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Moore: Rhode Island’s Budget is Bloated

Monday, June 19, 2017

 

Nicholas Mattiello

It’s pretty easy to sit back and criticize the state legislature, especially during budget season. Trust me, I’ve been doing it for years.

The main reason this is true is because they make it easy.

When one of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s top employees in the legislature--Frank Montanaro Jr., a former representative who serves as the Executive Director of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, and makes about $150,000 for his efforts--was gaming the system so that he could send his dependents to state colleges for free, it’s very easy to be cynical.

First reported by WPRI, Montanaro was granted “leave status” from Rhode Island College, where he worked, when he took the job with Mattiello, so that he could return to RIC if he didn’t like his new gig. Conveniently, that kept him eligible for the free tuition.

So when you’re working an extra job or picking up extra hours to be able to afford your student loans or tuition bills, make sure you think about Montanaro. I hope, dear reader, you never thought welfare was only for poor people.

More Efficient?

Boy, Speaker Mattiello ain’t kidding when he tells us that state government needs to be more efficient. He can look at his own legislative budget for proof positive.

Yet when there’s so many people who benefit from Rhode Island’s government largess, politically, it will always be difficult to write the state budget.

It doesn’t matter where the legislature makes cuts, or hikes revenues, someone is always going to be upset. Honestly, given the political realities concerning the job, writing a budget cannot be pleasant, particularly during years, like this one, with shortfalls. The people who benefit from government largess are never going to want to see anything cut.

Even this budget proposal, which doesn’t make deep cuts anywhere or to anything, the House Speaker finds himself the target of an onslaught of criticism from the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, who are claiming the budget somehow represents the priorities of a “right wing machine”.

Tortured Logic

Peculiarly, their press release somehow suggests that pension reform, which ultimately took pressure off of the state budget, is somehow related to Governor Gina Raimondo’s UHIP debacle.

“After the brutal pension cuts, we are already seeing signs of decreasing functionality in our state agencies, with the ongoing UHIP debacle the most visible sign of the dysfunction,” states the Progressive Democrats in their press release slamming the budget.

That’s some tortured logic right there. The progressives also criticized the Mattiello budget for its requirement that the administration come up with $25 million in unspecified savings.

Sure, that sounds like kicking the can down the road. I get that.

But what the progressive Democrats don’t understand, or at the very least, refuse to acknowledge, is that the state budget is already bloated.

Competitors

I was recently talking with a Steve Howitt, a Massachusetts state legislator from Seekonk, who mentioned, in passive, that his state’s budget is roughly $40 billion.

The Rhode Island budget proposal this year is slightly more than $9 billion. That means the Massachusetts budget is 4.5 times larger than the Rhode Island budget.

The population of Massachusetts, however, is roughly 7 times higher than Rhode Island’s. (RI’s population is roughly 1 million people. Massachusetts is about 7 million.)

That means we’re spending significantly more money, per person, in our state budget.

Massachusetts will spend $5,714 per capita. Under the RI plan, we will spend $9,200 per capita.

Yet Massachusetts has some of the best government services in the nation, particularly in the area of education.

Emulate the Best? Nah. 

A smart business, sports team, or non-profit emulates the best practices of those who are aligned in similar fields, sports, or charities. If Rhode Island was serious about making a better government, it would study the Massachusetts state government to discern what they’re doing better or more efficiently.

But in Rhode Island, we’re too proud to admit that someone else is doing things better than we are. Either that, or we just don’t want to know, because our leaders see government as a racket. So we don’t try to get better at anything. We just muddle along.

It’s been said ad nauseum. I’ll say it again. We don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem.

When the special interests are as strong as they are, we’re never going to get an efficient government. Bit we’ll get the government we deserve.

Russell J. Moore has worked on both sides of the desk in Rhode Island media, both for newspapers and on political campaigns. Send him email at [email protected]. Follow him on twitter @russmoore713.

 

Related Slideshow: FY18 House Finance Budget

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WINNER

CCRI

The state's community college is poised to be the sole beneficiary of the Governor's Promise scholarship program.

It would make Rhode Island the fourth state to have tuition-free community college, allowing every resident the opportunity to earn an associate's degree tuition free. There is no means testing for the program and few standards.

The cost would be roughly $3 million in the FY18 (for the first cohort of students) and then $6 million the following year there are two classes. 

Prev Next

LOSER

State Government 

As part of negotiations -- and the fiscal realities facing Rhode Island with a nearly $140 million shortfally, the Speaker announced Thursday that $25 million will be cut in general spending.

"It's something we discussed with the Governor and she thinks she can make [it] work," said Matteillo. 

Also on the chopping block -- funding for the legislative office to the tune of $2 million. 

Prev Next

WINNER

Elderly and Disabled Bus Riders 

After levying fares on some of the most needy RIPTA bus riders (the elderly and disabled) for the first time this past year, which resulted in strong public outcry, the House Finance budget contains just over $3 million  -- for each of the next two years -- to refund the program this coming year. 

WATCH: Opponents of RIPTA Fare Hikes to Rally at RI State House Wednesday Afternoon

Mattiello noted that after the two years is up, it is up to the Governor to find the funding. 

Prev Next

TIE

Governor Raimondo

On Thursday, Raimondo learned she is poised to get a piece (jCCRI) of her free college tuition proposal, which had been a major focal point of her budget proposal - and political strategy. 

On the flip side, she is tasked with finding $25 million in government spending to cut, in order to balance the budget. 

Unlike the May estimating conference, where Rhode Island revenues were found to be off nearly $100 million plus, the Governor can't say she didn't see this  coming.

Prev Next

LOSER

Medical Marijuana Expansion

In June, Raimondo called for an increase in medical marijuana dispensaries and an increase in licensing fees to generate $1.5 million in revenue for the state. 

She called for "no less than six licensed compassion centers."

On Thursday, Mattiello said it was not in the budget, due the proposal's late timing.

Prev Next

WINNER

Davies High School

The House finance budget contains additional help for manufacturing, including $3.6 million to upgrade facilities at Davies Career and Tech.

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LOSER

Commerce Corporation

While Mattiello made scant mention of cuts in the briefing Thursday - save for the $25 million out of government spending -- the question was raised as to where the rest of the $140 million shortfall will come from. 

"Millions in cuts came from the Commerce Corp budget. The budget kept the Rebuild RI funding, but money for several other Commerce programs were reduced," said Larry Berman, spokesman for Mattiello. 

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TIE

Mininum Wage Hike

Workers will be happy, employers might not. 

The FY18 budget proposal calls for a $.50 minimum wage increase as of January 1, 2018, and then an additional $.40 the following year.

Business owners have continuously fought against such hikes. 

 
 

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