Mattiello, Ruggerio still not speaking after blowup, with state budget in limbo

Raimondo sticking to old spending levels; progressives frustrated over stalled bills

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Five days after the General Assembly’s annual session ended abruptly with the state budget in limbo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio remain in a standoff.

Spokesmen for the two legislative leaders confirmed Wednesday the pair have not spoken since Friday, when Mattiello abruptly sent the House home in protest after learning the Senate planned to pass an amendment to the $9.2-billion state budget. Mattiello said the unusual move by senators, who usually approve the House-passed budget as is, violated a handshake agreement he had with Ruggerio; the Senate leader disputes that.

The meltdown left not only the budget but a variety of other bills incomplete. Municipal leaders are uncertain about how to proceed with tax bills, since the pending budget would have included a $26-million reduction in the car tax they needed to execute. Would-be Community College of Rhode Island students are also unsure about whether they’ll need to pay tuition for fall classes, since the pending budget includes Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposal for free tuition.

House spokesman Larry Berman said Mattiello, D-Cranston, has not communicated with Ruggerio, D-North Providence, and acknowledged there has been no movement toward a resolution of their dispute. But he noted that the Senate could still reopen debate on the budget and remove the amendment, since the House has refused to formally take back the bill.

“Speaker Mattiello is urging the Senate to come back into session and pass an unamended budget that was agreed to by Senate President Ruggerio and was approved overwhelmingly by the Senate Finance Committee,” Berman said. “The House is on summer recess.”

Senate spokesman Greg Pare also confirmed that “there has not been any communication between the leaders.”

“The Senate worked well into the evening on Friday,” Pare said. “As our first order of business in the afternoon, the Senate passed the budget without changing one cent of spending. Had the House been here, they could have considered the budget with that small but important taxpayer protection provision then.”

The special provision added by the Senate would link car tax elimination – Mattiello’s top priority this year – to state revenue, putting in place a “trigger” to pause the $221-million, six-year phaseout if the state dips into its rainy-day fund. “The House can convene at any point they choose to take up the budget,” Pare said.

Raimondo, a fellow Democrat, has so far avoided taking sides on the legislative impasse, other than pledging to keep the government operating at last year’s spending levels as required by state law when no budget has passed. The new fiscal began on July 1.

“Government will continue to operate without interruption,” Raimondo said at an afternoon news conference.

The governor called on Mattiello and Ruggerio to work out their differences and send her a budget to sign, though she declined to discuss her conversations with them. She also insisted free tuition will still be provided at CCRI, but acknowledged the longer the stalemate continues, the more problems will emerge, noting payments to municipalities are due July 31.

Separately, an idea floated by Ruggerio to a Providence Journal reporter – having the two chambers pass the House budget, but paired with a separate “trailer” bill incorporating the car tax amendment – was quickly shot down by Mattiello’s office.

“The last-minute shenanigans over a long-negotiated budget have to stop,” Mattiello said in a statement.

The Providence Journal’s editorial board sided with Mattiello on Wednesday, writing that while the speaker’s “strong-willed personality can rub some people the wrong way,” senators should still reconvene to pass the budget without the amendment, “something that would earn them the public’s gratitude.”

Meanwhile, there appeared to be broad agreement that the legislative blowup had disadvantaged progressive lawmakers, who saw two of their most high-profile proposals blocked: a measure to limit firearm rights for domestic abusers, and another to guarantee paid sick days to workers in the state. The House and Senate have passed alternative versions of both bills that have not been reconciled.

State Rep. Aaron Regunberg, a Providence Democrat and leader of the progressive wing, wrote on Facebook over the weekend that he would continue to push the paid sick days bill, arguing that “politics as usual got in the way.”

“We can get [the alternative versions] reconciled and over the final finish line the moment the legislature reconvenes,” he wrote. “We just need to keep the pressure on. … I promise that together we WILL pass earned sick time. This year.”

The Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, an advocacy group, called on House Democrats to replace Mattiello as speaker, pinning the blame on him. “Mattiello’s childish, thuggish action mimics Trump and is an embarrassment to Democrats and the state of Rhode Island,” the group said in a statement.

Among conservatives, many expressed relief that the Democrats’ feuding had prevented – for now – a rise in state spending, the paid sick days mandate and the gun restrictions, among other policies. Responding to a question about what would happen next, Republican Rep. Brian Newberry wrote on Twitter, “Hopefully nothing until January.”

The right-leaning R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity urged legislative leaders not to return to Smith Hill for the rest of the year. “There was no rational rhyme or reason to the advancement of the many progressive bills that were about to become law, but that now have fortunately been put in limbo,” Mike Stenhouse, the center’s CEO, said in a statement.

The Gaspee Project, an advocacy group Stenhouse helped create, was even blunter in a blast to its supporters: “Demand Speaker Mattiello keep legislators out of session for the summer and that he should use his power to crush the progressive vision here in Rhode Island!”

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

Jared Pliner contributed to this report.