RI House OKs nearly $10B budget in rare Saturday session

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island House approved a nearly $10 billion proposed state budget during a rare Saturday session, making final changes including the restoration of money for a nonviolence group and the removal of funding for a Cranston chiropractor.

The 2019-20 tax-and-spending measure was approved with only modest changes to the blueprint that the House Finance Committee unveiled and passed eight days ago. It will now go to the Senate, which traditionally sends it unchanged to Gov. Gina Raimondo for her signature. The Senate has not yet scheduled a vote.

As promised, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello removed funding for Victor Pedro, the Cranston chiropractor whose $1.9 million from lawmakers over the last 15 years came to light this week. Bowing to public outrage, Mattiello shifted $1 million in the new budget originally earmarked for Pedro to instead boost wages for workers who care for the disabled.

In a surprise move, House leaders also restored $200,000 in state funding for the Nonviolence Institute, a Providence nonprofit that works to combat gang violence, taking the money out of the Assembly’s own $50 million budget. Mattiello had said the money was removed because he was not impressed by the institute’s “work product,” but the decision triggered a backlash from the group’s defenders.

Other final changes include boosts of $500,000 for the Department of Children, Youth and Families and $600,000 for Rhode Island College, as well as four additional Department of Education staffers to help implement the legislature’s K-12 reform initiatives.

The fiercest debate of the day broke out over proposed changes to medical marijuana policy, including the addition of six more dispensaries — known as compassion centers — to bring the total to nine. Deputy Speaker Charlene Lima, D-Cranston, warned that lawmakers risked “another 38 Studios” if they aren’t careful about the big-money new industry’s growth.

An amendment to the plan approved by lawmakers during Saturday’s debate made several last-minute changes, including removing language that would have let the Department of Business Regulation require a “demonstration of need” for home growing, and adding a check on state regulators by requiring their rules be approved by the General Assembly.

Lawmakers briefly removed a provision to allow school nurses to administer cannabis to medical patients, but added it back in after concerns were raised on the floor by Republican Rep. George Nardone. WPRI 12 previously reported that one of Nardone’s constituents, Jadyn Minda, drew attention to the issue.

Minda’s family “brought this issue to my attention regarding the hardship it creates for the administration of medical marijuana, as prescribed by a doctor, to avert convulsions and seizures in children,” Nardone said. “I deeply appreciate the accommodation for me to submit an amendment to correct this unintended consequence in the article.”

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.

Amendments approved Friday night authorized up to $25 million in state tax credits to subsidize developer Jason Fane’s proposed Providence tower, and made the project exempt from a $210 million total cap on the Rebuild RI tax credit program.

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.

The House began its debate Saturday with a moment of silence for legendary investigative reporter Jim Taricani, who died Friday at age 69. Mattiello praised the broadcaster as having “an unparalleled reputation for honesty and integrity.”

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 contributed to this report.

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

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