PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democratic legislative leaders on Wednesday defended their proposed budget’s effort to rein in agency overspending after the governor and advocates charged they could wind up harming services for children in state care.
The provision in Article 2 of the budget bill orders the state controller, Peter Keenan, not to make payments “for additional staff, contracts or purchases” requested by a state agency that is on track to run a deficit in the current fiscal year. Exceptions are allowed if the spending is “necessitated by immediate health and safety reasons.”
Gov. Gina Raimondo and the Rhode Island Coalition for Children and Families contend the ban on overspending could leave the Department of Children, Youth and Families unable to provide adequate services if an unexpectedly large number of children come under its watch during the fiscal year, after the budget is enacted.
The Democratic governor has until Saturday to decide whether to sign the budget.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio pushed back at Raimondo in a joint statement Wednesday, saying the new policy in Article 2 “is meant to ensure the Appropriations Act is treated like more than just a suggestion.”
Top Assembly Democrats and their fiscal advisers have long expressed frustration about social services agencies that perennially spend more than allotted in the budget bill. DCYF, for example, disclosed in May it was on track to run a net deficit of about $18 million during the fiscal year that was nearly over at the time.
“Article 2 is in direct response to a growing frustration among legislators and the general public regarding the administration’s lack of adherence to the budgets duly authorized by the General Assembly,” said Mattiello, D-Cranston, and Ruggerio, D-North Providence.
“The enhanced reporting and accountability will compel a more transparent review of spending projections and management decisions that impact them,” they continued. “There are measures to address instances where health and safety are at risk, and we do understand that some circumstances are unforeseen or unavoidable.”
House Fiscal Office documents show DCYF originally asked Raimondo to put $236.6 million into the 2019-20 budget to fund the agency, but her proposal cut that to $228.6 million, which lawmakers approved. That amount is more than $20 million less than DCYF’s revised final budget of $249 million for the fiscal year that just ended.
Raimondo spokesperson Jennifer Bogdan did not directly address why the governor declined to fully fund DCYF’s request, but noted that her proposed General Fund allocation for the agency still represented a multimillion-dollar increase over the prior year’s initial amount.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Conley pointed out that administration officials, including DCYF Director Trista Piccola, were asked during budget hearings whether the agency needed more money. According to Conley, “the response was unequivocal: the governor’s budget provided enough funding for DCYF to do its job.”
Without explicitly saying so, lawmakers seem to be trying to blow the whistle on what is becoming an annual pattern: DCYF’s initial annual budget is low-balled, the agency overspends to cover services as the fiscal year proceeds, and then legislators are forced to put higher-than-expected tax revenue toward the overspending when they revise the budget midyear.
In the 2017-18 fiscal year, for example, DCYF was initially budgeted $209 million but wound up spending $232 million. And in the 2018-19 fiscal year that just closed, the agency was initially budgeted $228 million but is now slated to come in at $239 million.
Conley, D-East Providence, recalled that Raimondo administration officials “expressed concerns about Article 2” after the new language on overspending was released and immediately approved by the House Finance Committee on the night of June 14.
“We met with them on a number of occasions and urged them to craft alternative language that would maintain the goals for increased accountability and transparency by the administration, but also give them what they thought they would need in terms of flexibility,” Conley said.
“Repeatedly, they were told that the Senate would seriously consider alternatives, but that the administration had to engage with House leadership as well,” he continued. “To my knowledge, they never engaged House leadership despite our insistence that this was a necessary step in a path forward.”
Raimondo stood by her criticism Wednesday, saying agencies like DCYF “are doing more with less.”
“We are taking care of thousands more people than we were a decade ago, all while responsibly towing the line on expenditures, and with 660 fewer authorized employees,” she said. “It is our moral obligation to care for these Rhode Islanders, and the changes made to the budget risk cutting off care from those who need it most.”
State Sen. Sam Bell of Providence, one of the few Democrats in the legislature who voted against the budget bill, joined the critics of Article 2 on Wednesday.
“Failure to achieve basic funding and staffing of our agencies is one of the greatest failures of this budget,” Bell wrote on Twitter. “Giving departments unrealistic budgets and banning them from overspending isn’t going to work. It’s going to be a disaster unless we fix it in September or January.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) 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
An earlier version of this article misstated DCYF’s revised 2018-19 budget.