June 18, 2020

RI lawmakers OK $11.8 billion revised budget, but harder task still ahead

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s General Assembly on Thursday approved a significantly revised $11.8 billion state budget for the soon-to-close fiscal year, as legislators braced for the far bigger challenge of passing a new budget later in the summer.

House lawmakers voted 60-13 to approve the amended tax-and-spending plan for 2019-20, with five Democrats joining the chamber’s Republican caucus in opposition. The Senate followed suit on a 31-7 vote later Thursday night, sending the measure to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s desk for her signature.

The unprecedented circumstances — and deficits — caused by coronavirus have led to an unorthodox approach to the annual budget process. The governor and legislative leaders have all agreed to put off finalizing a 2020-21 budget until later in the summer in the hopes that Congress will provide significant additional money that can be used to fill a shortfall of over $600 million.

In the meantime, Assembly leaders had to revamp the current budget before the fiscal year ends June 30. The final budget is roughly 20% larger than the original version thanks to a huge infusion of federal funding tied to the pandemic. Much of the increase is for unemployment benefits, including the federally funded $600-a-week temporary boost that Congress authorized in the CARES Act.

The revised 2019-20 budget also closes an estimated deficit of roughly $249 million. The shortfall was driven by a deep drop in revenue due to the economic downturn, as well as over $60 million in unanticipated costs at the Eleanor Slater Hospital psychiatric facility caused by a Medicaid billing issue there. The Raimondo administration is still struggling to resolve that problem.

Lawmakers withdrew $120 million from the state’s roughly $200 million “rainy day fund” to help close the budget gap, and also relied on “scoops” from the accounts of various state agencies.

Much of the budget debate on the House floor focused less on specific spending items and more on the process, with a roughly $2 billion swing in spending clearing the General Assembly in little more than three days.

Critics on right and left assailed the compressed timing, but leadership-aligned House Democrats backed Speaker Mattiello, who contended that the usual seven-day waiting period for a budget between committee passage and floor passage doesn’t apply to a revised, or supplemental, budget bill.

“I thought there’d be more of a debate on this,” said state Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield. “Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.” Noting that most representatives had little input into the budget and little time to review it, he said, “If you vote green on this today, what are you doing here? What are you telling your constituents?”

“This process is a joke at this point,” agreed state Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-Narragansett.

“What you’re saying is, you’re electing me to come here and play pretend,” said state Rep. Moira Walsh, D-Providence. She also said it “blows my mind” that the budget includes additional funding for a Rhode Island State Police barracks and the state prison at a time when the nation is seeing historic protests against abuses of power by law enforcement.

Supporters of the revised budget argued it was mostly a cleanup job to take account of the surge in federal funding and balance the books for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Excerpted fromTed 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