PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island leaders confirmed Friday they are pushing off action on the state budget until after the November election, arguing they need to wait and see if Congress passes another relief bill before figuring out how to make the numbers add up.
Gov. Gina Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio revealed the decision in a joint statement, confirming rumors that had been circulating at the State House. The move will save incumbent lawmakers — including Mattiello — from making tough choices before they face voters in November, but will only further inflame critics of the legislature’s inaction.
“As we await direction from Washington regarding additional relief for states, Rhode Island’s FY21 budget picture remains uncertain,” the three Democrats said. “COVID-19 has caused significant damage to our national and local economies, and it is critical we have a full understanding of the funding available to the state.”
In addition, the trio confirmed there will not be any bond referendums on the November ballot to authorize borrowing for state projects, saying those decisions are “directly linked to the overall budget plan.” Instead they plan to hold a special election “shortly” after the November special legislative session on the budget to seek voters’ approval for new state debt.
The announcement adds to what is already a highly unusual budget situation in Rhode Island in the wake of the pandemic. While lawmakers voted back in June to approve a plan to balance the 2019-20 budget, which ended June 30, the state is currently still operating off last year’s funding levels more than two months into the new 2020-21 fiscal year.
Based on the timeline outlined Friday, the current fiscal year will be approaching its halfway point by the time the governor and lawmakers figure out a spending plan for it. The state is facing a deficit estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, though there is major uncertainty around those estimates due to the unpredictability of the pandemic and its economic effects.
As expected, there was instant criticism of the decision to kick the can down the road.
“After the election but before the new legislature is seated?” state Rep. Brian Newberry, a Republican and former House minority leader, wrote on Twitter. “Is that an option? That would be interesting – and infuriating to a lot of people.” He added, “please note that House Republicans predicted this cop out back in April.”
Newberry also noted that the joint statement was issued immediately after the primary, when Ruggerio faced a competitive challenge in his home district, and that Mattiello would still be speaker for the special budget session even if by that time he’s been defeated by his Republican opponent, Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung.
Fenton-Fung released a campaign video on Thursday criticizing Mattiello for failing to convene the legislature to deal with the various effects of the pandemic, suggesting he is absentee. His spokesperson disputed the allegation, saying he has taken action as necessary.
She doubled down on her criticism after Friday’s announcement, calling him “Tricky Nick” and suggesting the speaker is too distracted preparing to testify in the Jeff Britt trial stemming from the 2016 Mattiello campaign and is worried about whether he can make good on promises related to the car tax and school aid.
State Rep. Rebecca Kislak, D-Providence, called the decision “disappointing.”
“To be clear, I think it is fine and responsible to wait to do the budget,” she tweeted. “But not meeting for an hour to put bonds on the ballot will cost whatever the special election costs plus possible higher interests rates plus a delay in getting [people] to work building things.”
Nick Lima, Cranston’s top elections official, was incredulous about the sudden decision to call yet another election under current circumstances.
“As someone who has worked with an amazing, dedicated team of elections officials – around the clock without a break since March – to conduct three consecutive elections in a global pandemic, I’m speechless right now,” Lima tweeted. “This is nightmarish. Is a fourth election really *necessary*?!”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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