Budget plan could harm DCYF, governor and advocates warn

Mattiello will release revised bills at least 24 hours before a vote

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo and outside advocates are warning that a little-discussed provision in lawmakers’ proposed state budget could wind up harming children in state care.

The concerns came to light as Raimondo has held off on signing the 2019-20 budget plan that the General Assembly sent to her desk late last week. The governor has until Saturday to make a decision, and though she has not explicitly threatened a veto, she has expressed frustration about some of what was included and excluded. The new fiscal year began Monday.

The provision in the budget bill now under the microscope is contained in Article 2. It orders the state controller, Peter Keenan, not to make payments “for additional staff, contracts or purchases” requested by a state agency that is on track to run a deficit in the current fiscal year, unless the spending is “necessitated by immediate health and safety reasons.”

Multiple state agencies that handle social services consistently run annual deficits, including the Department of Children, Youth and Families, which lawmakers have criticized vociferously in recent months. A report on May 15 showed DCYF was projecting a net deficit of $18 million in 2018-19. The problem has long frustrated top lawmakers and their fiscal advisors.

In a letter last week to Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Conley, the leaders of the Rhode Island Coalition for Children and Families argued the language in Article 2 “could cause significant disruptions to the services that our clients rely on, including unprecedented wait lists.” They noted that DCYF caseloads can fluctuate considerably during the year — well after the budget is enacted — if more children than expected require assistance.

The Senate went on to pass the budget bill unchanged from the House version, however, keeping the Article 2 language in place. The bill was supported by nearly every Democrat in the General Assembly.

Spokespersons for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio did not respond Tuesday to questions about Article 2. Their news release summarizing the budget bill acknowledged it included a provision “requiring more transparent reporting of overspending by state agencies,” but did not mention the spending ban directive to the controller.

State Sen. Sam Bell, one of the few Democrats who opposed the budget, reiterated his criticism Wednesday.

“Failure to achieve basic funding and staffing of our agencies is one of the greatest failures of this budget,” Bell, D-Providence, wrote on Twitter. “Giving departments unrealistic budgets and banning them from overspending isn’t going to work. It’s going to be a disaster unless we fix it in September or January.”

House Republicans proposed increasing funding for DCYF during last month’s budget debate, but their amendments went down to defeat.

Tanja Kubas-Meyer, the Coalition for Children and Families’ executive director, said her member organizations remain worried. They include Adoption Rhode Island, Day One, Family Service of Rhode Island, the Groden Network, the Providence Center and the Providence Children’s Museum.

“Our members deliver programs at home and in the community ranging from early interventions to foster care supports to mental health counseling to residential care to supports for 18- to 21-year-olds in transition,” Kubas-Meyer said in an email. “State agencies like DCYF contract for these cost effective and high quality services and many more.”

“We know now that the DCYF budget of $229.8 million will be some $20 million under last year’s expenditures,” she said. “We don’t yet know how this will combine with Article 2 to impact continuing services for children and families but we are very concerned.” But she suggested it could wind up limiting “critical social services to children and families whether biological, foster, kin, or adoptive.”

Raimondo echoed those fears Tuesday, saying the Article 2 language “could further limit our ability to care for these vulnerable populations and could also create wait lists for these critical services.”

“Over the past four years we’ve made significant progress, and these budget changes could not only put that progress at risk, but halt services for people who rely on them,” the governor said in a statement.

“While I support better tools to help control spending, it’s also critical that we have flexibility to address increases in the number of children and families we serve and other unforeseen circumstances,” she said. “Our health and human services agencies have experienced significant cuts over time and as a result have historically been understaffed.”

DCYF Director Trista Piccola spoke out as well, saying Article 2 “could have dire impacts on our ability to serve children and families.”

“We have taken significant steps at DCYF to increase front line staff, reduce the number of children in congregate care and increase the number of foster families,” Piccola said in a statement. “The budget changes threaten to undo that progress as these restrictions could make it harder to invest in preventative services and could delay urgent efforts to hire additional front line caseworkers.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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