RI budget deal reached; Senate votes Thursday

House, Senate will both return to Smith Hill on Sept. 19 to take up other bills

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island Senate leaders have agreed to return to the State House on Thursday to approve the original state budget bill, signaling the General Assembly’s month-long standoff could soon be over.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, gathered Senate Democrats on Monday evening at Ladder 133, a bar in Providence, for a closed caucus to seek consensus on next steps. (Democrats control 32 of the Senate’s 38 seats.) The meeting lasted a little over an hour.

After the caucus, Ruggerio and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello announced they have reached an agreement to resolve their disagreements and pass the budget. The Senate will convene on Thursday to pass the House’s original budget bill, in exchange for a concession from the House on the car tax, the Senate’s chief concern.

“The concerns of the budget impasse expressed by city and town leaders have not been lost on me, but I needed to balance those concerns with the feasibility of the car tax phaseout, particularly in the out years,” Ruggerio said in a statement. “I’m pleased the speaker recognized the concerns.”

A spokesman for Gov. Gina Raimondo said she “is pleased the legislature is on course to resolve the budget impasse and will sign the budget as soon as it reaches her desk.”

Rhode Island has been without a new state budget since Mattiello, D-Cranston, stunned Smith Hill on June 30 by sending the House home to protest an amendment the Senate wanted to add to the budget. The amendment would have paused Mattiello’s proposed car-tax phaseout during economic downturns.

In the absence of a new state budget signed into law, Rhode Island state government has been operating under last year’s budget, which contains about $300 million less in spending than the pending budget bill does.

As part of their newly announced agreement, Mattiello has agreed that the House will pass a separate bill requiring that the director of the R.I. Department of Revenue study the affordability of the car tax phaseout each year. However, the first of those reports would not be due until January 2021, more than halfway through the six-year phaseout.

The two legislative leaders also announced both chambers will return to the State House on Sept. 19 to take up other bills that were left in limbo when the session collapsed. While specific priorities for that day have not been laid out, bills on paid sick days and domestic abusers’ gun rights are among the high-profile ones that remain unfinished.

Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey said the senators had a “lively discussion” about the budget strategy during their caucus, and other senators acknowledged there had been some disagreement behind closed doors. But McCaffrey said he is confident Democratic leaders will be able to wrangle the 26 votes needed to pass the budget Thursday.

“Most of them were glad the [Senate] president did what he did,” McCaffrey said.

State Sen. Ryan Pearson, a Cumberland Democrat who has questioned the car tax phaseout plan for months, agreed that the meeting was “very lively.” He said he was still undecided on whether to vote for the budget Thursday, noting that the first year of the phaseout was being paid for by ordering an undefined across-the-board cut in state spending of $25 million.

“A lot of the members have very strong opinions,” Pearson said.

McCaffrey said he plans to meet with his House counterpart, Warwick Rep. Joseph Shekarchi, once the budget passes to discuss which bills will be taken up during the Sept. 19 legislative session.

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