RI House debates nearly $10B budget, will return Saturday

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island House on Friday spent hours debating a nearly $10 billion proposed state budget before deciding to call it a night and return Saturday to take a final vote.

At about 10:30 p.m. — and with at least one controversial topic, medical marijuana policy, still left to be discussed — House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello announced he was recessing and bringing the house back at 10 a.m. Saturday to finish the debate.

As he has in the past, the Cranston Democrat said he believes members of the public dislike seeing the legislature do its business late into the night.

The 2019-20 tax-and-spending measure had been unveiled and quickly passed a week ago by the House Finance Committee, and appears on track to win House approval largely as is. It will now go to the Senate, which traditionally sends it without changes to Gov. Gina Raimondo for her signature.

“I’ll be the first to admit the budget doesn’t have everything everyone wants,” said House Finance Chairman Marvin Abney, D-Newport. “It’s a balance,” he added. “It’s compromise, trying to satisfy priorities and needs the best we can.”

As part of the budget, Mattiello has promised to remove funding for Victor Pedro, the Cranston chiropractor who has gotten about $1.9 million from lawmakers over the last 15 years. The revelation drew widespread outrage after it came to light, and Mattiello plans to transfer another $1 million originally earmarked for Pedro to boost wages for workers who care for the disabled.

The proposed budget keeps Rhode Island’s sales, income and corporate tax rates the same, though it expands the sales tax to cover digital downloads and streaming services like Netflix while exempting menstrual products and funeral urns. It makes various other changes to taxes and fees, as well.

High-profile provisions include an expansion of funding for pre-K classrooms; the creation of an independent board of trustees for URI; and a continuation of the six-year phaseout of the car tax. It does not include Raimondo’s proposals to offer free tuition at Rhode Island College or to legalize marijuana.

A notable last-minute change could give a boost to New York developer Jason Fane’s controversial proposed Hope Point Tower in Providence. An amendment to the budget authorized up to $25 million in state tax credits to subsidize Fane’s project, and made the project exempt from a $210 million total cap on the Rebuild RI tax credit program.

Providence representatives protested a provision that removes the city’s zoning authority over the vacant former I-195 land — where Fane wants to build the tower — and puts the parcels firmly under state control. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio pushed the change, which passed the Senate in a standalone bill, due to frustration with Mayor Jorge Elorza’s treatment of the Fane project.

The legislation also sets up a process to create district commissions for other state-owned parcels across Rhode Island that would remove local control, though each new district would require legislative approval.

“It makes me very concerned that if we are willing to do this in the capital city … that there’s nothing to stop us from doing it in any other city,” said Rep. Moira Walsh, a Providence Democrat. “So this is a start, but just because it’s not your backyard now, doesn’t mean it won’t be next year.”

“We have to make bold moves,” countered Rep. Stephen Ucci, D-Johnston. “We have made every attempt to allow local control to do the right thing. And yet we stand on the brink of blowing a huge project.”

There were other flashpoints, as well.

Republicans expressed frustration that the budget repeals a 2011 law which required the state to lower the sales tax from 7% to 6.5% once it was extended to online sales. They noted that has now happened but the sales tax hasn’t gone down, while Democrats argued the trigger was no longer the right policy.

Republicans also pushed to hire more front-line workers at the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families by cutting funding from the Rhode Island Promise tuition program or the film and TV tax credit. The state’s child advocate recommended more workers be hired as part of a devastating report on the death of a 9-year-old girl with special needs in Warwick earlier this year.

Democratic leaders declined to go along with the amendment, though there was general consensus that DCYF is troubled.

“Rather than throwing more money, frankly, at a bureaucracy that’s already broken, I want this outside independent agency to come in, look at how they currently operate,” said Rep. Patricia Serpa, the chair of the Oversight Committee, referring to DCYF’s upcoming accreditation. “I just don’t think hiring more front-line social workers in and of itself … is the answer.”

Rep. Sherry Roberts, a West Greenwich Republican, said the chamber needed to “get our priorities straight.”

“Here we are, giving free college to students, free college tuition at CCRI, and we’re not even helping our most helpless of children who are dying,” Roberts said.

From the left, progressive lawmakers put up a fight to restore $500,000 that would fund a new program to tackle chronic homelessness. Despite passionate speeches, the amendment was defeated easily.

However, the progressives won a victory when House leaders decided to restore a Raimondo proposal to restructure RI Works, the state’s cash welfare program. It allows an enrollee to stay on the program for four years without interruption, rather than having to split the 48-month maximum benefit between two five-year periods.

The budget debate began about two-and-a-half hours after its 2 p.m. scheduled start. When the decision to recess was made, Rep. Teresa Tanzi, a South Kingstown Democrat and sharp critic of Mattiello’s leadership, argued that a second day might not have been needed if the debate had started on time.

The one-year budget will cover the new 12-month fiscal year, which starts July 1.

The House Fiscal Office estimated Rhode Island faces a structural deficit — the state’s perennial gap between revenue and expenses — of roughly $75 million in 2020-21 under the policies in the new budget. A deficit forecast for the years after that was not yet available Friday night.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.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

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

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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