Mattiello abruptly sends House home as top Dems go to war over budget

State spending, paid sick days, firearms regulation all thrown into doubt

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – What was supposed to be the General Assembly’s last day before its summer recess collapsed into chaos Friday after the Senate moved to amend the budget and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello abruptly sent the House home in protest.

Mattiello’s sudden mid-afternoon move stunned Smith Hill and left dozens of bills in limbo – and the hostility between the two chambers only deepened over the subsequent hours as he traded increasingly hostile charges with Senate President Dominick Ruggerio.

The events left Rhode Island with no state budget and no clear path to enact one.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” state Sen. Lou DiPalma, an influential Middletown Democrat, told Eyewitness News.

In an email to House lawmakers, Mattiello blamed the breakdown on the Senate’s threat to amend the $9.2-billion budget the House passed last week, which the upper chamber usually leaves unchanged. At issue: whether the state can afford Mattiello’s $221-million plan to phase out the municipal car tax over the next six years.

Mattiello, D-Cranston, said Ruggerio had privately pledged to support the budget as is and reneged on their agreement. “When I shake someone’s hand, I expect the agreement to be honored,” the speaker said. Playing ball with the Senate on the matter, he argued, “would have resulted in a long and unproductive night.”

Ruggerio, D-North Providence, acknowledged the Senate had drafted a budget amendment to add “triggers” to the car tax phaseout and insisted he never agreed not to amend the budget.

“I don’t remember any handshake,” Ruggerio said.

Ruggerio attributed the breakdown to more than the budget, also citing the Senate’s refusal to pass the House’s bill to require paid sick days, a high-profile issue where the Senate wants more progressive policy. The bill was sponsored by the No. 3 Senate Democrat, Maryellen Goodwin of Providence, making it a high priority for the chamber.

At a hastily called news conference later in the evening, Mattiello assailed the Senate and defended his opposition to allowing the upper chamber to offer amendments. He ruled out bringing the House back this summer – though he left open the possibility if doing so later in the year – and urged the Senate to just pass the House’s bills.

But the Senate almost immediately rebuffed Mattiello, passing the budget with the car-tax amendment added – an unprecedented action in recent memory at such a late date. Both sides were promising to dig in their heels until the other backs down.

“It’s up to them to deal with it,” Ruggerio said.

“I have no opinion as to what they did today,” he added. “If the shoe was on the other foot, I certainly would not have walked out.”

Archived news stories suggest the Senate has only tried to change a House-approved budget three times in recent decades – in 2010, 2000 and 1976 – and all those occasions were in April or May.

The impasse will not cause a government shutdown. Under state law, if the budget hasn’t passed by the first day of the new fiscal year – which is Saturday – state departments will continue to operate with the same funding levels as they had in the previous year, split into “monthly or quarterly allotments.”

“I would assume the Senate was holding the budget hostage for some priorities of their own and the speaker got fed up with that and said, ‘No, I’m not going to do those things, and you’re not going to hold the state hostage,'” said state Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, a former House Republican leader. He said he supported Mattiello’s move.

The war of words at the Assembly also included a dust-up over whether the legislative staffers who draft formal bill language tipped off House leaders about the Senate’s idea. “The Senate has grave concerns over the confidentiality of legislative counsel,” Senate spokesman Greg Pare said.

House spokesman Larry Berman quickly fired back, calling the accusation “nothing but an attempt to distract from the issue at hand.” He said Mattiello learned of the budget amendment “from a member of the public” as it was becoming “common knowledge in the State House,” and urged the Senate to pass the measure as is.

Multiple lawmakers declined to comment immediately after the speaker’s announcement, saying they had no idea what had happened. “Chaos in the halls,” one lobbyist told Eyewitness News.

Later in the night Rep. William O’Brien, D-North Providence, wrote on Twitter: “House is on recess until January! Hope the Senate passes the budget with no amendments otherwise we will work off of last year’s budget.”

Others were clearly downbeat, including Rep. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, who had spent months in difficult negotiations over paid sick days only to see the bill thwarted by the late-stage drama. “Well. I’m going to Vermont for the weekend,” he tweeted. “Bye.”

The House had been scheduled to vote Friday on a number of bills that had not yet passed, and still had not reached agreement with the Senate on some high-profile issues, notably sick days and gun rights for domestic abusers.

The Senate, unlike the House, continued to vote on bills well into the evening before finally closing up shop around 10 p.m. Among the measures they passed were versions of the proposal to ban domestic abusers from carrying guns and the bill to require paid sick days – neither of which matched the House-approved ones.

The Senate and House did reach agreement on other bills, including proposals for evergreen union contracts in municipalities, expanded criteria for firefighters’ disability pensions, free RIPTA bus passes for low-income and elderly disabled residents, and automatic voter registration. Those and other bills will go to the governor for her signature.

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