PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. House of Representatives has approved a $12.8 billion statebudget in an unusual lame-duck session held outside of the State House because of the ongoing pandemic.
The vote was 60-to-6 in favor of the tax-and-spending plan. The Senate Finance Committee is expected to take up the budget on Thursday, followed by the full Senate on Friday.
The so-called “skinny” budget is short on new policies, but heavy on spending as it relies on a cascade of federal money that has flowed into the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mostly from the CARES Act passed last spring.
The budget also includes $400 million worth of bond questions for voters to consider in a special election on March 2.
Several Republican-led amendments to the budget bill failed to pass during the floor debate, including one that would have added voter ID provisions for mail-in ballots in the bond election.
The House also approved the nominations of Judge Melissa Long and former Sen. Erin Lynch Prata as justices to the R.I. Supreme Court. They also must be confirmed by the Senate.
Outgoing House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello attended the special session at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, but did not preside over the meeting. He lost his re-election bid last month and will leave office in January.
In his final remarks on the House floor, Mattiello called the budget “a very good balance in very difficult times.”
“We’re in trying times, more difficult than I’ve seen in 14 years in the General Assembly,” Mattiello, D-Cranston, said. “I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the difficulties and struggles that our constituents are facing and I agree with that, and this body in the future is going to have to find ways to deal with those difficulties. But let us all remember that those difficulties were created by the coronavirus and issues and circumstances beyond our making or control.”
House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi, D-Warwick, is expected to be elected the next speaker on Jan. 5, when newly-elected representatives will be sworn into office.
After Wednesday’s session at the Vets, Shekarchi said he anticipates continuing to use the facility for House sessions rather than the House chamber “for a long time,” so members can socially distance.
With the unusual session outside of the State House, he said he had been most concerned about being able to use the secure State House servers to ensure the integrity of the votes, which the Vets and House IT staff were working on until late Tuesday night.
“They were amazing,” he said.
Shekarchi said lawmakers decided to leave major policy discussions — such as legalizing recreational marijuana, changes to the car tax phaseout or a proposed tax increase on the wealthy — to the new session in January.
“It was not the time” to make policy or tax changes in a lame-duck budget session, Shekarchi said in an interview following the vote. “We were under a real deadline of taking advantage of every dollar we could of the CARES money. We didn’t want to lose that opportunity.”
The budget restored cuts to cities and towns that Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed prior to the pandemic, and held the line on taxes and fees while also keeping all existing programs.
“I had a lot of requests to slide things into the budget,” Shekarchi said. “I said no to everybody.”
Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio agreed to extend the deadline for her to submit her next budget — for fiscal year 2021-22 — until March, two months later than usual. Shekarchi said the goal is to see whether the incoming Biden administration gets a stimulus package through Congress.
“The Senate president, myself and the governor all thought it was prudent to delay her crafting her budget until the end of the first quarter, until we see what if anything is coming from Washington,” Shekarchi said.
But he said hearings would start right away in January on key policy initiatives, including minimum staffing levels at nursing homes, marijuana and issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Steph Machado (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.
Eli Sherman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.