By Dominick J. Ruggerio and Nicholas A. Mattiello
“Knock it off.” Governor Gina Raimondo’s recent demand of individuals violating social distancing directives struck a visceral tone in Rhode Island. The phrase, in a way, encapsulates the remarkable leadership the Governor has demonstrated during these extraordinary times.
Governor Raimondo has been direct and blunt when required, but she has also led with a firm command of public health policy and compassion. In recent weeks, she has outlined scores of steps Rhode Islanders must take to curb the spread of COVID-19 and each time she effectively explained the underlying rationale. Together with Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the Governor’s incremental approach has mitigated the impact of this public health pandemic. We are grateful for her steady leadership.
Although the General Assembly is not meeting in formal sessions, all senators and representatives remain hard at work. We are helping our constituents gain access to social services, securing supplies and food for front line workers, and most importantly, we are assisting the Governor in anything she deems necessary. We are in daily contact with our colleagues, Governor Raimondo and her team, and our municipal officials. Cognizant of the need for social distancing and restrictions on gatherings, we have found alternate mechanisms to accomplish actions that are legislative in nature but require immediate attention.
Through executive action, the state has addressed the most urgent challenges facing Rhode Islanders. We have eliminated the waiting period for unemployment benefits, prohibited utility shutoffs, and opened a special health care enrollment period. Foreclosure proceedings have been suspended in the courts. Our federal delegation under the leadership of Senator Jack Reed has secured a substantial relief package that includes increasing the unemployment benefit level and expanding unemployment benefits to include workers in the “gig economy.” Additionally, the Disaster Emergency Funding Board, an entity comprised of General Assembly leadership, met recently to address the state’s cash flow challenge that arose from the federal government delaying the income tax filing deadline. As a whole, these actions at the federal, state and local levels will help Rhode Island weather this storm.
Yes, the General Assembly will need to reconvene in the coming months. However, due in large part to the issues we have collaboratively addressed with the Governor, we will not need to meet during the height of the pandemic. Moreover, we should not meet during the height of the pandemic. The legislature’s pause not only protects Rhode Island’s public health but also its public policy. In the coming month, we will gain a more complete picture of the state’s financial condition and the conditions placed on federal aid. A knee jerk reaction or expenditure of aid could exacerbate the public health and public policy consequences of this crisis.
We are exploring the possibility of limited remote sessions, but we prefer to legislate in person to ensure public access and transparency. Some have scoffed at the suggestion that there are Rhode Islanders who do not possess the sophistication or economic privilege to participate in remote meetings, but if you have ever hosted a neighborhood meeting at a senior center or sat through a hearing on transportation funding you know the most vulnerable Rhode Islanders will not have the ability to participate in remote meetings. Nevertheless, if we choose to meet remotely, there are legal and constitutional hurdles that will need to be addressed. We will also need to ensure the integrity of any system we use. As with all the options, remote sessions would be imperfect, but it is something we are exploring.
We are committed to the Legislature reconvening in the near future to assess and address the havoc wrought by COVID-19. In the meantime, we encourage all Rhode Islanders to observe the directives set forth by the Governor and the Department of Health. Hopefully, if we all do our part, we will come through this crisis fairly expeditiously. In other words, if you aren’t following the Governor’s guidance, then respectfully, knock it off.
Dominick J. Ruggerio (D-District 4, North Providence, Providence) is the President of the Senate and Nicholas A. Mattiello (D-District 15, Cranston) is the Speaker of the House.