The Rhode Island House of Representatives and Senate rang in the new legislative session Tuesday night with a short joint session, offering previews of potential highlights on the year’s agenda.
Both Speaker of the House Nicholas A. Mattiello and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio began their addresses acknowledging the multi-million-dollar renovations to their respective chambers, made possible by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission and the State House Restoration Society.
The carpet and drapes in the House chamber were replaced, and the skylights in the public galleries were repaired. The room was also painted with a shade aimed at looking “as close as possible” to the original color found under several coats.
Both chambers are equipped with new speakers and microphones to improve the sound system, which also now features a hearing loop function. Mattiello said it “transmits sound electronically to hearing aids and cochlear implants.” Ruggerio said Rhode Island is the first state in the nation to offer this amenity in both its legislative chambers and galleries.
Representatives and senators were able to enjoy new chairs and restored desks as well.
“Just as we are convening in a chamber that has been modernized and restored to its historic grandeur, it is my hope that each of you is rejuvenated as well,” Ruggerio said. “I look forward to working together with each of you in the coming months to address the challenges facing our state.”
There was little official business in either chamber on Tuesday, but each leader looked forward to a busy year. The speaker promised a “hard look at all existing programs” and remained committed to the full elimination of the car tax as the initiative enters the fourth year of its six-year phase-out.
Mattiello, a staunch Second Amendment supporter, signaled more openness to gun control legislation. He said the House wants to expand school safety measures through a statewide notification and early response system, and recognized the importance of protecting “the public from people who are not law-abiding citizens and who possess guns illegally.”
“While I strongly support Second Amendment rights, we need to get guns out of the hands of those with mental illness, as well as those who do not follow the laws,” Mattiello said, adding the House wants to entertain banning 3-D-printed and so-called “ghost guns.” “This year, we will take a close look at adding provisions to our background check laws to require police chiefs, in each community where the person attempting to purchase a gun resides, to review applications.”
Mattiello also cited the annual Forbes business ranking that moved Rhode Island up to 41st in the country – and third in New England – on which he said the state must continue to build. He said he will be attending the Small Business Administration’s annual Economic Summit this Friday.
“One of the major building blocks of our state economy is our health care diversity system,” Mattiello said. “Our efforts to grow jobs cannot leave this vital part of the economy behind. We must continue to be a good partner to our hospitals and work together to safeguard their stability. I am very proud of the work this House has done to support this effort.”
Mattiello also said he looks to build on education reforms and “keep public education at the forefront of our legislative agenda.” That was also a key component of Ruggerio’s speech, saying, “education remains at the top of our agenda.”
“Education not only enables individuals to improve their personal circumstances in life, it also impacts every other area of our state, from social services to economic development,” Ruggerio said. “Companies want to locate or expand in a state where they can find a quality workforce, and entrepreneurs want to live where they can send their own children to quality schools.”
Ruggerio said goals for this year include strengthening civil education and financial literacy, as well as tackling how to lure teachers to “hard to fill areas” such as math, science and world languages.
The Senate president also emphasized that “it is time to end housing discrimination in our state.” He said there will be a need for additional funding – whether through a bond or other source – to address affordable housing.
Ruggerio said Rhode Island should look to states like neighbor Massachusetts, which provides payments and education cost reimbursements to sweeten the pot for cities and towns to increase housing.
“Housing is a complex challenge, and we will look to our Housing & Municipal Government Committee, the Rules, Governmental Ethics & Oversight Committee, and the new Housing Commission, to explore ways to remove barriers to housing development and to incentivize growth,” Ruggerio said. “One area that doesn’t need any more study is Sen. [Harold] Metts’ Fair Housing bill, which prohibits discrimination based on source of income, such as Section 8 vouchers. This chamber has passed the bill each of the last two years.”
Ruggerio said prescription drug availability will also fall under the spotlight this session, as well as issues and bills that have passed the Senate but have not gotten to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s desk yet. Banning 3-D-printed guns and ghost guns, Sen. Erin Lynch Prata’s Modernizing the Parentage Act and codifying the Affordable Care Act are among the matters to which Ruggerio said the Senate remains dedicated.
“I am extremely proud that the members of this chamber have always found a way to work through our differences respectfully and to avoid the ideological and partisan stalemates that hold back progress elsewhere,” Ruggerio said.
The Senate also celebrated the 100th anniversary of the state’s ratification of the 19th Amendment – giving women the right to vote – which took place on Jan. 6, 1920.
Women compose almost half of the Rhode Island Senate, and a few spoke to commemorate the occasion. Sen. Elaine Morgan noted that the Republican Party fought for a women’s right to vote, while Sen. Lynch Prata remembered a familiar story she would tell on the campaign trail.
“I remember when I first ran for office, a constant refrain that I gave was that at the time there were only seven women in the Senate and that I grew up with more women in my house than were in the Senate, so I think we have far exceeded that number, and I’m very proud of that,” Lynch Prata said.