After 40-Minute Hearing, RI House Finance Committee Approves $9.55B Budget

After little discussion during a 40-minute hearing, the House Finance Committee approved Friday a $9.55 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that restores money for human service programs, kills a proposed 25 cent per pack hike in the cigarette tax and gives voters the chance in November to direct $250 million to school construction.

The 15-to-3 vote shortly before midnight came on a mostly party-line vote, with three of the four Republicans on the Finance Committee — Patricia Morgan of West Warwick, Anthony Giarrusso of East Greenwich, and Robert Quattrocchi of Scituate voting in opposition. The other Republican, Ken Mendonca of Portsmouth, voted in favor of the budget.

Morgan said she voted no because there was no time for her to review the spending plan in the brief time before it was presented to lawmakers. She also pointed to how the House budget includes about $220 million more in spending than the spending plan proposed by Gov. Gina Raimondo in January.

“This is not a budget that contains government,” charged Morgan, a GOP candidate for governor. “It’s a budget that takes more money out of the pockets of hard-working Rhode Islanders and we have to stop doing that.”

But Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, during a briefing with reporters, praised the budget as a responsible plan that grew out of consensus among Finance Committee members.

Mattiello pointed to how the budget continues a phase-out of the car tax, kills a proposed 25 cent per pack hike on cigarette taxes, and eliminates planned Medicaid co-pays proposed by Raimondo. Also gone: a proposed increase in tax on vaping products.

“I’m very proud of the work of the Finance Committee,” Mattiello said. “They produced a balanced budget that will serve our economy well, will serve all of our constituents well, restores a lot of resources to human services and balances the needs of our community about as well as you balance them under the circumstances.”

The speaker said the budget maintains older state incentive programs, while cutting some more recent ones.

On the elimination of the proposed cigarette tax hike, Mattiello said, “We received a lot of evidence that it would hurt a lot of businesses.”

The budget rebuffed an effort by Raimondo to increase, from three to 15, the number of compassion centers in the state, although it significantly raised fees for existing compassion centers, from $5,000 up to $250,000. Mattiello said lawmakers opposed the governor’s proposal because it struck them as more piecemeal than comprehensive.

The House Finance spending plan, like the governor’s proposal, counts on $23.5 million in anticipated sports betting revenue from Twin River’s facilities in Lincoln and Tiverton. Mattiello said a contract for the betting has not been settled with vendor IGT and that he expects negotiations to continue over the coming week, with revenue splits to be included in legislation. “I don’t anticipate there ever being an integrity fee,” he said, referring to a fee sought by some professional sports leagues.

Also included in the spending plan is language meant to give nursing homes the same amount of Medicaid reimbursment regardless of the outcome of a legal clash with the state.

Lawmakers asked a smattering of brief questions during a briefing by House Fiscal Adviser Sharon Reynolds Ferland before voting.

The budget is slated to move to the House floor next Friday.

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