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Looking back at Rhode Island’s 2023 legislative session

Reproductive rights, lead pipes, labor protections take center stage

<p>Housing took center stage in the legislature last spring, with the vast majority of House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi’s (D-Warwick) 14-bill package to address the state’s housing crisis passing. </p>

Housing took center stage in the legislature last spring, with the vast majority of House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi’s (D-Warwick) 14-bill package to address the state’s housing crisis passing. 

Almost 2,700 bills were introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly in the 2023 session, which runs from January to June, but the vast majority never saw the floor. 

The Herald reviewed several of the most important bills passed during the legislative session — and the bills that didn’t pass, offering a preview of what Rhode Islanders can expect from legislators in 2024.

Housing package

Housing took center stage in the legislature last spring, with the vast majority of House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi’s (D-Warwick) 14-bill package to address the state’s housing crisis passing.


13 of the 14 bills ultimately passed, including legislation to repurpose abandoned or unused school buildings for affordable housing, simplify the approval process for the construction of low and moderate-income housing and eliminate rental application fees.

“Real change is never easy, but these bills will help to create more affordable housing that is so desperately needed in Rhode Island,” Shekarchi said in a May press release.

Lead pipe replacement

Attacking a problem affecting an estimated 29,000 drinking water service lines in Rhode Island, this bill mandates the replacement of lead pipes across the state within the next 10 years, “contingent upon available funding.” Additionally, the bill requires lead risk assessments to be performed on all houses built prior to 2011, instead of the current cutoff of 1978.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D-North Providence) wrote in an email to The Herald that the legislation was a “top priority” for both him and the Senate, citing potential harmful effects of lead exposure such as slowed growth and learning problems in children.

“This is an environmental issue, an education issue, a finance issue and, most importantly, a public health issue, and it required collaboration across many areas of expertise to bring this program to fruition,” he wrote.

Ruggerio anticipates that appropriating funding to be the greatest challenge to the bill. While over $140 million in federal funding is available to support the project, Ruggerio does “not expect existing funding to be sufficient.”

Still, he emphasized that funding the lead pipe replacement project will continue to be a state priority, even if federal funding is depleted.

Equality in Abortion Coverage Act

The Equality in Abortion Coverage Act ensures that individuals on Medicaid and state employees will receive insurance coverage for abortion procedures. The contentious bill, which had been introduced every year since 2020, passed the state House in a 49-24 vote, the fourth attempt to pass the bill. The legislation builds on the Reproductive Privacy Act, which codified Roe v. Wade’s protections of abortion rights into state law in 2019. 


Roughly one-quarter of the state’s population are Medicaid recipients, and 30,000 residents are on state employee insurance plans, according to a General Assembly press release. Prior to the passage of the EACA, these individuals would have needed to pay the full cost of any abortion procedures out of pocket.

Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian (D-East Providence) previously said the EACA is “not about re-debating the question of choice” but rather about ensuring equal healthcare coverage for all individuals, regardless of their insurance plan.

Wage theft

In June, Gov. Dan McKee signed into law a bill that would change wage theft from a misdemeanor into a felony. The law defines wage theft as occurring when an employer intentionally fails to pay an employee more than $1,500 in wages, a crime which now carries a penalty of up to three years in prison in addition to fines.

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The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Meghan Kallman (D-Pawtucket) and by state Rep. Robert E. Craven (D-North Kingstown), will protect workers from various offenses like being paid less than minimum wage or not being compensated for working overtime.

“When the powerless steal, they are punished,” Kallman said in a press release. “But when the powerful knowingly steal from hardworking Rhode Islanders, they are getting away with it.”

Assault weapons ban

Some high-profile bills ultimately failed to pass.

A proposed assault weapons ban, introduced by state Rep. Jason Knight (D-Barrington, Warren), would have banned “the possession, sale and transfer of assault weapons.” The bill never made it out of committee. 

Knight said he plans to continue lobbying for the bill and reintroduce it next legislative session by “doing what we’ve always done, which is to talk to people who are opponents and try to figure out what their opposition is and see if we can make any adjustments,” Knight said.

House Minority Whip David Place (R-Burrillville, Glocester), who was opposed to the legislation, said he was “shocked that some variation of firearms legislation did not pass.”

Free meals

In an effort to address growing food insecurity in Rhode Island, lawmakers proposed to use state funds to offer all public school students free breakfast and lunch. But the two bills creating free meals only passed the state Senate, not the House.

Concerns regarding the program included its $40 million cost. Shekarchi said the program costs wouldn’t have been covered by McKee’s budget.

“I am working with Governor McKee, as well as Rep. Justine Caldwell, the House sponsor, to attempt to achieve an affordable solution for next year’s session,” Shekarchi told the Providence Journal in August.

In 2022, food insecurity in Rhode Island households reached 31% according to The Rhode Island Community Food Bank, a significant jump since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking forward

Knight said the General Assembly “passed a lot of good legislation this year,” citing the EACA and the housing package. Next session, he hopes to focus on environmental issues and the reintroduction of gun control legislation.

Place added that he was pleased by the willingness of the two parties in the legislative body to work together.

“The best tell … for the session was the fact that the three senior Republicans in the caucus all did, in the end, vote for the budget,” Place said. He added that his priority in the coming year is to ensure that “no violations of the Second Amendment to the Constitution are passed.”

But the 2024 legislative session may present legislators with new difficulties. Ruggerio wrote that dwindling federal funds, which were largely allocated to the state in 2020 and 2021 from federal COVID-19 relief packages, will present the state with a more challenging budget process than it has faced in several years.

Ruggerio added that he expects the state Senate to prioritize reforming the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights, which protects law enforcement officers from prosecution arising from actions taken during the performance of their official duties. Ruggerio said “a sensible version” passed the Senate, “but late in the session.” The state House did not take up the bill.

The Senate will also prioritize the continued expansion of access to child care and pre-kindergarten, Ruggerio said.


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