RI budget standoff continues for 6th day as top Dems don’t budge

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s legislative leaders remained locked in a standoff for a sixth day Thursday, as House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello insisted the only way the state budget will pass is if the Senate returns and removes a provision he opposes.

“They broke it, they can fix it on their own and send it to the governor,” Mattiello, D-Cranston, told Eyewitness News.

“I’m hoping that cooler heads will prevail and that the House comes back and we have some kind of agreement,” countered Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence.

Ruggerio said he is “willing to talk to the speaker at any time if he wants to meet,” but said it’s up to Mattiello to call him since the Senate was last to pass the budget. Asked about the prospects of that, Mattiello said: “I don’t want to say this the wrong way, but I’m going to enjoy my summer.”

Mattiello abruptly sent the House home in protest Friday after learning the Senate planned to amend the $9.2-billion state budget already passed by the House. The amendment, approved by senators later in the day, would pause Mattiello’s proposed six-year car-tax phaseout if state revenue declines significantly in the future.

Mattiello has insisted the unusual move by senators, who usually approve the House-passed budget as is, violated a handshake agreement he had with Ruggerio. “It was a secret amendment that they wanted to spring on us at the last minute,” Mattiello said Thursday.

The Senate leader disputes that, and continues to defend his chamber’s right to change the budget. “I had mentioned it numerous times when I had met with him both on the longevity of the program – I asked him if he could stretch that out to eight years – and also put the trigger in,” Ruggerio replied.

“We did not have a handshake agreement on the budget,” Ruggerio said. “We shook hands when we met, we shook hands when we left. I have great respect for the speaker, but we did not have a handshake on the budget. He knew what my issues were.”

Mattiello called the Senate’s move “a political power play” during an afternoon appearance on WPRO’s Dan Yorke Show. “I call upon the Senate to pass the bill that’s been approved by the Senate Finance Committee,” he said, quoting a positive statement about the budget made by the committee’s chairman before Friday’s blowup.

Mattiello told Yorke he still has not spoken to Ruggerio since they had lunch last Thursday, but indicated he thinks others may have spurred the Senate leader’s action. “He’s doing his and other people’s bidding,” Mattiello argued.

The speaker told Eyewitness News that if the Senate passes the original version of the budget, he would consider bringing the House back for a fall session to pass pending bills on paid sick days and gun restrictions in domestic abuse cases. Otherwise, he said, he does not expect the House to return until next January.

“I have no plans on coming back right now,” Mattiello said. He also said he has directed Capitol TV, the General Assembly’s cable channel, to air last week’s Senate Finance hearing so voters can see that senators did not bring up the amendment at the time.

Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building & Construction Trades Council, dismissed State House speculation that his union had something to do with the standoff. “I think they give us a lot more credit for influence we don’t have,” he said. He noted that a key end-of-session ask for his union – getting a temporary carve-out in the paid sick days bill – had won support in both chambers by Friday.

Fallout from the budget impasse is already being seen in cities and towns, which are having to decide how to handle the car tax with state policy in limbo.

Voters in Mattiello’s own district in Cranston – who narrowly re-elected him last fall on a promise to cut the car tax – will be receiving bills with no reduction for now, city spokesman Mark Schieldrop said. “If something changes, we’ll send out rebates or offer credits,” he said. “We wanted to avoid being in the position to send out a supplemental tax if it came to that.”

Separately, Mattiello pushed back at Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s assertion that the Community College of Rhode Island can still offer free tuition this fall even if the budget, which contains that provision, hasn’t passed. She has not indicated yet where she would find the money or legal authority.

“The governor does not have the authority to do what she suggests, which is why she proposed this legislation to begin with,” Mattiello said in a statement, adding: “If the Senate would approve the negotiated budget, which the Senate Finance Committee recommended for passage, the governor wouldn’t be contemplating enacting this program without the authority to do so.”

Mattiello said he sent Raimondo a text earlier Thursday to make the same point.

Raimondo spokesman David Ortiz disagreed, saying: “There are several administrative options well within the governor’s authority that we are exploring to launch the Rhode Island Promise free-tuition program at CCRI this fall.”

“Young Rhode Islanders deserve a fair shot at jobs and opportunity, and she won’t let them get caught in the middle of a dispute between the House and Senate,” Ortiz added.

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