PROVIDENCE — For one day last week, Rhode Island’s top Democrats — even those vying against each other for the big political prize next year — were one big happy family.
They gathered in the high-ceilinged State Room, with Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington looking down at them, to celebrate the signing of new laws to ban guns from schools and the “straw purchase” of firearms by middlemen for others prohibited from buying them.
The event gave three of the likely 2022 candidates for governor a turn at the microphone: the incumbent governor, Dan McKee, the state treasurer, Seth Magaziner, and the secretary of state, Nellie Gorbea.
For this moment, on this day, they were all on the same team: Democrats united behind measures they believe will reduce the potential for gun violence — a belief disputed by the one potential GOP candidate for governor so far, House Minority Leader Blake Filippi (more on his views later).
But that did not mean the Democrats all had the same degree of luck getting their agendas through the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
They all had mixed luck.
Atty. Gen. Peter Neronha — who has made clear he is NOT running for governor next year — won 33% of his legislative battles with the passage of 12 of 36 bills introduced on his behalf.
One of the two gun bills signed last Monday was introduced by like-minded lawmakers for him, McKee, Gorbea and Magaziner, and the straw-purchase bill, for him alone.
The lawmakers also passed bills introduced for the attorney general to:
◘ Create the framework for a statewide body-worn camera program for police.
◘ Seal the records — and eliminate the $100 expungement fee — for cases in which the accused is acquitted or otherwise exonerated. (The fix? Stripping from law language that bars someone previously convicted of a felony from seeking this opportunity.)
Sid Wordell, executive director of the R.I. Police Chiefs Association, was among those opposing the bill.
His argument: “At a time when law enforcement in Rhode Island is seeing an increase in fatal overdoses which are being attributed to fentanyl and carfentanil and an increase in possession of methamphetamine we can not support the idea of reclassifying such drugs to a misdemeanor.
“States and countries [that] have moved toward reclassification of such drugs … have also put tremendous resources into treatment, social services and sentencing reform.”
But the R.I. Medical Society told lawmakers: “Rhode Island is in the midst of two health care epidemics. One, the COVID-19 pandemic, the other, skyrocketing death rate from drug overdose. Addiction is a medical condition and should be treated as such, not as a crime.”
The lawmakers did not, however, pass other legislation that Neronha — and the other statewide officers — championed to ban so-called assault weapons; place a 10-round limit on “high-capacity” ammunition clips; and require the locked storage of firearms.
The lawmakers also refused to back his push to allow grand juries to issue reports on their findings in cases where their probes do no lead to criminal charges.
Neronha promises to try again next year because “we believe that such a bill, if passed, will lead to greater transparency and public confidence in the criminal justice system.”
Secretary of State Gorbea is running for governor with this legislative scorecard:
The lawmakers passed seven of the 22 bills introduced with her official backing, including the schoolgrounds gun ban she backed alongside McKee, Magaziner and Neronha.
Other legislative successes involved functions of her office.
One tweaks moves the due date for corporations to file annual reports with her office. Another deals with consolidations and mergers in R.I.’s “nonprofit corporate” world.
Another reaches back to Rhode Island’s “leading role in the birth and history of the United States of America,” as one of the original 13 colonies,
It creates a 30-member “Rhode Island Semiquincentennial Commission” — chaired by the secretary of state — to help the state mark the 250th anniversary of the United States’ founding on July 4, 2026.
The bill itself is a history lesson:
“On May 4, 1776,” the narrative begins, “Rhode Island’s General Assembly passed the Act of Renunciation, becoming the first British colony to renounce its allegiance to the King, an important legislative step toward the Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776.”
Gorbea was unable, however, to convince lawmakers to give the secretary of state a new role as the head of an election systems cybersecurity review board.
The bill [H6042] also called for the secretary of state to conduct a cybersecurity assessment of the state’s voter registration system, voting equipment, mechanisms to transmit election results, electronic poll books, and the “security of facilities.”
No one spoke against it. C. Michael Steinmetz, the state’s former cybersecurity officer — and current member of Gorbea’s cybersecurity advisory group — urged the lawmakers to recognize the “constantly evolving” threat.
“Since the 2016 elections, United States citizens have witnessed clear demonstrations that their democratic processes and digital information have been under siege by entities interested in destabilizing our democratic processes and governance.”
But the lawmakers had no appetite for any election-related legislation this year.
Magaziner’s legislative scorecard: 6 of the 17 bills he backed won passage, including the gun legislation McKee signed last Monday.
He also won legislators’ support for this piece in his job drive for R.I. construction-trade unions: build new schools, renovate old ones.
That included legislative authorization for Central Falls to borrow up to $5,760,000 — through the issuance of bonds — for its share of the anticipated $144-million cost to build a new high school and make vital repairs to the city’s middle and elementary schools (subject to local voter approval).
Another winning bill — introduced for him — requires the state’s top education officials to develop standards for teaching “personal finance” in R.I. public schools, including: installment purchasing, budgeting, credit and the law, employment and income, saving, investing, and money management.
“In this, we continue to be an outlier — thirty-seven other states require students to receive personal finance education before graduating,” Magaziner told the lawmakers.
“The communities where students are receiving the least amount of personal financial training are the same ones that are already at an economic disadvantage and most vulnerable to predatory financial products,” he testified.
Magaziner also made a winning pitch for more state dollars — to offset reduced court fee collections — for the crime victims compensation fund overseen by his office.
He argued: “Rhode Island stands alone in New England as the only state where payday lenders are allowed to charge triple digit interest rates to consumers.”
“Payday lenders claim to serve borrowers facing short-term emergencies, but in reality … [their] business model requires repeated, short-term borrowing, at interest rates up to 260%, which traps low-income, low-wealth borrowers in a cycle of long-term, unaffordable, payday loan debt. “
But he ran up against Purpose Financial which, at that point, operated 18 Advance America storefronts in Rhode Island and its $30,000 a year lobbyist, former House Speaker William Murphy.
“Many hard-working families in Rhode Island and across the country struggle to make ends meet and live paycheck to paycheck,” the company’s senior policy counsel, Julie Townsend, wrote the legislators.
“This bill would deny Rhode Islanders’ access to the regulated, short-term, small-dollar credit on which they occasionally rely. It would also result in the closure of all Advance America’s storefronts in the state,” Townsend argued.
And that was it for another year on the payday lending front.
Another Magaziner proposal that went nowhere (H6071) would have required the state to create a “taxpayer services division” to offer free advice on “proper recordkeeping, information required to be reported, taxes owed, and taxes to be collected and remitted.”
The state’stax administrator, Neena Savage, raised numerous concerns, among them: “There are currently 72,000 Corporate Tax filers … [which] may take resources away from existing revenue generating responsibilities.”
And what of McKee, who moved up from lieutenant governor to governor in March, when his predecessor, Gina Raimondo, resigned to become U.S. commerce secretary?
With the power of the governor’s office behind him, he convinced legislative budget-writers to include, in the budget, a personal priority he pushed as the No. 2:
A requirement that every electric and gas company doing business in the state submit an “emergency response plan … [for] the reasonably prompt restoration of service in the case of … widespread outages.”
A company that fails to do so — fails “standards of acceptable performance” — could be fined $100,000 for each violation for each day, up to $7.5 million.
He successfully navigated his first budget proposal through the General Assembly, and had a hand in passage of “401Works” allowing people to return to work and earn up to 150% of what they are receiving in unemployment benefits and keep those benefits through June 2022.
McKee also stopped moves to block the expansion of publicly-financed “charter schools.”
And what about Republican Filippi?
He was the lead sponsor of 24 bills and resolutions. Two of the three that passed dealt with who could perform a wedding ceremony. The third deals with the maximum that solar-energy producers in his home district on Block Island can add to the electric grid.
On the gun bills, he believes the straw purchase bill is “so poorly drafted that innocent people will get snared in it,” and the school grounds ban may cause accidents by requiring “licensed concealed carriers … [to] unload before driving on school grounds, and reload after.
“That’s when there is the highest risk of accidental discharge.”