Get over it, approve the state budget
Like petulant kids, the leaders of the legislative branch of our state government have left the state without a budget and each blaming the other for the resulting confusion.
In theory the fight comes down to a few words over a measure that would bring car tax relief to thousands while obligating the state to a municipal reimbursement plan that will cost $222 million annually by the time it is fully implemented over six years.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello promised eliminating the local car tax during his hard-fought bid for reelection, although such an effort was initiated before and came off the tracks when the state’s economy took a turn for the worse – along with the rest of the nation. This time the state’s economic future looked promising until mid-session, when revenue projections showed a $134 million shortfall, raising the question whether the initiative was possible. Mattiello made some changes, extending the program from five to six years, but delivering on his word to eliminate the tax.
While haunted by the question how would the state afford the initiative, it didn’t face opposition. Who could argue for keeping a tax that is despised and, like so many other taxes, put Rhode Island at a disadvantage as a place to live and do business? The Speaker’s measure easily gained House approval and was given the universal nod by the Senate Finance Committee. Governor Gina Raimondo was in agreement, and all the $9.2 billion state budget needed was the vote of the Senate. The path looked clear until the final hours of the fiscal year that ends on June 30.
The Senate amended the House bill on tax relief building in what it considered a safeguard should the time come when the program became financially unsustainable. This was a break in the practice that the House approves the budget but more importantly, says Mattiello, in the agreement he had with Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. Rather than consider the Senate version of the budget, Mattiello sent House members home.
To get into the weeds, read the opinion articles of both leaders in today’s Beacon, Herald, or Sun Rise. Their positions are well articulated. It is easy to side with one or the other.
But this standoff has left municipalities in a quandary. Warwick, Cranston and Johnston have delayed the issuance of car tax bills, which threaten the stream of revenue needed for them to ultimately operate. Of greater magnitude, without a budget, the state has reverted to the spending plan of the prior budget. Other programs approved by legislators are at risk. The engine keeps running, but the car is out of gear.
Now the issue is which of the two legislators is going to blink. Mattiello says it’s a simple matter of the Senate passing the House budget and he has no intention of reconvening the House to take up the Senate version of the budget. Ruggerio says the Senate has spoken.
Are the versions of the car tax relief bill dramatically different? No. Are the legislative leaders stubbornly prideful? Yes.
Is this something that could be worked out? Yes. Let’s do it.