PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The leaders of Rhode Island’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly will begin the year with a laser-like focus on addressing the state’s budget deficit.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio open the legislative session on Jan. 2 facing a budget deficit of about $60 million in the current fiscal year due to overspending and a structural deficit of more than $200 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
While the budget is always the priority, Mattiello said, it’s going to take a lot of time and attention, this year especially, to produce a budget that addresses the structural deficit and promotes greater economic activity while growing revenues. He believes the state needs to become more efficient in delivering services to needy populations to save money.
“There is not enough of a sense of urgency within the departments to curtail their spending,” he said.
Ruggerio said he’s concerned about potential cuts to federal funding, which would exacerbate Rhode Island’s fiscal woes.
Within the budget, Mattiello’s top priority is to continue phasing out the state’s car tax. Mattiello proposed eliminating Rhode Island’s unpopular car taxes over six years during the last legislative session, and budget negotiators found $26 million to pay for the first year.
He said the next budget proposal will include $50 million to continue the phase-out because the tax is the most onerous and unfair.
Ruggerio has supported phasing out the car tax, though he’s concerned about future budget deficits. The state budget was hung up over a disagreement between the chambers over details of the phase out. Ruggerio said he’d like to continue it, but given the budget deficit, “everything is on the table.”
“We’re going to look at that aspect like we look at everything, in the totality of the budget,” he said.
Both leaders said they’ll be looking into what the state can afford to help repair schools. A school infrastructure task force is recommending Rhode Island borrow $500 million to repair the state’s schools by 2022.
Ruggerio said the state should borrow the money because many schools need major repairs. Mattiello said before that’s considered, he’d want to know exactly how the money would be spent, whether enough thought has been given to school consolidation and how municipalities would help with repairs.
The state is also considering whether to help pay for a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox, to keep the team in Pawtucket. Revised financing legislation was introduced in the Senate Finance Committee this month. Ruggerio said he’d like to see the deal pass because it would generate revenue for the state and rejuvenate downtown Pawtucket.
Mattiello said the House Finance Committee would hold hearings on the proposal and he’d decide whether to support the deal once he gauges how the public feels.
“I believe our citizens want the PawSox to stay here but it’s up to them whether we appropriate state dollars for each of the next 30 years to keep them here,” he said.
Among the other topics that could come up this session, a special legislative commission is looking into the potential effects of legalizing recreational marijuana in Rhode Island, and the Senate will likely look to put into state law protections that currently exist through the federal Affordable Care Act after a bill to do so last session stalled. Both Mattiello and Ruggerio will be looking for ways to help the state continue tackling the opioid epidemic.
Mattiello said he’d like to assess how tax incentives are awarded to businesses and Ruggerio plans to prioritize a bill to ensure gender pay equity. If the Supreme Court legalizes sports betting, Mattiello and Ruggerio agree the state should consider allowing it since it would generate revenue for Rhode Island.