PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is under fire for claiming that the General Assembly – rather than her administration – is responsible for underfunding the state’s child welfare agency, which is currently projecting a $22 million deficit.
The second-term governor made the comments Friday during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers, and her remarks drew the ire of lawmakers almost as soon as the video was posted online that afternoon.
Raimondo asserted that she asked the legislature last spring to provide additional funding to the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families after it became clear the amount she initially proposed wouldn’t cover costs. She said the allocation was never made.
“We actually asked for additional money in the legislative session, not in November but in the spring, and [the legislature] declined to do that,” said Raimondo, who left Sunday for a weeklong economic development trip to Israel.
However, documents show Raimondo’s administration only asked for a bump in DCYF funding for the 2018-19 fiscal year that was currently underway at the time. No formal request was made to give DCYF an additional bump in the 2019-20 fiscal year, which began July 1.
The final budget, adopted by the Assembly and signed by Raimondo in June, raised DCYF’s allocation for 2018-19 from $227.9 million to $249.2 million, an increase of over $21 million. But it set the agency’s 2019-20 allocation at $229.9 million, for a nearly $20 million drop year-over-year.
DCYF funding has long been a bone of contention between Raimondo and the Assembly. The agency has run a deficit every year the governor has been in office, leading lawmakers this year to adopt a controversial new budget provision — known as Article 2 — in an effort to rein in overspending agencies.
Amanda Clarke, a spokesperson for the R.I. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), suggested on Monday lawmakers shouldn’t have needed a formal request from the governor to add funding for DCYF.
“OMB officials made clear in meetings and conversations with General Assembly leaders that caseload for FY20 would be higher than the projections used for the governor’s proposed budget in January,” she said in an email. But, she added, “the budget was in the Assembly’s hands at that point and there was not a second budget amendment reflecting those conversations.”
Larry Berman, a spokesperson for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, appeared incredulous at the explanation, saying Raimondo’s comments on Newsmakers were simply “not true.”
“The Assembly funded exactly what she asked for regarding DCYF,” Berman said in an email. He noted that on the same day administration officials asked to boost DCYF’s 2018-19 funding, they submitted a different budget amendment asking to increase spending in some agencies for 2019-20 – but not for DCYF.
“It is convenient for the administration to suggest it asked for more Fiscal Year 2020 funding informally, but this never happened,” Berman said.
House leaders also pointed to this language in the state’s budget law: “In the event that, prior to or subsequent to the request, the governor determines that additional deficiencies are expected to be incurred, the governor shall submit requests for additional appropriations upon notice of these deficiencies.”
Berman added, “It would have been preferable for her to admit she simply misspoke and issued a correction. The finger is pointing in the wrong direction.”
Greg Pare, a spokesperson for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, recalled that during a budget hearing, senators explicitly asked then-DCYF Director Trista Piccola whether the department needed more money for 2019-20 than Raimondo had proposed. Piccola — who resigned from the embattled agency shortly thereafter — said no.
Raimondo’s office has not commented on the discrepancy between Piccola’s testimony then and their assertions now.
Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, who serves as chairperson of the Senate Finance subcommittee on health and human services, said he watched Newsmakers multiple times over the weekend in disbelief about the governor’s comments.
“To expect we were going to reduce $20 million over one fiscal year is just impractical – not possible,” said DiPalma, who made similar points when the budget was being put together.
On Newsmakers, Raimondo admitted that she was overly optimistic about how many families would come under the care of DCYF this year and pledged to propose a more realistic funding level when she puts forward her 2020-21 budget proposal in January.
“We should have last year, and we will this year,” she said.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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
Tim White contributed to this story.