PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Leaders of the Rhode Island House of Representatives have briefed their colleagues about the $9.2 billion tax-and-spending plan set for a vote this week.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin Abney, both Democrats, held a budget briefing on Tuesday. The House is scheduled to debate the budget and vote on it Thursday.
The plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes tax relief for car owners, a pilot program for tuition-free community college, cuts to government spending and no major tax hikes, except for a higher cigarette tax. It also would restore free bus rides for low-income elderly or disabled riders.
Only one lawmaker publicly asked a question at the briefing Tuesday, but others introduced 40 proposed amendments that were due by the end of the day. Some outside groups also are calling for changes after reviewing the draft plan unveiled and approved by the House Finance Committee late last week.
CAR TAX TRIGGER?
Among the biggest questions has been the cost of Mattiello’s proposal to eliminate Rhode Island’s unpopular car taxes over six years. Budget negotiators found $26 million to pay for the first year of the phase-out, but will need to find about $221 million to fully eliminate the taxes by 2023.
Some fiscal experts have proposed adding a trigger mechanism so that the state can call off future cuts if it can’t afford the six-year phase-out. Mattiello dismissed that idea Tuesday and suggested such considerations would happen anyway, noting that legislators have to balance a new budget every year.
“The General Assembly is the trigger,” Mattiello told reporters. “We negotiate every single budget.”
To pay for the car tax cuts and to close a roughly $134 million budget shortfall, savings in the proposed budget include a $25 million cut in general government spending. But it’s not clear where those cuts will happen. Mattiello has said Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration will have to execute those savings, but the Democratic governor has made no public comment about the House’s budget plan since it was unveiled late last week.
FREE TUITION ELIGIBILITY
Among concerns raised about the House’s scaled-back version of Raimondo’s free college tuition proposal are the eligibility requirements imposed on its beneficiaries. Under the latest plan, any student who gets two years of free tuition at the Community College of Rhode Island will have to commit to stay in the state after graduation.
“If the taxpayers are giving you something of value, I think it’s fair that you contribute something back,” Mattiello said when asked about that provision Tuesday.
He added that the details of the eligibility requirement could still be adjusted because a higher education commissioner would be tasked with figuring out the specifics.
Abney, the finance chairman from Newport, said “we worked hard to get as much as we possibly could” in a tough revenue year, but groups that saw their priorities excluded from the plan are making a final call to lobby for changes.
That ranges from Republicans who called the Democratic-written plan bloated to environmental advocates who said it doesn’t do enough to protect Narragansett Bay.
Lead poisoning prevention groups this week criticized the House’s budget plan for cutting $590,000 that the Raimondo administration had proposed for new lead safety enforcement efforts.
“It’s a new proposal we just didn’t do this year,” Mattiello said.
Debate on the House floor begins Thursday afternoon and could continue for hours — or even held for a second day of deliberation — before the House approves the plan.
If approved by the full House, it would then move to the Senate before it can go to the governor’s desk.