Lisa Blais: RI’s Budget—State Pension, Tolls + The Big Win

Thursday, June 27, 2013


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Rhode Island’s budget passed on a 52-20 vote last night. Before you yawn, think about the most refreshing event of the approximate 19 hours of debate. From a taxpayer advocacy perspective it was the very fact that a debate actually took place on whether or not to support the final budget!

Rhode Island’s budget process is offensive. Every year it is crunch time. Members of the Finance Committee receive copies of the proposal while the paper off the copy machine is still warm. A measly seven days are provided for all Representatives to “study” it and offer any amendments for debate on the floor. Is this any way to craft and consider an $8 billion plus budget? It isn’t, but that’s what we do in Rhode Island.

The various articles of the budget are rolled out on the House floor, some debate takes place, some floor drama can be counted on and some smart remarks are made. But always, the various articles pass and so does the budget with few if any surprises of any consequence from the rank and file membership along the way.

Looking back on the hours of political theatre surrounding this budget it was quite remarkable when leadership’s Article 5 was voted down by rank and file members of the General Assembly. The script was broken. Article 5 called for skipping a $12 million plus supplemental payment to the state’s pension fund. (For the record, OSTPA did not support that section of the budget). The optics were terrible from a political perspective. How in the world did leadership expect members who were not “comfortable” with pension reform – but voted for it anyway - to vote to approve skipping a payment into the fund that was part and parcel to the pension reform? Still, it was apparently expected that support would be provided after a bit of kicking and screaming. Didn’t happen. A shocker for leadership. Surprise, surprise, the $12 million was found elsewhere in the budget.

Added to the mix was that everyone anticipated some kind of fight over an initial payment on the 38 Studio bonds. One has to wonder about the arrogance (?) of leadership to think for one moment that it would be business as usual on the House floor. In effect, expecting legislators to approve the budget as presented was expecting them to be willing to commit political suicide for one reason or another. So, deals were made.

The tolls on the Sakonnet Bridge (which OSTPA opposed last year) have a seven month reprieve and a study commission will be created. That toll should never have been passed by the General Assembly in the first place. Enough citizens and businesses on the East Bay fought relentlessly to find a way out this year. They got it but likely as a result of “negotiating” for a promise to vote for the budget that included the initial payment for 38 Studios.

So, the “Big Win” as stressful as it may have been for leadership to get there, was getting that budget through with taxpayers’ dollars for 38 Studios. Who is wiping their brow with relief now? And, which bills are likely to fly through in the waning days of the session and which bills will die an immediate death based upon each of the sponsors’ budget vote?

Another year and still we face a massive structural deficit, struggling cities and towns haven’t disappeared, lousy rankings still loom, no bold vision was reflected in this budget, but Rhode Island politics lives on in our budget process. 

Lisa Blais is a board member of OSTPA, a taxpayer advocacy organization in Rhode Island.

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