The economy took center stage Tuesday as lawmakers convened the 2013-14 session of the General Assembly and re-elected Theresa Pavia Weed President of the Senate and Gordon Fox Speaker of the House.
There were new faces in both chambers and a familiar face in a new role in the House. Johnston Representative Stephen Ucci was appointed Majority Whip, joining the leadership team for the first time in his eight-year legislative career. As Majority Whip, Ucci works with the leadership team to ensure they have enough votes on the floor to pass legislation on to the Senate.
“The other part is to be part of the leadership team and to determine policy,” Ucci said. “It’s an honor to do it because you’re elected by your peers to the position and secondly, it’s an opportunity to be at the table more beyond the votes on the floor.”
Also serving on the House leadership team are Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston) and Deputy Whip Christopher Blazejewski (D-Providence).
At a Republican caucus in November, Rep. Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield, Burrillville) was re-elected Minority Leader and Rep. Joseph Trillo (R-Warwick) was re-elected Minority Whip.
Aside from Ucci’s new role, the Johnston core delegation remains unchanged. Representatives Deb Fellela and John Carnevale, and Senator Frank Lombardo, again join Ucci. Representing portions of Johnston will be Rep. Gregory Costantino (D-Johnston, Lincoln, Smithfield) and Senator Stephen Archambault (D-Johnston, Smithfield).
On the Senate side, William Walaska was elected President Pro Tem but only after a bit of playful shenanigans providing comic relief to the oft-repeated message from both chambers that the state needs to make it easier for businesses to operate and that it needs to train a skilled workforce to attract companies here.
Fellow Warwick Senator Erin Lynch nominated Walaska with a less than glowing speech concluding that she thought he would be “OK.” When her colleagues realized she was poking fun at Walaska, there were laughs, but none like those when the electronic voting board posted all red lights when it came to the vote. A technical glitch was blamed for the problem.
“Thanks for the resounding nomination,” Walaska said when he took the podium, evoking more laughter.
Senator Dominick Ruggerio (D-North Providence, Providence) was re-elected Senate Majority Leader and Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown) was re-elected Minority Leader.
In her speech, Pavia Weed said the “future begins with an honest assessment of the challenges we face.” She said that, “working together, with our partners in the public and private sectors, we will focus on economic development with a renewed sense of urgency to ensure families financial security and prosperity.”
Initiatives the Senate would target include better equipping the state’s workforce with the skills needed in today’s knowledge economy; reversing the state’s reputation as over-regulated; improving education at all levels; encouraging urban revitalization; economic development through the arts; addressing budget issues to preserve services while improving the state’s competitiveness; and improving the affordability, quality and transparency of the health care system.
Across the building, in the House chambers, Fox hit on similar themes.
“We must make the right decisions in this session to pave the way for a brighter future,” he said.
Fox said the House would cancel its regular session on Jan. 17 to hold a five-hour economic conference at Rhode Island College. He said he is tired of seeing the state at the bottom of national rankings when it comes to business.
“It is certainly time that we develop a new customer-friendly attitude toward business, with less regulatory red tape and fewer hurdles to jump through.”
Ucci is confident that the General Assembly can make Rhode Island more business friendly, as the issue of the economy, “transcends party lines and it transcends philosophical lines.”
“We need to do something to spur economic development in the state and we need to be less bureaucratic for business. We need to get people back to work,” Ucci said.
Fox also pitched education, pledging support for education funds for cities and towns, saying that legislators must find ways of solving problems without rolling them downhill to the cities and towns.
“It’s public education that is going to benefit all of us over time,” he said.
With the Newtown shootings on the minds of many, many legislators expect gun control measures will also come before lawmakers, depending on what is done on a national level.
In her remarks, Pavia Weed said, “Public safety in our schools will be a priority as we work with the Attorney General, the State Police and our federal partners to address the many concerns that this tragedy has caused the country to focus on.”
Fox said, “We must redouble our efforts to be certain that our schools and public places are safe and secure.”