The state needs a long-term strategic plan for Medicaid and all funding spending and reimbursements. We need to look at how strategic investing will provide measurable outcomes that will save the state money and keep dedicated service providers working so they don’t leave for a job with less stress and more money.

The human service agencies (small businesses) employ 40,000 Rhode Islanders and they are experiencing a 32 percent turnover rate. When the General Assembly convenes the first week of January, it will approve $57 million for workforce related investments, hiring bonuses, and training. This is a short-term solution to help stop the hemorrhage. The state needs a long-term strategic plan because our children, families, and seniors deserve the continuum of care – childhood early intervention, substance use disorder, behavioral health, and homecare so seniors can age in place.  

  • Establish a Rhode Island Broadband Advisory Council to assist RI Commerce as they disperse nearly $213 million dollars in federal funding (ARPA and IIJA) across the state for broadband. Twenty percent of Rhode Islanders lack in-home internet (unserved); and 45 percent of Rhode Islanders have internet speeds UNDER the new federal minimum of 100 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload. 

If it is not fiber, it is now broadband. Often, it’s fixed wireless much like coaxial cable. 

It’s so important for public confidence that there’s transparency as the state receives hundreds of millions of dollars for broadband that the money is allocated fairly and smartly to build fiber broadband for the next 30 years and we are not cementing old technology. This legislation will ensure communication and transparency on how money is spent, and the technology being installed.  

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

  • I am re-introducing my Cybersecurity bill that passed the House unanimously with bi-partisan support, but not the Senate.  It requires the Secretary of State and Board of Elections to conduct a cyber security assessment of RI facilities, provide cyber security training for local board of canvassers, and creates a Cybersecurity Incident Response Team including the State Police, RI National Guard, IT, and EMA in the event there is a cybersecurity breach.
  • Co-sponsored the Act on /climate that makes the state’s climate goals in resilient rI Act of 2014 more ambitious, updating current science, achieving net-zero emissions across all sectors by 2050.
  • Co-sponsored the law requiring all public school districts to adopt suicide prevention policies and train all personnel in suicide awareness.

What did you feel were the legislature’s greatest accomplishments in 2021?

There were so many meaningful accomplishments last session. Perhaps the most important was laser-focus on affordable housing. It’s impacting so many communities. The legislature created the first ever permanent funding stream for affordable housing so municipalities can access funding for their community. Twenty-five million dollars was allocated in the budget in June for immediate creation of affordable housing.The state allocated $44 million – FEMA, Home Grants, and CARES ACT, as well as creating a Deputy Secretary of Housing and Commerce with Rhode Island Commerce to coordinate and execute the housing initiatives. 

What do you see as the state’s greatest challenges in 2022?

I am very concerned about the Lifespan/Care New England merger.  This entity would have control over 80 percent of the patient market. I am hopeful the Attorney General installs guardrails to protect the consumer and ensure hospital costs don’t’ skyrocket. The deal raises alarms over the control this merger would have over physician services in the state and what it may mean for our local hospitals.

(editor’s note: This year, Lifespan “merged” with Coastal Medical, the state’s largest physicians’ group.)

What do you see as the region’s greatest challenges in 2022?

The legalization of recreational marijuana seems inevitable. The governance around legalization is critically important to get this policy right. That includes oversight, the number of business licenses, expungement procedures for people convicted of something that is now legal and limiting the number of cultivators.  

Lest we forget 2019 and the gas crisis, 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? What still needs to be done to assure an uninterrupted gas flow on Aquidneck Island?

I’m not happy with Grid’s winter plan for Aquidneck Island, which is to continue with the ‘temporary’ LNG equipment at the Old Mill Lane property in Portsmouth.  The goal is going to have to be to minimize gas usage on the island over the next five years, which will have to include a hybrid of solutions, including electrification. This isn’t done yet; more has to be discussed around this policy issue by all the stakeholders. 

COVID – 19 has consumed our lives for nearly two years. It has made family members and friends ill, some even died. It has disrupted our economy, forcing small businesses to close, restaurants to shutter. It has struck our tourism industry incredibly hard, leaving tourism workers unemployed or underpaid. 

  1. Are you satisfied with the way Gov. Raimondo managed the crisis, and after her departure to join the Biden administration, how Gov. McKee has managed the pandemic? 
  2. Rhode Island received $1.25 billion from the CARES Act and $300 million in additional federal funding allocated to various state agencies to provide grants and fund initiatives during the pandemic. Are you satisfied with the pace and uses of these funds?

The state needs to be judicious about investing these one-time-only federal dollars, so a deliberative, thoughtful approach is required.  In the 2021 legislative session, the General Assembly gave Governor McKee great latitude and discretion for affordable housing and homelessness allocating in June $5 million in CARES ACT, $17 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency Funds (FEMA) and a $13 million HOME grant. 

The Governor finally released federal dollars late November after much public pressure for affordable housing and for workforce retention for the community service providers. 

The state is now receiving a billion plus from the recently enacted Infrastructure bill. What would your priorities be for use of these funds? 

  • The need for affordable housing is critical in every community. I’ve written two letters of support to RI HOUSING on behalf of Middletown. I’ve written a strong letter of support to Rhode Island Housing for West House II senior housing project on 417 Forest Ave. and a letter of support to both Rhode Island Housing and Rhode Island Commerce for Rosebrook Commons in Middletown at 1747 West Main Road.  The town of Middletown (and many others) has been working for years to address the important need for low-moderate income housing. These projects deserve the support
  • Also shoring up the safety net that community service agencies provide in health and human services from early intervention to substance use disorder to IDD community to home care for our seniors. 
  • Finally, ensuring that the federal dollars being used for broadband internet are being used to cement old technologies. High-speed internet usage is only going to increase in the next 5, 10, 20 years. Historical data shows that people’s usage of bandwidth requirements is DOUBLING every three years.   Fixed wireless is not a broadband solution; it’s fast and temporary to get those without any internet service online, but it’s fiber on telephone poles that serves several hundred subscribers. It travels through the air, so it’s subject to wind, lightning, even buildings can block the signal. It’s a bandage that will fall off in five years. Fiber to the premises is a “DO IT ONCE, DO IT RIGHT” option for long-term – 10, 20, 30 year residential and business needs for broadband because it’s ‘future proof’. The state needs to earmark some of the federal dollars for local municipal broadband projects, perhaps for Aquidneck Island or Jamestown. 

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....