PROVIDENCE – The 2013 General Assembly session began Tuesday with leaders of both chambers emphasizing the importance of turning Rhode Island’s ailing economy around and improving its business climate.
Commencing his fourth term as Speaker of the House, Gordon Fox invoked the memory of Abraham Lincoln, saying, “The struggle of today is not altogether for today. It is for a vast future also.”
“What we do today is for the long term” Fox said in accepting re-election to the Speaker’s rostrum, “we have a long, festering problem that was triggered by the Great Recession of 2008, and we’ve had a slow-moving economy ever since. There is nothing more important than turning this economy around after a national recession that has impacted us so, so hard. We must make the right decision in this session to pave the way for a brighter future. We have to believe it, and we have to fight for it.”
Starting her third session as Senate President, Teresa Paiva Weed told senators, “We will take steps this session to develop a long-term vision for economic success.”
Among those steps, she said, are reversing Rhode Island’s reputation as a over-regulated state, improving education at all levels, from pre-kindergarten through higher education, better equipping the state’s workforce for today’s knowledge economy and furthering economic development through the arts.
Addressing the opening of the House session, Gov. Lincoln Chafee said, “At the beginning of the new year and the new legislative session, we have reasons to be optimistic. Here in Rhode Island, unemployment is going in the right direction, our state government and this House have been effective in demonstrating fiscal responsibility and discipline to create a business climate of predictability, stability and certainty – that’s what the business community wants, certainty in the future.
“I believe that if we commit to working together to address the fundamentals – education, infrastructure and workforce development – we will see a stronger and more prosperous Rhode Island,” Chafee said.
Fox, the first openly gay Speaker in the state’s history, reaffirmed his intention to bring a bill to allow same sex marriage – which he said he would co-sponsor – to the House floor “by the end of January.
“We can no longer be the only New England state without marriage equality,” said Fox, who took his oath of office standing with his partner, Marcus LaFond. “Rhode Island must be next in enacting this basic civil right to marry the one you love.” He emphasized that “I do not support sending this issue to the ballot. The fundamental rights of a minority group of citizens should not be subjected to a divisive ballot initiative.”
He said the House would also be more aggressive this year in exercising its oversight function, noting that one of the first issues that needs to be addressed is the problems that occurred at the polls during the November elections, including voters waiting in long lines that took an hour or more to cast their ballots, which he deemed “simply unacceptable.”
Noting the presence of Providence Mayor Angel Tavares and Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee in the audience for the opening-day ceremonies Fox pointed out, “how important it is to our cities and towns” to fund education. “It reminds me of how important it is to work with our cities and towns to make sure that they are fiscally healthy and that when solve our problems, we just don’t roll those down to the mayors and town administrators. It’s a partnership, the theme of this is we work together and solve problems and that is exactly, mayors, what you can be sure we will be doing.”
Paiva Weed, a Democrat, was re-elected president of the Senate on a vote of 37-1 with Republican Sen. Dawson Hodgson casting the lone dissenting vote.
Fox was returned to the Speakership on a 66-6-3 vote with all six Republicans in the House voting for Minority Leader Brian Newberry of North Smithfield instead and three Democrats abstaining.
One of those abstaining was Pawtucket Rep. J. Patrick O’Neill, who resigned from his leadership post as Democratic Whip last October over a disagreement with Fox. He said a lack of communication with the Speaker and his being kept out of the information loop on such issues as the ill-fated 38 Studios loan guarantee program and the merging of the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education and the Board of Governors for Higher Education led to his split with Fox.
“I just know, in my district, that I heard from my constituents that the issues of 38 Studios and merging of the education boards, done at the last hour, are things that bothered them and I didn’t have an explanation. They couldn’t believe that nor understand how I was in a leadership position and I wasn’t aware of certain things.”
The House of Representatives re-elected Francis McCabe of Pawtucket as clerk for the 2013-2014 session and the Senate elected Pawtucket’s John Baxter as reading clerk for the same term.