Rhode Island House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, in an address to the Rotary Club of Warwick on Thursday afternoon, balanced touting the accomplishments achieved with last year’s especially large $500 …
Rhode Island House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, in an address to the Rotary Club of Warwick on Thursday afternoon, balanced touting the accomplishments achieved with last year’s especially large $500 million budget surplus, while still emphasizing principles of “living within our means.” The address followed last week’s passage of the 2024 state budget, which Speaker Shekarchi noted was the third balanced budget in a row without a tax increase under his Speakership and at $14 billion the largest in state history.
Speaker Shekarchi and others in the small audience at Chelo’s in Warwick, including Warwick City Council President Stephen McAllister, said that the legislative session was especially favorable for Warwick. McAllister said the Speaker and the Warwick delegation “really came through for us.” Benefits for the city included an extra $4 million for Warwick schools in the state funding formula, as well as an extra year and increased state reimbursement for the construction of Toll Gate and Pilgrim High Schools.
Before going through the session’s major accomplishments, Speaker Shekarchi noted that the past year’s budget was particularly large, with a total of $500 million in surplus. And, while he said that this was in large part due to Federal COVID relief money and American Rescue Plan funding, Shekarchi made sure his audience understood the money was not simply handed to him.
He credited the State’s congressional delegation for securing Federal dollars, saying that “[Rhode Island] got our fair share and then some.” At the same time, he credited himself, saying that “if there’s a Federal dollar available for Rhode Island, I want to get it.” Without going too far into the weeds of what that allocation process entailed, Shekarchi noted that he and the General Assembly were able to “spend every dime we got,” adding that it was spent “in a very judicious and proper way.” He also said that by staying in a state of emergency through May, the state was able to continue receiving favorable reimbursement rates from the Federal Government.
Shekarchi said out of the total budget surplus, over $400 million was spent on one-time outlays, including day care, childcare, and Head Start funding, which he described as an effort to get parents back in the workforce.
Shekarchi also dedicated a large portion of the speech to the State’s efforts to address the housing shortage – one of his trademark issues. Specific accomplishments addressed included a low income tax credit, set to begin on July 1st, and “more money on top of that,” which Shekarchi credited to efforts of the General Assembly. In addition, former State Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor has been picked to be Housing Secretary, and Shekarchi assured the General Assembly would “hold his feet to the fire and keep him accountable to deliver on production, production, production.” In total, 13 housing bills were passed in the session, including measures to streamline building permits and incentivize high-density development around transit hubs.
On the topic of housing, Shekarchi returned to a key theme of the address: prudent spending.
“Hopefully we’re [constructing housing] with private sector dollars and not public sector dollars” Shekarchi said, before bringing up criticism from state Republicans that the budget was too large.
Next year, he fully expects the budget to shrink. “Revenue will come down, so our spending will have to come down,” Shekarchi said, attributing this to far fewer extra Federal funds, rising interest rates, and a what he believes will be a generally slowing economy. Moreover, Shekarchi, paused and knocked on the wooden podium in front of him, before saying that “as long as I’m speaker, I won’t raise taxes.” He says that in three years as speaker, he has not yet raised taxes – a trend he promises will continue.
Other topics covered in a question and answer session included education funding, bioscience investments, LEOBOR reform, and the recent conduct of State officials David Patten and James Thorsen.
Education focused on assistance for Warwick’s high school reconstruction projects – mainly six months extra time on either end of the construction window, and a 2.5% increase in state reimbursements. The funding increase is available to all municipalities. McAllister said that the extra time allowed for a more detailed outside study to forecast the cost of new Toll Gate and Pilgrim High Schoolst. He described the extra time as “a game changer.” Shekarchi also highlighted $50 million total in new funding for schools across the state.
Included in plans for the coming year are further investments in bioscience and healthcare technology. Speaker Shekarchi pointed to Worcester as an example of a city that had added, according the speech, $1 billion in economic activity per year through their bioscience hub. “I happen to think Rhode Island is better than Worcester, and if Worcester can do it, then Rhode Island can” he said.
On LEOBOR, the controversial Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, Shekarchi acknowledged the presence of Colonel Stephen McCartney, former Warwick police chief, in the audience. Continuing in the theme of prudent policy – what some might call a measured approach – the Speaker said he is “committed to reform” but emphasized that reform indeed meant reform, and not repeal of LEOBOR. Multiple plans for reform have been advanced in the General Assembly, and debate will continue this upcoming year.
The audience was eager to hear about Shekarchi’s take on Patten and Thorsen, with the question coming up at the start of the question and answer segment. Shekarchi described it as embarrassing. “It’s not a good look for the state” he said, also noting that they were executive branch employees, and were thus outside of his jurisdiction. He told the audience that he did know the contractor they had been meeting with, Scout Ltd., was still interested in developing the Cranston Street Armory in Providence.
Of course, Shekarchi could not make it through the question session without being asked about plans to run in this year’s special election for Congressional District I – perhaps the only issue more flashy than Patten and Thorsen. Speaker Shekarchi was clear and firm, saying that “I made my decision back in March not to run, and as of today, nothing has changed.” He did, however, expand on the topic of his own accord.
“People are looking at that and saying, politically, you can win,” Shekarchi added. “And I’ll be very honest with you, I think I can win. But that’s not necessarily the right thing or the best thing for me right now.” The Speaker says that he will stay out of the race because “the personal factors outweigh the political for me right now.”
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