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Editorial & Opinion

People are suffering. The General Assembly must take action



People are dying. The economy is in freefall. If there ever was a moment when legislative leadership was needed, it is now…

The COVID-19 crisis has hit our state hard. Infections are rising. Tens of thousands are suddenly out of work. We are bracing for much worse to come. I want to commend Health Department Director Nicole Alexander-Scott, who has been a beacon of sensible leadership during this crisis, for taking action to ensure public health.

On the other hand, thus far, the response from our state legislative leadership, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, has been stunning. It has been to do absolutely nothing. The General Assembly is not meeting remotely, and right now, no plans have been announced to take action any time soon.

As an asthmatic, I’m at an high risk for COVID-19. I understand that precautions must be taken to ensure that the legislature does not spread the virus, but remote sessions are possible and can be done. Under the leadership of Council President Sabina Matos, whose family has been personally touched by the virus, the Providence City Council proved that remote sessions are possible. All it takes is leadership.

If we expect our public school students to be working remotely, we should expect our legislators to do the same.

Congress is working around the clock to hammer out a COVID-19 package. Around the country, state legislatures have already taken action, many voting emergency powers and funding to their Governors early last week. Here in Rhode Island, we must do the same thing. It’s clear that Congress’s package won’t come close to solving everything, and there are many areas where General Assembly action is needed and needed now.

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First of all, the General Assembly must take emergency action to ensure our healthcare system is staffed and funded to handle this crisis, and that means an immediate temporary increase in Medicaid reimbursement rates. After years of Medicaid cuts, our healthcare system is staring down the brink of financial ruin. Lifespan, the corporation that owns Rhode Island Hospital, just announced a round of layoffs. We must ensure emergency funding to address this public health crisis. Our commitment to fighting this pandemic must be backed up with money.

People and businesses are facing impossible bills. We need a moratorium on mortgage, rent, and utility payments for the duration of this crisis, allowing for paying these deferred bills over a reasonable timeframe with no late fees. We need to waive late fees for state and city tax payments. We need a moratorium on health insurance terminations.

We need to immediately lift the FTE (full-time equivalent) cap for the Department of Health and other affected departments so they can take on emergency staffing. We should also remove some of the financial restrictions we’ve placed on these departments.

We need legislation to address emergency cashflow issues for the state, likely authorizing short-term borrowing in anticipation of tax revenue.

And we desperately need an economic recovery package. Workers in affected industries need a bailout. We need to make our unemployment benefits as generous as possible. We need to provide direct cash incentives for displaced workers. And we need to bail out businesses facing special economic damage. Restaurants, always operating on tight margins, need a bailout, and they need it now. We need broad-scale stimulus because Congress won’t do nearly enough.

And that is really just the beginning. There is so much more we need to be doing immediately, and much, much more we need to be doing in the future. There are stickier problems it will take weeks to solve. We need to be working on solutions.

Then, there are the problems we don’t even know about. Because we are not holding virtual committee hearings, we are not giving people a forum to raise the alarm in public.

And if you disagree with some of the specific steps I’ve suggested, hopefully you agree that the legislature must do something.

People are dying. The economy is in freefall. If there ever was a moment when legislative leadership was needed, it is now. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and House Speaker Nick Mattiello are failing the people of our state. They need to take action now.

If either your State Senator or State Representative supports the leadership and their inaction, remind them that it’s an election year. The primaries will be in September.

Sam Bell is a Democratic member of the Rhode Island Senate. His district contains the Providence neighborhoods of Mt. Pleasant, Federal Hill, Olneyville, Cathedral Square, Regency Plaza, and Manton Heights, along with most of Hartford Park, a small portion of Elmhurst, and the northern portion of the West End around Dexter Park.