Raimondo ‘pleased’ with budget but warns on difficulty of $25M in cuts

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo said Wednesday her priorities are reflected in the new state budget being finalized by the General Assembly, while warning it will be difficult to find $25 million in across-the-board cuts ordered by lawmakers.

“Overall I’m really quite pleased,” she told reporters during a question-and-answer session.

The $9.2-billion budget for the new fiscal year that starts Saturday includes a pilot program offering free tuition at the Community College of Rhode Island and the first installment of a six-year car tax phaseout. The House passed it Thursday, and the Senate is expected to send it to Raimondo for her signature this week.

The governor noted state leaders had to close an unexpected shortfall of $134 million to balance the tax-and-spending plan.

“We were able to pass a budget which again has record investments in education, job training, economic development, increases the minimum wage, increases wages for home care workers, increases wages for those who care for the developmentally disabled, and makes us the fourth state in America to provide tuition-free community college for every high school graduate,” Raimondo said.

More broadly, the governor argued the state budget has steadily shifted away from consumption expenditures and toward investment-oriented spending since she took office in 2015.

“If you look at this budget versus the budget the year before I became governor, there’s probably a 20% to 25% increase in economic development, job training, education, career and technical education, while we’ve cut business taxes, car taxes, and reduced our deficit,” she said. “That’s good progress.”

To make the math work, however, lawmakers asked Raimondo to find $25 million in undefined savings across state government over the next 12 months. “It’s going to be hard,” she said. “That is a big number.”

The governor indicated she has yet to figure out where those cuts will come. She also expressed concern about cuts lawmakers ordered in the revised budget for the current fiscal year, which ends within days, and reductions ordered at the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH).

“There’s definitely places where we can find efficiencies, and I’m eager to do that,” she said. “Where I’m going to draw the line is, we have to take care of our most vulnerable, we have to take care of children and families in our care, and we also have to remember that we need to continue to invest.”

House spokesman Larry Berman argued, however, the budget’s changes at BHDDH are not reductions. “The budget simply assumed that they were not effectively billing for third-party liability,” he said. “There was no expectation of actual expenditure reductions, just a difference in which pocket it is paid from.”

With the General Assembly racing to finish its work for the year, Raimondo also weighed in on a number of hot-button topics.

The governor expressed concern about three pieces of pending legislation: a bill to make hypertension an automatic reason for firefighters to receive a disability pension; one to create a new highway surveillance system to spot unlicensed out-of-state motorists; and one to put new limits on charter schools in Cumberland.

“I’m not going to get into the weeds of bills until they come to my desk,” she said. “I’m going to take them when they come … in their final form.”

Raimondo also expressed hope lawmakers will reach a compromise on a bill to require employers to offer paid sick days, which business interests continue to oppose due to concerns about how broadly the mandate will be applied. The governor called for the new mandate in her State of the State speech in January.

“I’m asking the legislature to send me a sick leave bill,” she said. “Massachusetts has it. It’s consistent with everything else I’m trying to do – raising the minimum wage, raising home-care worker wages, level the playing field. Folks deserve a few days off.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook