Waning days on Smith Hill and the prancing peacocks
The 2017 legislative session is fast coming to a close. Once again, spending has increased into the stratosphere to more than $9 billion in the smallest state in the union. Adding insult to injury, the operating budget of our General Assembly in the most diminutive state is the highest per capita in the nation at $44 million. (By the way, New Hampshire, which has 300,000 more residents than we have, has a legislative operating budget of $18 million.)
So, what kind of utopia are we living in to justify the astronomically high taxes we pay to support such budgetary numbers? Eroding infrastructure, dilapidated schools, and inefficient services are pervasive. Yet, the members of the Rhode Island legislature often strive for the absurd rather than the relevant. Past legislation involving dogs permitted to enjoy outdoor dining, naming the official state drink, penalizing homeowners for their leaves migrating to a neighbor’s property, proper strategy for canines in cars, and officially heralding the squid have all been ludicrously debated and in most cases have become part of our general laws.
This legislative year, facing an approximate $130 million shortfall, the leaders of the assembly have had to prioritize issues and possible laws. Hopefully, at the end of this session they will have succeeded in separating the wheat from the chaff.
The durable adage about the state budget process in Rhode Island is that the governor proposes and the assembly disposes. Governor Gina Raimondo had a wish list that included a reduction in the car tax and a free college tuition program. A car tax reform is likely to occur, but not in the form she preferred. While her free tuition plan looks to be as dead as Julius Caesar.
What is the likely outcome of this legislative session? What will be tabled for further study? What will be acted upon and written into law?
Most stunningly, the first impression anyone takes away from the state budget is its immense size. Substantially higher than other states of similar size population, one cannot help but ask: where has all the money gone? Just 15 years ago the state budget was $4.6 billion. How has it grown so much in so short a time? Reckless spending and bloated government is the obvious answer. According to federal statistics, our state debt is over $19 billion and the per capita debt burden per citizen is over $18,000. That is 16th highest in the country in a state where the median income is only $55,000. The following societal trend might be part of the puzzle.
Conspicuously, many middle and upper class residents have migrated out of our state to more reasonable tax states. Alas, because of our reputation for easy welfare and sanctuary paradigms for immigrants we have realized an influx of those depended upon government services while our tax base has been diminished by the exodus of earners. One-third of Rhode Island residents are receiving help from the government. That is the 5th highest in the nation. The net of this equation is we still have a little over a million people with less of them contributing tax revenue. So, those remaining taxpayers are paying more to make up the difference.
Nevertheless, all legislative proposals eventually come down to money. And this year’s crop of ideas, are no different. In last year’s close race for his assembly seat in Cranston, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello made a repeal of the car tax a campaign saving issue. The likely law will phase out the car tax over 6 years. The minimum exemption would double from $500 to $1,000 the first year. Then double again the second year. Then grow in one thousand dollar increments in each succeeding year and by 2023 the tax would sunset. Thus asking the question, how do the individual cities and towns make up the $215 million in revenue? This plan spearheaded by the speaker is markedly different than the governor’s idea of a 30 percent graduated discount. Although, this type of taxation is unreasonable to begin with one has to wonder with a $130 million deficit this year and an expected $112 million deficit next year, and limited aid to municipalities from the state can the car tax program be effectuated?
Senator Louis Di Palma of Middletown has his doubts. “We all want to offer our constituents tax relief…it comes down to a concern: can we afford it?”
Both Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and Central Falls Mayor James Diossa have decried the measure as budget busting. Despite these sentiments, Speaker Mattiello has prioritized this above other issues. “But if it’s a request of the people and it’s something that they really want, I think that is one of the most important things in the budget.” Expect his car tax plan to become law.
Emulating the New York State Excelsior Scholarship Program, Governor Raimondo attempted a public relations coup by trying to beat NY Governor Cuomo to the punch with her proposal. Photo opportunities with high school students and national news interviews could not generate support in the General Assembly for her campaign résumé building move. The tuition plan is dead this session.
The Ocean State’s perennial Doobie Brothers Senator Joshua Miller and Representative Scott Slater have once again tried to present a bill to legalize our potentially profitable friend Mary Jane and encourage her to legally set up shop in our state. With our neighboring state to the north already legalizing recreational pot starting next year, it would seem timely to seize the opportunity of additional tax revenue for our state coffers. Colorado and Washington State have reaped the lucrative rewards of marijuana taxation. And since Rhode Island has the highest per capita pot usage in the nation according to national surveys, all passage would do is change an underground untaxed economy to an overt taxable one.
Yet the speaker has instead ordered a study commission called a “Cannibis Advisory Board.” Their recommendations are due next year. So the Doobie Brothers will have to wait at least until next session.
In a move reminiscent of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Senator Donna Neddlebush wants to assign a tax on sugary drinks. A two cents tax per fluid ounce would generate at least $27 million in state revenue. Proponents say this move will help combat childhood obesity. In reality, no kid will be thwarted from their penchant for soda due to a 2-cent per ounce tax. This is a revenue raising move despite how Neddlebush couches the proposal. “Sugar is a known evil. It has been linked to known health hazards in kids.” In this budget shortfall year, this measure will pass.
Funding for charter schools remains a hot issue especially among teacher union activists. Not enough attention or scrutiny has been paid to the issue this year. So no substantial changes will occur for the matter this session.
The same can be said for the hot potato issue of driver licenses for illegal immigrants. Life long Rhode Islanders and conservatives are vehemently against the measure while minority activists and the Catholic Church are ardently in favor. This controversial issue will not be resolved this session.
Constitutionally, there is no more important issue than the line item veto debate. In a statement from the House Judiciary Committee, a “comprehensive study of ramifications and/or fiscal impact” of the change is supposedly warranted. Nonsense, no one needs to study this issue because the equalizing power of this bill is indisputable. Forty-four governors have this executive power. Recommendations from a seven member bipartisan “special legislative commission” are due by February next year. No matter what the results of the panel are, it is doubtful the speaker will ever relinquish any power. The line item veto will never come to fruition.
All in all, the waning days of the 2017 legislative session will most likely end the way they always have. In a marathon session, sleep deprived members in fast food stupors will vote the way the hierarchy of their respective chambers tell them to. Studious contemplation of the people’s business will be eclipsed by expediency. Our defective imperfect legislative branch will continue in its mediocrity. A long needed, smaller and more effective unicameral full time legislature will never come to being. Thus leaving us with the unwieldy over-legislated rush to law-making we have always had. So, the elected part-time preening and prancing peacocks will continue to display their plumage of title at the state house. Sadly, the member’s personal issues and special interests will continue to overshadow public service. The ill-informed will vote numerous bills into law that they know little about. Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Ruggiero will revel in self-acclaim and self-congratulations. As before, the lackluster status quo will be preserved.