RI has allocated $156 million to COVID-19 fight so far

Politics - Government

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The state of Rhode Island has allocated $156 million so far to tackling the coronavirus pandemic, according to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration.

The governor’s aides were questioned about the money by state lawmakers Thursday in the first meeting of a joint task force created to scrutinize the spending. The meeting of six representatives and six senators was the first sign of a return to Smith Hill for state lawmakers, who haven’t convened since March because of health concerns.

Brett Smiley, Raimondo’s Department of Administration director, used the meeting to lay out the spending so far, including $8.9 million actually spent from state coffers and $147 million in so-called “encumbrances” otherwise committed or contracted (which includes services already rendered, but not yet billed).

The number is a moving target, Smiley acknowledged, and the $156 million does not yet account for roughly $41 million allocated for the state’s “surge hospitals” set up in case traditional hospitals become overwhelmed with patients. (So far, hospitalizations are far below the state’s initial projections, a fact Raimondo attributes to her stay-at-home order flattening the curve.)

Among the spending items released Thursday night: $79 million spent or reserved for personal protective equipment like masks and gowns, $6 million for testing supplies and lab services, $580,000 for temporary staffers to process unemployment claims, $1.4 million for teleworking equipment and $1.7 million for temporary housing.

Some of the amounts committed to be spent in the future could still change drastically; Smiley said the $38 million allocated for ventilators, for example, will drop to about $15 million after the state cancels an order it placed for more ventilators than needed.

State Rep. Anastasia Williams, among the lawmakers quizzing Raimondo’s aides on the spending, asked for more specifics about items labeled “other,” and for more details on resources being put towards translation services, which were listed in a combined $167,112 line item called “other contracts: licensing aide, executive assistant, interpreter/translation services and outreach.”

Still more expenses are not yet included in the list. Contact tracing efforts, listed as a projected “large spend” in the slideshow Smiley presented to lawmakers, are expected to be detailed in future spending updates. The state also expects to spend more money on housing and meals for people in quarantine and isolation.

All of the COVID-19 expenses are expected to be reimbursed using various new streams of federal funding, including the $1.25 billion sent to Rhode Island from the Coronavirus Relief Fund that Congress included in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act.

The task force’s leaders — state Rep. Marvin Abney and state Sen. William Conley, both Democrats and chairs of their respective chambers’ Finance Committees — signaled some eagerness for legislators to have a larger say in how that funding is spent. Raimondo said Wednesday she believes she has the authority to spend the money without lawmakers’ approval.

“I won’t speak to what the governor seems like she believes,” Conley, D-East Providence, told reporters after the meeting. “I would suggest that we certainly have authority over federal funds.”

Abney said the purpose of the task force was to provide oversight and shed light on how the money is being spent.

“I thought it was important that the public begins to understand what that money is being used for,” Abney, D-Newport, said. “My biggest concern is overusing it to supplant something we have to deal with later.”

Abney asked Smiley during the meeting whether Raimondo’s emergency powers were “indefinite.”

“The emergency orders cannot be longer than 30 days,” Smiley said. “However, they can be renewed and there’s no limit to the number of renewals.”

Abney elaborated on the reason for his question while speaking to reporters after the meeting.

“It’s not unusual in times of emergency that a chief executive has to make sure that he or she governs by decree,” Abney said. “The question is how long does that go on, because you do get to a point where it looks like one person is calling all the shots.”

Beyond the work of the task force, which is limited to COVID-19 emergency spending, Abney and Conley are chairs of the powerful committees that determine how to write the state’s budget, which is now slated to get a significant rewrite compared with Raimondo’s pre-pandemic proposals in January.

“It’s going to be very rough,” Raimondo told WPRI 12 last week when asked about the budget outlook. “It’s going to be very difficult.”

Thursday’s task force meeting was a potential preview of what committee meetings could look like when lawmakers return to session. The representatives and senators sat six feet apart wearing masks — two of them opted to join by video call — while all the members of Raimondo’s administration testified virtually on a large television screen at the front of the room.

Reporters and photographers were not allowed to stay in the room for the meeting, instead watching in a separate room on Capitol TV, the General Assembly-run television station. Abney and Conley answered questions from reporters in person after the meeting.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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