Session offers a glimpse in leadership styles

Posted 6/19/24

STORY OF THE WEEK: The General Assembly closed its 2024 session with a flurry of activity that ended around 1:32 last Friday morning. The Senate made a final vote on the $13.9 billion budget — …

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Session offers a glimpse in leadership styles


STORY OF THE WEEK: The General Assembly closed its 2024 session with a flurry of activity that ended around 1:32 last Friday morning. The Senate made a final vote on the $13.9 billion budget — a document that pleased a lot of lawmakers with more money for healthcare and education, while also raising questions about the sustainability of this expansive level of spending. The legislature passed a number of significant bills — making a tax change requested by Citizens Bank, overhauling the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, approving a measure meant to spark more accessory dwelling units, and passing a requirement for the safe storage of guns, to name a few. Of course, the final night included such staples as heartfelt tributes to departing lawmakers and votes on such quirky issues as auto-body bills and chicken coops. For a bird’s eye view of the session, consider the contrast between Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and House Speaker Joe Shekarchi. Ruggerio, 75, was absent at the State House for a number of weeks due to health concerns, and while he has repeatedly said he plans to seek re-election, the dean of the General Assembly is edging closer to the eventual end of his memorable run in public life. Thirteen years younger, Shekarchi relishes the thrust and parry of politics, he got his ADU priority over the finish line this year, completed the House budget while the sun was still up, and with more than $2 million in his campaign account, the Warwick Democrat has a longer runway in possible pursuit of a political office to be named later. Leadership matters; as long as Ruggerio presides over the Senate, bills to restrict payday lending and outlaw new sales of semi-automatic military-style rifles are unlikely to advance. But given the structure of state government, the speakership is an unusually powerful role. That’s even more true now due to the current landscape of Rhode Island politics.

INCOMING: Attorney General Peter Neronha and the state Department of Health are expected to make a decision any day now on the Centurion Foundation’s proposed purchase of CharterCARE Health Partners, owner of Roger Williams Medical Center and Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence. This is a very big deal, as I’ve reported, and not just because a Superior Court judge this week faulted CharterCARE’s owner, California-based Prospect Medical Holdings, for using RWMC and OLOF “as a private bank.”  The two safety-net hospitals are among the largest employers and biggest taxpayers in their respective communities. Centurion’s offer faces opposition, in part since it would be financed by debt. Neronha told me the hospitals could go bankrupt even if returned to nonprofit status by Centurion. If that happened, the displacement of services and patients would be a big added burden for Rhode Island’s healthcare system.

THE ECONOMY: The single-factor tax change resurfaced with dizzying speed and won approval this week after being excised from the budget. The difference will cost about $15 million over a full budget year, another added expense as Rhode Island faces the return of bigger perennial deficits. While talks with the bank began some time after Massachusetts put the same change into effect last October, it remains unclear why state leaders didn’t hasten to tackle the issue sooner.

POLICE ACCOUNTABILITY: Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU, called the new Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights law an improvement, but he echoed critics who believe LEOBOR reform should have gone farther in a few ways: “One in particular that I would note is that the way it’s worded now, Rhode Island is one of a handful of states that doesn’t have a decertification law — being able to decertify police officers who engage in misconduct,” Brown said during an interview on Political Roundtable. “So even with a stronger LEOBOR law, an officer can resign before a LEOBOR hearing takes place, go to another police department to be hired. And there’s nothing that prevents that from happening, no matter how serious the misconduct may have been.”

CIVIL MATTERS: Here are some key excerpts from my interview with Brown, who has been closely watching the legislature since the 1980s.

— Brown believes a constitutional convention would be a reactionary event for Rhode Island: “In this polarized age, especially now, where out-of-state interests can spend unlimited amounts of money to come into Rhode Island and propose their own pet amendments and spend millions of dollars on them, I don’t think there’s any realistic reason to believe that things would be different 40 years from now based on what happened in 1986,” when efforts to restrict abortion rights figured prominently.

— On how to institutionalize legislative improvements if a lot depends on the approach of a particular House speaker: “You know, that’s a great question. I’m not sure that much can be done. I mean, you can come up with a whole array of rules but there are always loopholes that people can find when you have the rules. And the fact of the matter is, is that as a branch of government, the legislature can only be constrained so far. I mean, they are in charge of their own rules about how they operate. So I don’t think there’s any magic bullet that would turn the legislature into a utopian’s dream. There will be a lot of politicking going on, a lot of closed door activities. All one can do is try to push back as much as possible and, and call for more sunshine.”

— On the outlook for the rule of law when millions of Americans don’t accept the outcome of the 2020 presidential race: “I think we really are at a precipice in this country, and I don’t want to over exaggerate it. But I think November will teach us just where we are going as a nation. It really is extraordinarily troubling to see how many people refuse to accept results of elections without any evidence that there have been any problems. They essentially want a preordained result … I don’t know how this is going to play out. But it really is important for people to exercise their civic rights as much as possible to explain and strengthen our democratic process.”

OPEN RECORDS: Here’s John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, on why the APRA bill sponsored by Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown) and Rep. Pat Serpa (D-West Warwick) did not advance, and whether proposing dozens of changes made this a heavier lift: “We won't see APRA reform in 2024 because there was too much opposition, particularly from the executive branch at the state level,” Marion said via email. “It was death by a thousand cuts. There is always a risk in proposing omnibus legislation; you can't get what you don't ask for, but on the other hand you create a bigger target for your opponents to take aim at. Asking for everything was a winning strategy last time we reformed APRA because although we had to compromise on a number of things, we got most of what we asked for in 2012. Clearly, governments at all levels are skeptical of, if not downright hostile to, public records reform. I suspect there are mixed motivations, including a belief that it will create more work, and possibly reveal more about their work.”

GENERAL ASSEMBLY: With the announcement Thursday by state Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-Warwick) that she will not seek re-election, five of 75 reps have announced they will not return to the House chamber. (Warwick Ward 4 City Councilor Jimmy McElroy, a Democrat, plans to seek her office.) The departures include one-third of the nine Republicans in the House: Reps. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung of Cranston, who is running for mayor, Patricia Morgan of West Warwick, who is running for U.S. Senate, and Brian Rea of Smithfield. The other exit is by Rep. Brianna Henries (D-East Providence), sponsor of the Juneteenth bill that became law and who revealed she may be developing a book — “From Lipstick to Legislation” — about her experiences at the Statehouse. (Democrat Jenni Furtado of the EP School Committee has announced plans to run for the seat being vacated by Henries.) Across the rotunda in the Senate, the departing are Sens. Frank Lombardi of Cranston, Roger Picard of Woonsocket, Joshua Miller of Cranston/Providence and there is the vacancy created by the death of Sen. Frank Lombardo of Johnston.

CITY HAUL: Reflecting broader disputes about the conflict between Israel and Hamas, a proposal by the Providence City Council to disinvest from investments in Israel sparked sharp debate. The best-laid disinvestment plans sometimes have meager results, so I was curious about whether this move, if approved, would have a tangible effect. Back in 2013, then-AG Peter Kilmartin got considerable publicity from a bill he backed to remove Rhode Island money from Iran. But the way the law was written — it addressed only direct investments, like stocks, but not mutual funds and other indirect investments — meant that it had zero impact beyond symbolism. According to Parker Gavigan, spokesman for the City Council, Providence’s $439.5 million pension fund had no direct investments in Israel bonds as of April 30. He added: “The city held an investment in the index fund of approximately $7.485 million as of that date, and 0.4% of that investment was in Israel bonds, which would equate to approximately $29,940.”

MEDIA: Keep an eye on some of the talented young journalists who attend or have graduated from Brown University: Neil Mehta is covering real estate while interning for The Wall Street Journal this summer. Noble Brigham snagged a gig as a breaking news reporter at the Las Vegas Review Journal. And Kayla Guo recently started at the Texas Tribune.

MENTAL HEALTH: MLB promoted a message — “It’s OK to ask for help” — and Red Sox pitcher Chris Martin pursued the offer, as The Athletic reports. That’s light years away, not surprisingly, from the difficulties encountered by young Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall in the late 1950s, a story dramatized in the movie Fear Strikes Out.

KICKER: Reopening a port is not the same thing as building a bridge. That caveat noted, the Port of Baltimore is now back open for business, about three months after the collapse of Key Bridge in March. Following the emergency closing of I-195 Westbound in December, we’re still awaiting the accountability promised a few months ago by Gov. McKee, and despite improvements in westbound traffic, heightened congestion still marks the Providence area during the afternoon rush hour.

politics, Donnis


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