Analysis: Statehouse Frittata Leaves RI State Budget In Limbo

Jul 5, 2017

The conventional  Rhode Island Statehouse wisdom was that the departure of Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed of Newport for a private sector job and her replacement by Dominick Ruggerio of North Providence would usher in more cooperation between the House and Senate. The theory was that Ruggerio would get along better with House Speaker Nick Mattiello of Cranston, than did Paiva Weed.  All three are Democrats, but Paiva Weed and Mattiello had differences on policy and styles of leadership.

So much for conventional thinking Smith Hill-style.

The Assembly ended abruptly last Friday with the state’s $9.2 billion budget up in the steamy July Statehouse air. Ruggerio and Mattiello aren’t on speaking terms.  Gov. Gina Raimondo says she has been in touch with both but isn’t getting into the middle of the rupture or offering to mediate it.

There will be no state “government shutdown.” Under a 2004 provision, the state operates on last year’s budget. Which means state beaches, parks and government agencies remain open. State cops will patrol the highways. Most Rhode Islanders won’t even notice, unless, of course it rages on.

The governor, meeting with reporters this afternoon, called for a quick solution to the impasse, urging Mattiello and Ruggerio to “put the differences aside, get back to the table and pass a balanced budget as quickly as possible.’’Mattiello and Ruggerio to “put the differences aside, get back to the table and pass a balanced budget as quickly as possible.’’

There was little sign today of a thaw. The sticking point, at least publicly, is the Senate’s last-minute plan to amend the budget to establish an escape clause for Mattiello’s pet project, repealing the car tax. Under the amendment , if state revenues don’t hold up, the economy sinks or the federal government makes big cuts in programs to the state,  the six-year car tax phase out envisioned by Mattiello would be suspended.

That the Senate took aim at Mattiello’s signature legislation is perhaps all one needs to know at this point. The House leadership asserts that the Senate isn’t playing fair. Mattiello claims that Ruggerio was kept in the loop all along and the Senate president surprised the House with the 11th-hour budget change. For evidence, the House points to the Senate Finance Committee, which approved the budget without the amendment. The full Senate added the change at the last-minute.

Ruggerio disputes this. ``The Senate repeatedly expressed its concern to Speaker Mattiello regarding the sustainability of the car tax phase out. He chose to disregard the concerns of the members of this chamber, and sent us the budget without any concessions on that issue. As a leader of a chamber filled with public servants dedicated to doing what is best for the people of Rhode Island, it is my responsibility to ensure that their concerns are heard,’’ said Ruggerio in a statement.

``Speaker Mattiello does not dictate to the Senate which bills we are permitted to amend,’’ said Rugggerio. ``I encourage Speaker Mattiello to reconvene the House as soon as possible to consider the state budget as passed by the Senate, including the minor but very important taxpayer protections that have been added.’’

Mattiello quickly shot back via email from his spokesman, Larry Berman. ``I object to an amendment designed to kill the repeal of the car tax. I am committed to giving the public the car tax relief they have been requesting for a long time. The Senate needs to pass the budget agreed to by the Senate president and was recommended by the Senate Finance Committee. The last-minute shenanigans over a long-negotiated budget have got to stop. They lead to nothing but all-night sessions and bad decisions.’’

The joust over the budget also has left several other high-profile measures unresolved. Among those are legislation that would limit access to guns for domestic abusers and a measure that would grant sick leave to private sector workers not covered for such benefits. The Senate and House have approved slightly different versions of those measures and neither has been reconciled between the chambers.

At this point, the passions of the House and Senate leadership appear deeper than any big gaps in policies. But, as Statehouse watchers know, politics is deeply personal in Rhode Island and sometimes personal rifts, bruised egos, inter-chamber rivalries and turf battles end up muddying policy. As far as an era of good feelings breaking out between House and Senate with her leave taking - well, somewhere Paiva Weed is getting the last laugh.

``I would like to urge the members of the House and Senate to figure out a way to reconcile their differences and get back together and pass a balanced budget and send it to my desk for my signature,'' said Raimondo.