Faith groups ask General Assembly to help the poor

Steph Machado | WPRI-TV

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – An interfaith group of clergy and Rhode Islanders from more than two dozen religious groups marched from a downtown church to the State House on Wednesday, calling on the newly reconvened General Assembly to pass legislation to help the poor.

The Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition’s vigil, which they entitled “Fighting Poverty with Faith,” was bolstered by Gov. Gina Raimondo and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, both Democrats, who attended the event and spoke in favor of the group’s agenda.

“The things that we’re here to talk about today are the basic issues of how human beings treat each other, how we care for people who are in need, and that’s an awful lot of people in Rhode Island,” said Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser, one of the religious leaders in the coalition.

The vigil in the State House rotunda included prayers, songs, and a reading out of the names of every representative, senator, mayor and other political leader in the state, with a plea for them to “govern with wisdom, care and compassion.”

The groups’ legislative priorities include raising the minimum wage; protecting the free RIPTA fare for disabled, low-income, and elderly riders that is slated to disappear on Feb. 1; increasing access to early childhood education; and securing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

“So they don’t have to be afraid of being deported every time they get pulled over,” Rabbi Goldwasser said.

Raimondo pledged to bring driving privileges to immigrants when she ran for governor in 2014, but the measure has so far been stymied by the General Assembly, and she has declined to take action by executive order.

“The legislature has made it crystal clear that they are not interested in it,” Raimondo said in an interview with Eyewitness News. “So we’ll put the legislation up, we will fight for it, but I’m not hopeful that it’s going to happen.”

As for the RIPTA fares, Paiva Weed told the crowd at the vigil she was working on a solution that would help those people who will no longer be receiving free fares.

Both Raimondo and Paiva Weed expressed support for increasing the minimum wage, which House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has also said he supports. Mattiello was invited to attend Wednesday’s event but was not there due to his busy schedule, according to spokesperson Larry Berman.

Berman said the House would consider bills in 2017 related to poverty and the coalition’s priorities, none of which have been introduced yet. He said Mattiello does not support driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, but does still plan on pushing legislation to raise the minimum wage.

Rabbi Goldwasser, who leads the Temple Sinai congregation in Mattiello’s Cranston district, said he would make a personal plea to the speaker.

“I’m going to go pay a visit to the speaker, tell him about what we said here and what we did here, and ask for his support,” Goldwasser said.