Breakfast with Joe

Speaker Shekarchi says ‘no more gravy train,’ provides glimpse at Assembly priorities


The Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives set his eyes on the biscuits slathered in sausage gravy across the table.

“There’s no more … gravy train coming from the federal government,” said state Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi. “Somehow people think that the state has unlimited money. Which we don’t.”

Shekarchi offered a sobering forecast of next year’s state finances: “We’re going to have to prioritize and live within our budget.”

The Warwick Democrat met Beacon Communications’ trio of writing editors (John Howell, Warwick Beacon; Kevin Fitzpatrick, Cranston Herald; and Rory Schuler, the Johnston Sun Rise) for breakfast at Gel’s Kitchen 2, 3003 West Shore Road in Warwick, for a working breakfast early Friday morning.

“Unlike Washington, you know, Rhode Island has a beautiful State House, but we don’t have any printing presses in the basement here,” Shekarchi said. “We can’t run a deficit like the federal government does. They just print more money. We can’t. We have to draft a budget that’s balanced, under our Constitution. We take that obligation very seriously.”

Shekarchi arrived shortly after his right-hand-man Larry Berman, an Ocean State newspaper veteran himself.

The short-order breakfast business was bouncing that morning, the last day of the work week approaching Christmas weekend. Shekarchi has been making the media rounds— television, print and radio — answering questions and providing a forecast of next year’s General Assembly priorities.

The group of five needed a large table and the diner was packed.

Howell and Shekarchi bounced between tables and exiting customers. Anyone else would feel in the way, but they knew practically everyone — anonymity’s impossible for that pair, out to eat, in the city they know as well as anyone.

Hot Tea & Tight Belts

The Speaker ordered hot tea. He sipped it from a soup spoon until it cooled to the right temperature. He drank from a “Joe Shekarchi” mug (kept in reserve by Gel’s proprietor Michael Penta, who was hard at work behind the grill; stone-faced with friendly eyes).

“Here’s a news flash,” Shekarchi said. “It’s tough for everybody. Including the state. The same problems that Warwick is having, or any community’s having, the state’s having. We have a billion dollars of projects that are all coming in over budget. All coming in, the same thing.”

Last year, the state’s $14 billion budget spawned a modest $12 million surplus.

According to Shekarchi, the windfall was “split two ways” and transferred in September.

“Six million went into the governor’s rainy day fund to help improve the state’s bonding rating … stronger rainy day fund, we get a better rating when we borrow bonds,” he explained. “And $6 million went into help the state retirement system, the COLAs (Cost of Living Adjustments), to get closer to that 80 percent mark.”

Shekarchi was first elected House Speaker in January 2021 and re-elected to the post in January of this year.

He ordered a bacon egg and cheese sandwich on a toasted English muffin.

“Well done,” he told the waitress. “Everything well done.”

Bridging Divides

The meal’s first course of discussion wrapped around Rhode Island’s transportation woes — from Providence’s Washington Bridge debacle to the small Greystone Bridge closure (and less inevitable replacement) on the border of Johnston and North Providence.

Since the Washington Bridge crisis last week, smaller projects like the Greystone Bridge have now likely slipped far down the priority list. Despite that, Shekarchi knew of a few basic Greystone neighborhood constituent concerns. Several of his fellow house members met recently to discuss strategies to re-open the bridge.

Then Interstate 195 traffic snarled as the Washington Bridge suddenly slashed capacity by half after the Rhode Island Department of Transportation shut down the westbound side.

“I had a project on Route 44 in my private capacity that they abandoned because (Johnston) would not permit the project because of the traffic there until that bridge opened up,” Shekarchi recalled of a local car wash proprietor whose business failed before it opened. “And my client couldn’t wait so they walked away from the project.”

The Greystone Bridge closing several years ago has become a tightening noose around the necks of local businesses throughout the Route 44 corridor in Johnston and into North Providence.

“They were two-thirds through the approval process and it became clear that we weren’t going to get the final approval until the bridge opened, and we couldn’t hang around and wait for a bridge to open,” Shekarchi said. He switched gears back to Providence and the bridge that will be stealing the attention of state officials and construction crews.

Oversight Imminent

“The Washington Bridge affects 100,000 people a day,” Shekarchi said. “It’s serious.”

Shekarchi promised an investigation led by the General Assembly.

“The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) has initiated a review; an oversight review, a review of everything,” Shekarchi pledged. “The Governor is gonna do a review and I’m very confident that the House will have oversight of those hearings in the early New Year. I don’t know when, because I’m going to talk to my counterpart in the Senate and possibly do a joint-oversight … if he wants to do one.”

While finding out what went wrong underneath the Washington Bridge will undoubtedly involve varying degrees of political intrigue, a smaller bridge like the Greystone, according to Shekarchi, is a public safety issue.

“The reality, this really isn’t a political issue,” he explained. “Local reps respond to their constituents. And we’re gonna certainly try to get some answers from DOT. But we can’t legislate to open a bridge or not open a bridge … Ultimately, if DOT says it’s unsafe, I’m not going to pass a bill that says ‘open up an unsafe bridge.’ No legislature would do that.”

The expense of a replacement of the Greystone Bridge has been cited as a key reason not to replace the bridge (one of many failing crossings in the Ocean State).

“I will tell you that DOT has a lot of money; they have a lot of federal money,” Shekarchi said. “We have more than adequately funded them since I’ve been speaker. They’ve had three very robust years of receiving state money as a match. We give them 20 percent and they get 80 percent from the federal government. And they also had access to all kinds of infrastructure money … So if money is an issue, it’s certainly something we would look at and review. But I don’t know. I don’t know what the structural issue is or the safety issues are.”

Next Stop, Warwick

They built it. Will the trains come?

“I have been a strong proponent of having Amtrak stop at Warwick Station,” Shekarchi said about the interlink  to Warwick’s T.F. Green International Airport. “I feel it’s a beautifully new station, it has more than adequate parking. It would be a great economic benefit to the city and the airport. And I’ve been a big proponent for it.”

If Amtrak stopped in Warwick, Shekarchi argues, every realm of local commerce would benefit.

“We built a beautiful train station,” he repeated as a baby wailed at another table. “It’s underutilized; it’s under-parked. If it wasn’t for the car rental agencies, it would be really really under-utilized.”

It’s hard to argue against mass-transit improvements, especially following the chaos that followed the Washington Bridge closing.

“Absolutely, 100 percent in favor,” Shekarchi insisted regarding the Warwick Amtrak stop. “Less traffic for the roads; good for the environment. There are so many advantages to well done mass transit … It’s a wonderful way to travel.” An Amtrak stop that would require another platform is the subject of a two-year study that is expected to be completed by the first of the New Year.

Post-Post Road Redevelopment

“A lot of the re-development that’s going on in that Post Road area, in and around the airport, is encouraging because it’s been 30 years in the making,” Shekarchi recalled.

He noted the walking path to the train station and an influx of major projects along the airport adjacent state roadway.

“There’s been a lot of development near that area,” Shekarchi said. “Nothing ever got built or done. Now we’re finally seeing hotels on the drawing board, apartments being permitted, hotels being converted into apartments, new construction going on, redevelopment of Ann & Hope. We see a lot of good development going on on Airport Road.”

For now, Post Road has visible scars, with many longtime businesses (restaurants and retail) that have shut down since the pandemic. Shekarchi forecasts better days ahead.

“I think you’re going to see a boom in the next two years of … good, prudent development in and around the airport,” he said. “And the transportation — the train station, and the bus stations that all service that area — I think it’s good for the restaurants, it’s good for our local economies, it’s good for our local hotels … all of the above.”

School Projects Due

Many ocean state municipalities have embarked on ambitious school renovation and building projects.

Johnston voters approved a $215 million bond for a total overhaul of its entire school system. However, following extreme volatility in the building materials markets and construction overall, school planners have been forced to drastically shrink the scope (from a project that once promised to touch each age-level of Johnston public school students, to a new elementary center and some other possible renovations at the high school).

When does a bonded public school project change so drastically it no longer resembles the promise they approved at the ballot box?

“You’d have to ask bond counsel,” Shekarchi answered. “When they go out to bond, it’s the contract, it’s a legally binding document that investors buy and they’re very specific and detailed as to what it covers and doesn’t cover.”

Warwick voters approved a $350 million bond issue November 2022. They are planning to build two new high schools. Falling behind in the process, the city asked Shekarchi for more time and money.

“This is not a new issue,” Shekarchi recalled. “Last year, the City of Warwick in particular (and other municipalities) requested more money from the state. They thought that me being speaker, I could just give Warwick more money. It doesn’t work that way. And they also requested more time.”

Cities and towns have to follow strict timetables to ensure robust reimbursement amounts from the state.

“Because you have to start these projects in a certain amount of time and you have to finish these projects for those reasons,” Shekarchi explained. “And Warwick had delays with due diligence. I know the Council, the Mayor did some outside research because the numbers were rising; interest rates were going up … Last year was a good budget year. When the revenue numbers came in in May, we had strong revenue numbers that afforded me the ability to extend the time by one year, that Warwick can build a new school or schools.”

The state — the General Assembly and the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) — assess major school building projects on a case-by-case basis.

“The size and the scope of the school projects have to be decided by the local community,” Shekarchi said. “And they have to learn to live within a budget. But additionally to that, I gave the City of Warwick $750,000 additional in building, in a higher reimbursement rate (which extended to other communities as well).”

What worked for Warwick also benefited the rest of the Ocean State’s schools seeking state funds for building projects.

“I couldn’t pass it for one,” Shekarchi said. “I had to pass it statewide. It was millions and millions of dollars more the state paid for new construction.”

That’s it though. Time’s up.

“No more extensions,” Shekarchi warned. “It’s not a deadline to build, per say. What people fail to understand is, the way the program is set up, includes incentives … The costs are astronomically high, that even with the incentives, they’re well over budget. So they have to prioritize.”

Growing Wish Lists

Shekarchi refused a guess at the overall size of next year’s budget, but he’s been receiving long wish lists from state agencies and department heads.

“This is going to be a very difficult budget year,” he warned. “I have requests well above $700 million — we’re approaching a billion dollars — that are not accounted for in the budget. And I can guarantee you we will not have the $700 million in surplus funds in the May revenue numbers.”

The federal pandemic response well has run dry.

“So people … advocacy groups, cities and towns, constituencies and legislators, have to realize that we don’t have any CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act money from the federal government. We don’t have any more ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money. And there’s no more infrastructure money. The state, like every other entity or family of Rhode Island, has to learn to live within its means. Our budget will come down.”

Shekarchi says last year’s $14 billion was artificially high, inflated full of federal funds that won’t be delivered in 2024.

The House will know more after it examines “numbers from March 15 business tax returns, and April 15 individual tax returns,” Shekarchi said. “We’ll have very accurate numbers of … how much revenue the state is taking in. And then we’ll set our budget.”

According to Shekarchi, the biggest unbudgeted requests include: $100 million by Rhode Island Secretary of State Gregg M. Amore, for new state archives; the RI Black Business Association (RIBBA) asked for $100 million; a possible (though now seemingly unlikely) $400 million for relocation of a courthouse from Providence to Cranston; and the re-initiation of COLAs for state workers may cost $200 to 300 million range.

“We’re waiting for the study commission to report back,” Shekarchi said. “Our budget has to be based on the revenue we have. So I don’t know where the $700 million plus is coming in.”

What’s Shekarchi’s top fiscal goal in 2024?

“I don’t have a funding priority,” he said. “I just want to pass a balanced budget. I want to listen to my members. I want a very open, transparent process. I’ll give everyone the chance to make their case before the House Finance Committee.”

The House is deep into a review of pension reform. “What’s working what isn’t working,” according to the Speaker.

“There’s no new money coming in from the federal government,” Berman added to the conversation. “It’s all been allocated.”

The schools will also have to adjust to leaner times, following the past few years of federal financial injections in the form of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Programs.

“Where’d they spend it?” Shekarchi asked. “Where’d it go?”


Shekarchi expects an agreement on Rhode Island’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBOR) in the New Year.

“I think that we worked very hard on that all summer long,” he said. “We’ve been … meeting with all the stakeholders. And I think you’ll see LEOBOR pass early this session.”

Shekarchi says the amended police bill of rights will be very different than it exists today, but he wouldn’t provide a preview of its contents.

“I have legislators working on it,” Shekarchi said. “It’s still a work in progress.”

Shekarchi did reveal, however, that “everyone” he’s spoken to seems to be leaning toward “reform and not repeal.”

“A lot of moving parts,” Shekarchi said. “A lot of stakeholders  … and they don’t always see eye-to-eye.”

Constitutional Convention?

Will the state hold a Constitutional Convention in the near future? Does Shekarchi think another convention — it’s three-and-a-half decades since Rhode Island’s last — is necessary?

“It doesn’t matter whether I see a need … the Constitution requires us to put it before the voters once very 10 years,” Shekarchi said. “And if we don’t act in the General Assembly, then the Secretary of State will act.”

“Do I support or want a Constitutional Convention?” Shekarchi asked. “No. And I don’t want it because I fear a lot of that dark money. With Citizens United, and a lot of these Supreme Court cases, they can try to influence elections and constitutional issues without disclosure.”

Shekarchi warned of “radical groups on the far right, and on the far left” aiming to alter the soul of state government through its heart, the Rhode Island State Constitution.

No Such Thing as a Free School Lunch

The State House has not surrendered the battle for free school lunches.

“We have a group of people in the House … working to have free school lunches, which aren’t free,” Shekarchi said. “They’re free for the people who get it, but it’s not free to the state. And that’s anywhere from $20-40 million also. That’s another issue, in terms … of money, whether it’s in the budget or not in the budget.”

Including a possible state-wide school lunch program, Shekarchi  said he “would not be shocked” to receive “close to a billion dollars in asks outside of the budget.”

“That’s a lot of millions,” Shekarchi said. “A thousand millions is a billion.”

Free school lunch is an easy initiative to back, but tough to fund.

“I support it, but there’s so many different variables to that,” Shekarchi explained. “Some people want school lunch free. Some people want school breakfast and lunch. Some people want it based on need. Some people want it for everybody — so the very very wealthy families who really don’t need to have the middle class and the rest of us subsidize their child’s lunch, will get it. And then you have some parents, who automatically today, qualify for it, but are just absent in filling out the proper paperwork … Not as clear cut an issue as just do it.”

How ‘bout a ‘Thank you’?

Asked about his state’s struggling working class, Shekarchi reflected on a handful of recent past achievements.

“We have made strategic investments and strategic tax cuts to help the middle class since I’ve become speaker,” he recalled. “We eliminated the car tax, and we did it a year earlier.”

Shekarchi gave a wink toward critics who “called it a farce; an election year gimmick.” He joked that those critics have yet to call and say “thank you.”

He also touted a few other tax tweaks aimed at helping the struggling sectors of his constituency.

“Social Security in Rhode Island is taxed,” Shekarchi explained. “It’s the first $20,000 that is exempt. We raised that to the first $30,000. So if you’re getting $35,000 in Social Security, you’re only paying taxes on $5,000; the first 30 of it’s free. And we eliminated the tax 100% on military pensions. So that people who served our country, who decide to retire here, who live here and get a military pension don’t have to pay taxes on that military pension.”

Hospitals, Doctors, Dentists (or Lack Thereof)

The state may be approaching a healthcare crisis — overflowing emergency rooms at aging hospitals, dwindling numbers of primary care providers, and disturbing deficits in pediatric dental care options.

“The hospital system is a great concern,” Shekarchi said. “Not only to me, but the attorney general. I’ve been meeting with him …”

Ward 3 Warwick City Councilman Timothy Howe stopped by the table to shake hands.

“Happy Holidays to you and your family …” Shekarchi said, taking a break from his explanation, but returning quickly back to his speeding train of thought.

He promises that “at the moment, the (state’s two primary hospital operators) are stable, and they will be  for a year or two.”

“They’re in the black because they’re deferring maintenance,” Shekarchi warned. “And that’s not a good thing. We need to have the latest and greatest technology and machines and equipment … it’s concerning. So what are we doing about it? We’re working with the Rhode Island Foundation that is conducting a big study about reimbursement rates …”

Some state officials hypothesize the state’s healthcare concerns stem from insurance carriers giving Rhode Island short shrift.

“Our premiums in Rhode Island are roughly the same premiums that they’re paying in Massachusetts,” Shekarchi   said. “But our reimbursements to the hospitals, and to doctors by the way, are much lower than Massachusetts. You can do an operation in Rhode Island for $2,500. You go, the same operation in Seekonk, you’re gonna get $4,300 … So if you’re a doctor, who’s come out of medical school and you have debt, where do you want to open up your practice? In Attleboro? In Seekonk? Or in Warwick?”

“We’re working on that,” he promised.

Shekarchi says the state’s been pouring money into Rhode Island’s medical centers.

“In the last three years, we have been very generous to the hospitals,” he explained. “They got a big chunk of money — of CARES Act money, of ARPA money. We’ve worked with the Hospital Association to change the licensing fee to give them money two years in a row. And we’ve done the same thing with nursing homes.”

Colorado’s Rocky

Following the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling to keep former U.S. President Donald J. Trump off next year’s Primary Ballot (for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection in the nation’s capital), Shekarchi weighed in on the strategy (similar efforts are also pending in a dozen other states).

“It’s wrong,” he said. “I do not support that at all. I think it has the opposite affect of what they’re intending. And I just philosophically think it’s wrong. I think the voters need to decide. I may not like Donald Trump for a whole host of reasons … but that’s my opinion. And I should exercise my opinion when I go vote.”

The issue stirred something in Shekarchi. He minced no words.

“I shouldn’t take that right away from those people,” he said. “I don’t think any court should take that right away. And keep in mind, at this juncture, he has not been convicted of anything yet.”

But, what if Jan. 6 happened in Providence and it was the Rhode Island State House (rather than the U.S. Capital) under attack?

“Not one chance of that changing my opinion,” Shekarchi insists. “I feel very strongly about that.”

Hats in Rings and Promised Announcements

What’s the election outlook for next year?

“Obviously I will have an election,” Shekarchi forecasts. “And I’m sure it will be tough.”

Up and down the rest of the ballot?

“There’s not going to be statewide races,” the Speaker explained. “There’ll be legislative races. And we’ll have a U.S. Senate race.”

And the Speaker’s future?

He offered an “on the record answer” (and maybe an “off the record” answer, but that’s off the record).

“On the record, I’m going to announce in the first quarter of 2024 my political intentions,” Shekarchi  said. “But I’m not prepared to announce them today.”

Gel’s owner and grill master approached the table, wiping his hands on his apron. He smiled at his state rep and his local newspaper editor.

Shekarchi insisted on paying the check. Full disclosure: we let him.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here