By K. JOSEPH SHEKARCHI The challenges of the pandemic have required an all hands-on-deck approach, and I am proud that my colleagues in the General Assembly rose to the occasion last year, again and again. Through the emergencies of 2021, there was an
The challenges of the pandemic have required an all hands-on-deck approach, and I am proud that my colleagues in the General Assembly rose to the occasion last year, again and again. Through the emergencies of 2021, there was an emergence of solidarity and collaboration in the House. Simply put, we got a lot of great work done together, essentially passing two years' worth of legislation in only six months.
And, our work never stopped. There is no such thing as an “off-session” for legislators anymore. Although we went on recess in July, throughout the months leading to the start of our 2022 session, ten different legislative committees and commissions held dozens of bipartisan hearings, paving the way for many of the issues the House will address this year.
We also have spent months analyzing the complex issue of marijuana legalization. The House and Senate intend to soon have draft legislation ready which will serve as a framework to begin a thorough public hearing process. We may not be the first state to legalize marijuana, but our goal is to do it in the way that is best for Rhode Island.
Our efforts during the recess meant that when the House officially kicked off its session on January 4, we were ready to hit the ground running. Almost immediately, we passed a budget amendment to make the first investment, of $119 million, from Rhode Island’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding.
This funding, which our Finance Committee scrutinized over the past few months in a series of public meetings, includes $44.5 million to support children, families, and social programs – an increase of $6 million more than the $38.5 million originally proposed; $32 million to assist small businesses impacted by COVID-19; $29.5 million to promote affordable housing, housing stability supports and broadband; and $13 million for hard-hit tourism, hospitality and event industries.
Like the one before it, our 2022 session is already shaping up to a truly historic year. A good deal of our work, as was the case last year, will focus on the health and economic issues related to the pandemic, which still has us in its grip.
Our hospitals – and, for that matter, the entire field of health care – are straining under the pressure of the pandemic, burnout and staffing shortages. Businesses continue to struggle to retain workers and to keep customers and staff safe throughout ever-evolving guidelines as we all adapt to new virus strains and related precautionary measures. And, parents, teachers and children alike have modified their routines on the fly to accommodate distance learning.
We know that many Rhode Islanders are struggling.
Already, we have made certain that immediate needs are being addressed: last month, along with the Governor, we announced the immediate allocation of more than $3 million in CARES Act dollars to support critical Early Intervention services. We also announced $57.4 million of federal medical assistance funding to support thousands of home and community-based direct care workers.
And, we're ready to do more. We are ready to make the appropriate investments with federal funding, through ARPA and other federal programs, to boost our economy and assist families and businesses.
Although we continue to face a multitude challenges caused by the pandemic, we also have an historic opportunity to make critical long-term investments. The influx of federal funding gives us a truly once in a lifetime ability to make investments that will change the landscape of our state.
By thoughtfully leveraging our federal funding, we will ensure that Rhode Island is a better place for generations to come.
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