House backs $13.1 billion RI state budget

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. House of Representatives on Thursday night approved a $13.1 billion state budget for the upcoming fiscal year that boosts state spending on social services and education.

The House passed the budget bill along party lines on a 64-10 vote, with all 64 Democrats in attendance voting in favor and all 10 Republicans voting no. The roll call followed a multihour debate that was relatively short by the standards of previous budget nights.

The House-approved tax-and-spending plan is nearly identical to the one released one week ago by the House Finance Committee, which eschewed most tax increases and funded a huge increase in spending mostly through emergency federal appropriations.

“I am immensely proud of this budget, which addresses the important needs in our state, including housing and education, while raising no broad-based taxes,” House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, D-Warwick, said in a statement.

State spending has grown enormously during the pandemic. The final pre-pandemic budget totaled $9.4 billion, but the budget for the current fiscal year was revised up this month to $14.3 billion — a 52% increase in just two years. Legislative leaders have emphasized that most of the increase was paid for by the federal government, on everything from unemployment benefits to support for COVID-19 testing.

“Without broad-based tax increases and through the preservation and strengthening of services and programs that help the vulnerable, this budget is a bill that will support most Rhode Islanders attempting to get back to their normal way of life,” said House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin Abney, D-Newport.

Republicans saw it differently.

“The FY22 ‘feel good’ budget only delays structural deficits,” the House GOP caucus said in a statement. “It does nothing to alleviate or reduce the future tax burden on Rhode Island residents and businesses. It merely ignores our failing economic issues and kicks the fiscal responsibilities down the road to be dealt with next year.”

The budget covers the new fiscal year, which will begin on July 1.

Among the small changes made by House lawmakers during Thursday’s floor debate was an amendment to a provision taxing PPP loan proceeds over $250,000, giving businesses until next March to file their amended returns. The amendment also waives penalties or interest on the money.

Another change adopted with the support of House leadership will allow Gov. Dan McKee to keep some of the current coronavirus executive orders in effect into September. But a separate provision sets a 180-day limit on all other such orders unless the General Assembly provides an extension.

Republicans put forward an amendment that would have halved the limit to 90 days, noting Rhode Island has been under a state of emergency for more than a year and arguing residents are frustrated with the power both McKee and his predecessor, Gina Raimondo, have wielded during that time.

Democrats countered that the two governors had needed to make policy under emergency authority due to the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus pandemic.

The budget bill will now go to the Senate, which is expected to take it up at some point next week. If senators approve it without changes, as expected, it will go to McKee for his signature.

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