Feuding RI legislative leaders still at odds over tolls

Raimondo RhodeWorks 2 - truck bridge toll plan_178870

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s top legislative Democrats are nowhere near agreement over how to proceed with Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposal for truck tolls.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, the leading skeptic of the proposal, is planning to bring back his chamber’s 75 lawmakers for a special session sometime this fall to pass a reworked version of it. He says the current draft is too harmful to local companies.

But Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed would need to follow suit and have her chamber pass the House’s bill for it to become law – and she all but ruled out doing so on Tuesday.

“Let me just make this clear: the Senate does not plan on returning for a special session,” Paiva Weed told reporters after joining the governor and the speaker at a signing ceremony for the new state budget. The only exception would be if the governor nominates judges who need Senate confirmation, she said.

Paiva Weed, D-Newport, emphasized that the Senate already approved the toll proposal overwhelmingly last week. “There is no impasse,” she said. “We have already passed the toll legislation, and certainly the House could return to vote on that legislation without the Senate at any time.”

Mattiello, however, made it equally clear Tuesday that the House will not pass the Senate’s version of the toll plan. Raimondo administration aides helped craft the Senate bill, which includes up to $13.5 million in tax breaks and other incentives for local truckers.

“I am not passing the bill as it currently stands,” Mattiello, D-Cranston, told reporters after the ceremony.

Raimondo’s proposal – dubbed RhodeWorks – calls for borrowing $600 million to speed up the repair and reconstruction of Rhode Island’s worst-in-the-nation bridges, and paying the money back with the revenue generated from truck tolls. An additional $120 million for bridge repairs would be generated by refinancing and restructuring the state’s highway debt.

The back-and-forth over the toll proposal is the latest evidence of how chilly relations between the House and Senate have become, something that was also on display Thursday night when a breakdown of last-minute negotiations between the two chambers ended the General Assembly session early and abruptly, with dozens of bills in limbo.

Mattiello and Paiva Weed haven’t spoken since, though the speaker told reporters they shouldn’t read much into that.

Caught in the middle is Governor Raimondo, who wants the House to follow the Senate’s lead and pass the existing version of her toll plan, but who also needs to avoid jeopardizing the entire initiative by antagonizing Mattiello. On Tuesday, she again cited the condition of Rhode Island’s bridges and the lack of funding to fix them all to plead her case.

“I have a proposal before the General Assembly. The Senate showed leadership and passed it,” Raimondo said. “We need to do something. The General Assembly adjourned without taking action on it, which is disappointing. The problem’s still there. So we have to get together to come up with a plan to fix it.”

Mattiello has said numerous times that he agrees on the need for a new infrastructure-funding plan, but has expressed reservations about the potential damage the tolls could do to local companies’ bottom lines. He met this week with executives from discount retailer Ocean State Job Lot, whose CEO has already gone public with his concerns.

“You cannot move forward with a billion-dollar proposal without taking the concerns of your large businesses into account, and that’s what I’ve tried to do – and if that requires a little more time and it brings us into the fall, so be it,” Mattiello said. He added that the House could also take action during a special session on some of the high-profile bills that died when the legislature recessed last week.

Raimondo pleaded ignorance when asked about Mattiello’s lingering concerns over the toll proposal. “At this point I need to hear – if there are objections, we need to know what those are,” she said. “But I’m here to work, and again, I’m committed to solving it.”

“This is a problem that’s been in the making for decades,” she said. “For too long Rhode Island’s just been putting on Band-Aids and doing patchwork. It’s time that we come together to put forth a comprehensive long-term solution, like we’ve done with pensions, like we’ve done with Medicaid.”

During an interview last week on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers, Mattiello left the door open to one alternative floated by the trucking industry: an increase in the state’s gas tax. But Raimondo has already expressed reservations about that idea, and Paiva Weed said the same on Tuesday.

“I have significant concerns about shifting the burden onto middle-class Rhode Islanders,” the Senate president said.

It’s possible the Senate will reconsider its opposition to a special session once tempers cool over the summer, particularly since Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio – a top official in the Laborers’ International Union, whose members could get thousands of jobs if the bridge plan goes through – is among its strongest proponents. But it’s also possible the initiative could languish until next year even if the House does pass a version this fall.Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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