PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s new attorney general has learned a tough first-year lesson about how the budget process works on Smith Hill.
Last month, Attorney General Peter Neronha put forward a budget amendment he described as a win-win. The AG suggested amending the state’s unfair trade practices law, allowing him to take part in more multistate settlements with companies, yielding roughly $5 million in additional state revenue. In exchange, he asked to use a portion of the funds so his office could hire five more staffers to do the settlement litigation.
But when the House Finance Committee released the final budget late Friday night, Neronha’s aides discovered lawmakers had grabbed the $5 million to balance the budget — without giving him the lawyers.
“With very limited resources, the House Finance Committee was not prepared to commit new staffing to the attorney general’s office,” House spokesperson Larry Berman told WPRI 12. “Funds were added last year for additional staff, and there are currently numerous staff vacancies. The committee did not see an immediate need to add these funds, which would require a significant allocation.”
An analysis by the House Fiscal Office showed Neronha’s request for new staff in the settlements proposal — four attorneys and a paralegal — would cost about $500,000. An additional $400,000 to $800,000 would be needed for training, investigation and litigation costs.
The decision did not sit well with Neronha, a Democrat elected last November. Word of his displeasure was spreading at the State House over the weekend.
Kristy dosReis, a spokesperson for Neronha, said the original proposal would make money over time “by providing our office with the tools to pursue more of these cases for larger settlements.” She said multistate settlements like recent ones with Volkswagen and Wells Fargo place any funds “under the control of the attorney general’s office to be used by the office for the benefit of Rhode Islanders.”
“The budget revealed late Friday night does not adopt the framework we suggested,” she said, but Neronha’s aides “look forward to working with the General Assembly prior to Friday’s vote to address our concerns and achieve a mutually agreeable solution.”
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