With budget comes question, ‘how will RI fare?’

Posted 1/24/24

STORY OF THE WEEK : Will the real Rhode Island stand up? Is it the place where Gov. Dan McKee’s latest budget proposal “will help ensure our state reaches its fullest potential,” as …

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With budget comes question, ‘how will RI fare?’


STORY OF THE WEEK: Will the real Rhode Island stand up? Is it the place where Gov. Dan McKee’s latest budget proposal “will help ensure our state reaches its fullest potential,” as the governor asserted in a tweet? Or is it state where a longstanding gap between revenue and expenses is expediting a return to projected deficits into the out years? Is it worth celebrating that Rhode Island dodged a recession, or should the focus be on how longstanding single-party rule has left glaring needs in education, healthcare and other key areas? With McKee’s State of the State address and the unveiling of his $13.7 billion budget plan last week – setting the stage for months of General Assembly hearings – the debate about how Rhode Island is faring begins anew. Delivering his third SOTS since becoming governor in 2021, McKee seemed more comfortable while offering a sunny message and touting his role as “coach of Team Rhode Island.” The governor’s spending plan proposes more money for a raft of important needs, even as budget officials project annual deficits of more than $200 million for future fiscal years. On jobs, McKee talked up efforts to boost the life sciences and cybersecurity through initiatives at URI and RIC. The governor’s office, however, has been unwilling to clarify if his seemingly bold proposal to raise residents’ per capita income $20,000 by 2030 would adjust for inflation, per ProJo. (As it stands, Rhode Islanders, on average, earn about $20,000 less than counterparts in Connecticut and Massachusetts.) House GOP Leader Mike Chippendale used his response to SOTS to describe the state’s glass as half-full, with a host of worrisome concerns, including energy policy, infrastructure woes, and familiar economic hurdles. “We have to accept that these challenges exist, and that we must work together to find solutions to reverse the course we’re on,” Chippendale said.

NOT THERE: As with any state budget, there’s a lot to it, ranging from $500,000 to continue an e-bike rebate program named for our late friend Erika Niedowski to an increase, from $20,000 to $50,000, on the taxable exemption for retiree income. Also notable is what’s not in the spending plan: cost of living adjustment money for retirees upset about the 2011 pension overhaul spearheaded by Gina Raimondo; funds for a new district court; dough for the Superman Building or the Pawtucket soccer stadium; or a boost in longevity pay for state employees.

BALLOT QUESTIONS: The four ballot questions proposed by Gov. McKee represent $345 million in potential borrowing by the state. These include a $100 million bond — the largest in state history — for housing, $60 million toward the estimated $100 million cost of a new state archive/museum on Capitol Hill, and a total of $135 million for a new biomedical science building at URI and a building for the cybersecurity program at Rhode Island College.

HOUSING: A recent Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council analysis noted how even $100 million will produce a relatively small amount of housing toward the state’s overall need. Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor acknowledged as much while speaking with me after a budget briefing Thursday. “What Governor McKee has expressed is that we need to make major investments,” Pryor said. “This is not the last. But it is a historically greatest figure for an amount dedicated through a bond. It is not the final move we will make to support the production of housing in our state.” At the same time, the progressive group Reclaim RI is delighted that McKee and Pryor support using part of the $100 million to finance a state public housing developer and to support public housing authorities. New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy has been selected to do a feasibility study, with interim findings expected in April or May. “We are gratified that Secretary Pryor has expressed such strong interest in providing new funding to the state’s 25 public housing authorities, including the dedication of a substantial portion of the proposed housing bond to a new public housing developer,” Reclaim co-chair Daniel Denvir said in a statement. “Public housing authorities have been neglected by the federal government for too long. It’s time that Rhode Island supports PHAs in playing a lead role to end this housing crisis.”

RIPTA: The governor’s spending plan recommends using $10 million in redirected State Fiscal Recovery Funds to help plug an $18 million operating deficit at the state’s public transit agency. Budget officials said a study showed RIPTA’s bus ridership has fallen by almost 47% since 2008, due in part to telecommuting and ride-sharing, while the agency is logging 18% more miles. This disparity, they said, underscores RIPTA’s need to consider a different model for its service. RI Transit Riders panned how RIPTA gets treated in the budget, saying via tweet, “McKee budget leaves riders out in the cold, leaving RIPTA 8 million dollars in the red and offering only a band-aid to the fiscal cliff. This austerity approach will result in service cuts and job losses. Riders are not going to stand for this!”

GUNS: Gov. McKee got a big cheer from state lawmakers when he used his State of the State to renew his call for a ban on new sales of semiautomatic military-style rifles. But barring a change of view for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who has said the issue should be addressed federally rather than by the states, the issue seems unlikely to move forward.

STATE OF THE NATION: McKee’s State of the State was entirely focused on Rhode Island, with no reference to the dramatic presidential election unfolding this year. Part of the subtext is that, by at least one polling organization (Gallup), fewer than 50 percent of Americans have been satisfied with the direction of the country for the last 20 years. Michael DiBiase, president and CEO of RIPEC, is no stranger to government, as a former high-level staffer for Lincoln Almond and Gina Raimondo. Here’s his response, via an interview on Political Roundtable, to why Americans are so pessimistic: “I do think we’ve seen people lose faith in institutions, not just government, and I think we all have to work harder, and that includes me and you and people around government to help improve it. I’ve seen in my time state government get a lot more transparent and open, but there’s a long way to go to be more honest with people about our challenges and what type of difficult choices and also delivering results. I mean, people get disillusioned if they don’t get results from government.”


SCOTUS: Conservative groups have rallied behind a U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the so-called Chevron precedent, which gives federal regulators considerable power in interpreting questions arising from certain laws. Yet it’s unclear to court-watchers if there are enough votes to undo the 40-year-old ruling, in part since Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump appointee, has questioned whether doing so would unleash a torrent of additional litigation. One of the two cases at issue originated in Rhode Island when three North Kingstown fishing companies — Relentless Inc., Huntress Inc., and Seafreeze Fleet LLC. — sued over fishing regulations. Former Gov. Gina Raimondo is named as defendant in the court challenge, since the Commerce Department oversees the regulations being challenged. U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is among those urging the Supreme Court to reject what he calls an industry-driven attempt to dismantle necessary regs.

RI IN DC: As House Republicans press an impeachment case aimed at Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, ostensibly about the crisis at the southwest border, U.S. Rep. Seth Magaziner was among those responding last week. Here’s part of his commentary: “Unfortunately, too many of my Republican colleagues are more focused on playing politics instead of working together to address our problems. The Biden administration has requested $14 billion to secure the border, funding that would hire more than 1,300 Border Patrol agents and more than a thousand CBP officers. House Republicans have refused to call a vote on this funding for nearly four months.”

TAKES OF THE WEEK – A mix of views from various Rhode Islanders.

MATT JERZYK, blogfather, lawyer and lobbyist: “While Toto blessed the rains back in the ‘80s, those who lived near the ocean, bays, rivers and lakes were cursing them recently in Rhode Island. Take the Pawtuxet River. In the last two months, those living in its watershed across multiple cities and towns (raising my hand) saw two major flooding events including the 2nd-highest flood level in recorded history. The 1st? Yes, that was just 14 years ago, causing massive damage to homes and businesses. What can we do about these torrential rains and floods?  Well, the governor and the General Assembly are doing their part by enacting robust climate change goals including the Act on Climate. Now, cities and towns need to step up and do their part, especially with millions of dollars available from the federal government via the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. I remember 12 years ago sitting in Providence City Hall chuckling at the idea of the new sustainability director, Sheila Dormody, as she proposed a stormwater management district. I responded, ‘Ingles, por favor?’ My naïveté was wrong and she was spot-on. As Rhode Island unearths more and more development projects and concrete replaces grasses and forests, there is nowhere for the water to go. With no absorption in the ground, the water traverses across concrete and asphalt until it eventually reaches a stream or a river, thereby creating unusually high levels of flooding. It is wonderful to see a majority of our state’s cities and towns join the RI Infrastructure Bank’s Municipal Resilience Program to start holding workshops and thought sessions on how to combat climate change on the city and town level. Hopefully, these collective thoughts turn into stormwater action soon or the housing crisis is about to get existentially worse!”

MICHAEL GARMAN, campaign leader of Ocean State Ranked Choice Voting (which is hosting a National Ranked Choice Voting Day event on Saturday, Jan. 20, 3-5 pm at The Guild in Pawtucket): “It’s seemingly commonplace in Rhode Island now for elected officials to win their primary with well under 40 percent of the vote and then face nominal opposition in the general election. The consequences are that leaders too often lack true majority support. There is a solution that would give our elected leaders a more representative mandate to govern: Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). During the CD1 Democratic primary last year, more than half of the candidates — including winner Gabe Amo (who won his primary by more than seven percentage points, but with less than one-third of the total vote), Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, and state Sen. Sandra Cano — publicly expressed their support for RCV. Additionally, more than 30 current state legislators have backed past legislation that would establish a form of RCV in Rhode Island. RCV makes elections more representative. In 2020, more than three million Democratic presidential primary voters (10 percent of the U.S. primary electorate) “wasted” their primary vote on a candidate who had withdrawn by their respective primary day. With ranked choice in place, those voters’ choices would have gone for a candidate who was still running. While the path to RCV for all Rhode Island elections may take years and will most likely require a change to the state’s Constitution, we should take steps this legislative session to join two other states, three counties, and 45 cities representing 13 million Americans to add RCV to our state’s presidential preference elections beginning with the 2028 presidential primary.”

WEAYONNOH NELSON-DAVIES, executive director of the Economic Progress Institute: “This week Governor McKee gave his State of the State address and unveiled his proposed state budget. We applaud both his call to increase income for Rhode Islanders, as well as some proposed budgetary investments in Early Invention and Multilingual Learning.  However, Rhode Island’s children, elders, and families desperately need more significant investments in programs crucial to helping people meet their basic needs. Rhode Islanders need an annual inflation adjustment added to Rhode Island Works cash assistance benefits and an increase in the wage replacement rate for the state’s paid family leave program, so that more lower-wage workers can afford to use this important program they already pay into, instead of taking a 40% pay cut. With the drop-off in rescue funds and other federal funds, it is imperative that we find ways to raise additional revenue to fund critical programs. We can make our state tax system more equitable and raise over $120 million annually by modestly increasing taxes on millionaires, who pay a smaller percentage of their income in state and local taxes than the lowest-income Rhode Islanders. This revenue can be invested in childcare assistance, education, and public transportation to improve the standard of living for all Rhode Islanders.”

GAME OF CHANCE: “The Rhode Island Lottery is the largest voluntary source of income for the State, benefiting all who live, work and visit the Ocean State.” So says the Lottery, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. “Since the first ticket was sold on May 21, 1974, the Lottery has transferred more than $8.8 billion to the General Fund, paid more than $57 billion in prizes to winning players, and more than $6 billion to local businesses.” Of course, lotteries have a distinct drawing card – they play on the almost-universal appeal of striking it big, even if the odds are stacked. Still, the chance of winning $10,000 or even a few million keeps the customers coming. Yet critics say lotteries amount to a tax funded mostly by people ill-equipped to squander their money.

ON THE MOVE: Dale J. Venturini is preparing to retire as president/CEO of the RI Hospitality Association after leading the organization for more than 35 years. “Dale has devoted her life to shaping the Association into what it is today,” David Smiley, associate chairman of the association’s board, said in a statement. “Her leadership and commitment is unparalleled, and, in many ways, her name is synonymous with Rhode Island’s hospitality industry. Steadfast, passionate, and loyal, we know this was a hard decision for her and wish her a well-deserved next chapter.”

KICKER: There’s no truth to the rumor that the next lottery game will consist of correctly picking the next two years when Rhode Island has consecutive budget surpluses.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@thepublicsradio.org.


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