Tug of war over ARPA money heating up

Posted 11/10/21

STORY OF THE WEEK: The tug of war over Rhode Island's $1 billion-plus in American Rescue Plan Act money is intensifying. Gov. Dan McKee and progressive rival Matt Brown last week each separately called on the General Assembly to open the spigot on the

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Tug of war over ARPA money heating up



The tug of war over Rhode Island’s $1 billion-plus in American Rescue Plan Act money is intensifying. Gov. Dan McKee and progressive rival Matt Brown last week each separately called on the General Assembly to open the spigot on the money.

“Why would we wait?” McKee asked during a recent housing event in East Providence. “Let me be clear. Our state cannot wait. Our families cannot wait. And our small businesses cannot wait for this relief.”

Rhode Island’s status as an outlier on spending ARPA money is handy political fodder for progressive Brown, who used a news release to take a shot at McKee (even though the legislature controls the spending process): “[O]ur emergency funding should not be Dan McKee, Sabina Matos, Dominick Ruggerio, or Joe Shekarchi’s political slush fund – it belongs to the people of Rhode Island.”

Rhode Island still has about $5 million left in previously allocated CARES Act funds, and some of the areas targeted for spending by McKee (such as broadband) are part of the Biden spending proposals gaining more traction in D.C. The Rhode Island Senate may be edging closer to an initial vote on the ARPA money after Thanksgiving. (Might this be related to how Co-op candidates have again set their focus on the Senate?)

In the House, Speaker Joe Shekarchi appears to remain committed, at least for now, to pursue a go-slow approach. While the economic fallout of the pandemic remains with us, states have years to spend the ARPA money and recommendations by the RI Foundation underscored the need for the state to build capacity to effective use of the funds.

Shekarchi has cited a good government argument in explaining his stance. As he told WJAR in September: “We do not hand out blank checks. No money will be spent without a full public hearing and authorization from the General Assembly.”

Whether there’s more to this, is hard to know for now. But perhaps there’s a simpler explanation: less than two months remain until the legislature starts a new session in January. And the General Assembly will find it hard not to begin ladling out some ARPA funds once lawmakers are back on Smith Hill.


Whether former CVS Health exec and Democratic candidate for governor Helena Foulkes deserves the Gina 2.0 moniker is subject to debate. And whether Gina 2.0 is a good thing or not depends on whom you ask. But there’s clearly a significant degree of overlap between Raimondo and Foulkes.

For example, the co-chairs for the Nov. 10 annual women’s luncheon for U.S. Rep. David Cicilline include Meredith Curren (who held different roles in Raimondo’s gubernatorial administration and is now treasurer for Foulkes’ campaign) and Jane Moffat (the better half of former Raimondo COS Stephen Neuman; she works as deputy national director of Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses program, which launched in RI in 2016).

There’s more. Putnam Partners, which did media for Raimondo’s campaigns, will play the same role for Foulkes, her campaign confirmed. Meanwhile, former Raimondo aide Jon Romano has been hired by her campaign as an advisor.


Some takeaways from Gov. McKee’s Political Roundtable interview: 1) The governor hopes to run on a message of effective management of the pandemic and an improving economy; 2) Asked about the ILO Group controversy, McKee, in part, suggested the difference between different bidders is less than suggested since work would be paid by the hour. “And if I wanted to purchase a world-class yacht,” he added, “and I had somebody that designed in the same vein great sailboats I’m going to take the people I feel is the most talented and skilled to get the job done.” 3) It hasn’t escaped notice that a number of state agencies – DCYF, the Department of Human Services, Healthy Aging (part of DHS) and two elements within BHDDH, Behavioral Health and Hospitals – continue to operate with acting directors. Asked why, given how he’s been in office for the better part of a year, McKee said in part, “First of all we’re happy with the leadership we have in all those departments … It’s not a matter of having the leadership in place. It’s just a matter of many of those positions need to be confirmed by the General Assembly.”


While there’s peril in reading too much into one result, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial victory in Virginia was noteworthy in part since “Democrats had won every statewide race in Virginia since 2009 and the last four presidential elections, including Biden’s double-digit win,” as NPR noted … Ian Prior, who ran Brendan Doherty’s GOP challenge to U.S. Rep. David Cicilline in 2012, and went to serve in the Trump administration, lit up Twitter in recent months as executive director of Fight For Schools, one of the key advocacy groups in the Virginia race. In an opinion piece for Fox News, Prior called the outcome in VA “a fight for the soul of America and the result will shape our politics for years to come. At its core, this race is about which of the two candidates is listening to his potential constituency and giving them hope for their children.” … Democrats looking to lick their wounds may prefer to focus on the decisive Boston mayoral victory of Micelle Wu, who became the first woman and the first person of color to win that post … FWIW, the election appears to have lit a fire under D.C. Democrats, raising the question of whether forward motion on Biden’s spending proposals will blunt the traditional gains made by the opposition party in the mid-terms, or whether the potential political benefits of the Democrats programs, a la Obamacare, will take longer to sink in.


Rhode Island House Speaker Pro Tempore Brian Kennedy, first elected in 1988, has won election as vice president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a move that sets him up to become president of the NCSL, according to a legislative press release. “I appreciate the opportunity to serve as vice president and look forward to working with my colleagues from around the country,” said Kennedy. “NCSL has afforded legislators and staff an unrivaled opportunity to learn from the experiences of other states, exchange ideas and come up with policy solutions that can help propel our respective states and, ultimately, our entire nation forward. I also look forward to working with our Washington office to ensure federal policies are in line with state priorities.”


The defense sector has been a resilient part of Rhode Island’s economy, in part due to the Pentagon’s demand for new stuff. And it doesn’t get much newer than autonomous weapons. Witness how a “remote-control killing machine” was used against Iran’s top nuclear scientist last November, and revealed first by The New York Times: “[U]nlike a drone, the robotic machine gun draws no attention in the sky, where a drone could be shot down, and can be situated anywhere, qualities likely to reshape the worlds of security and espionage.”

For people who closely follow this kind of thing, there’s an intense philosophical debate about the ethics of autonomous weapons, and how the rapid rise of capabilities could outflank the sense of using them. Of course, Russia and China are developing the same kinds of weapons, without the discourse of a free society.

Here in Rhode Island, defense companies are actively developing the weapons of the future. “Pushing past possible” is the tagline for this video from Textron Systems, part of Providence-based Textron. The company paired up with an AI company last year to pursue “military multi-domain autonomy technologies.” Raytheon and other defense contractors with a local presence are also developing unmanned weapons systems.

If you want to get smart on the subject, say “Terminator” two times fast and listen to a report from the investigative podcast Reveal.


Gov. McKee last week announced plans to award in the coming weeks $5 million, patched together through various sources, to create 275 additional shelter beds for the homeless. The move followed a protest calling for more attention for Rhode Islanders living on the streets.

Asked about the step taken by McKee, Eric Hirsch, a longtime advocate for the homeless, told me via email, “Those of us advocating for a response to the unsheltered homelessness crisis do appreciate that the governor has responded. However, it’s getting cold, and we need these shelter beds right now. We hope that his office can facilitate getting these beds open in days rather than weeks or months.”


It’s difficult to consider the Red Sox’ remarkable transformation, from a team that hadn’t won a World Series since 1918, into one of the most successful franchises of the new millennium, without including Jerry Remy. The RemDawg was on base when Carl Yaztrekemski popped out to end the crushing “Bucky Effing” Dent game against the Yankees in 1978. He became a leading figure in Red Sox Nation, holding court on NESN with the great Don Orsillo – who could forget the sheer joy and humor they brought to their work, making losing games far more enjoyable and celebrating oddities like flying pizza. Remy, who put up a brave fight against cancer, died recently at age 68. May he rest in Peace.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @IanDon. For a longer version of this column or to sign up for email delivery, visit www.thepublicsradio.org.

politics, Donnis


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