Budget, PawSox, economy on agenda as RI lawmakers begin 2018 session

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s Democratic legislative leaders kept the focus on the economy Tuesday as they kicked off the 2018 General Assembly session, amid budget concerns and continued debate over the Pawtucket Red Sox.

The state’s 113 state legislators – 97 Democrats and 16 Republicans – gathered under the State House dome for short ceremonial first sessions, where representatives heard from House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, and senators from Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence.

Last year’s session ended acrimoniously in June, with a breakdown over the budget that led to a monthlong stalemate between the two chambers. The Senate eventually backed down, and the two chambers held a one-day wrap-up session in September.

In an interview, Ruggerio said he and Mattiello “have a good understanding. I’m hoping that our relationship will improve.” Mattiello said separately that the pair “get along just fine,” adding, “Hopefully our initiatives merge.”

Mattiello, 54, has led the House since 2014 and has indicated he plans to seek another term in November. In his prepared remarks, he promised to focus once again on spurring job growth and economic development – and made clear he is not wavering on his pledge to eliminate the car tax over the next five years.

“This is going to be a challenging year,” Mattiello said. “We must continue to take care of people who need it the most,” he added. “At the same time, we need to take a hard look at all existing programs and see what is benefiting taxpayers.”

Other Mattiello priorities for the new fiscal year include regulatory reform, notably an examination by the House Oversight Committee of what the Office of Regulatory Reform has accomplished since it was set up nearly a decade ago.

“We will continue to review our tax policies to see what is working and see what we can do to continue to help businesses,” he said. “The business community is the engine that drives our economy.”

Ruggerio, 69, is still in his first year leading the Senate after he succeeded Teresa Paiva Weed last March. In his prepared remarks, he argued that Rhode Island “continues to gain momentum” as 2018 begins, citing low unemployment and a number of new companies announcing jobs in the state.

Among his announced priorities for the year: ramped-up spending on school buildings, a priority he shares with Mattiello that was the subject of a recent task-force report; codifying federal Affordable Care Act regulations in state law; mandating mental health coverage regardless of insurance status; and “legislation that helps close the gender pay gap.”

House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, a West Warwick Republican and candidate for governor, said her GOP caucus will be focused “on those policy choices that we can make to reform or eliminate bad policies, and to take the weight off of average Rhode Islanders, to really reduce their cost of living so they have better lives, more financial security.”

Among the specific proposals the Republicans plan to put forward, she said, are the creation of an inspector general’s office; tighter-rules for disability pensions; exempting school repairs from prevailing-wage rules; and requiring the R.I. Commerce Corp. to file quarterly reports on the results of its tax incentives and other programs.

Two issues are top of mind on Smith Hill as the new session starts: budget worries and the future of the PawSox.

Rhode Island is facing budget shortfalls of roughly $60 million in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and roughly $200 million in the next fiscal year. Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is due to deliver her proposal for closing those gaps on Jan. 18, when her annual budget plan is due. A final budget is usually adopted in June.

“The budget picture is only going to get worse if we don’t start fixing things between now and the end of the fiscal year,” Mattiello said, adding that he hoped Raimondo’s team “is following its corrective-action plans to tighten its reins.”

Alluding to the budget gap, Ruggerio urged state leaders to “work to maintain the progress we have made, such as numerous reductions in personal and business taxes, while also caring for vulnerable Rhode Islanders and making wise investments.”

The PawSox debate looks like it could come to a head even sooner than the budget one. Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Conley was scheduled to file a revised bill Tuesday authorizing taxpayer support for a proposed new $83-million stadium in Pawtucket, and it’s expected to be voted on by his panel Thursday.

However, the stadium proposal’s prospects in the House remain highly uncertain. Mattiello has made clear he is wary of the idea after hearing significant public opposition to it, including in his district in Western Cranston. The House is not expected to take up the bill until it clears the Senate.

R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell aimed to keep the pressure on senators to reject the PawSox proposal.

“Senators would look foolish to vote for this unpopular legislation knowing that it will not become law,” he said in a statement. “The only thing Senators will accomplish by voting for the new PawSox deal is to anger their constituents.”

A number of other issues are also on the Assembly’s agenda for 2018. A legislative study commission is looking at whether Rhode Island should legalize recreational marijuana, while another will be tackling sexual harassment in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Sports gambling could also be on the table depending on the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case.

Overshadowing the policy debates will be election-year politics. All 113 legislators are up for re-election this year, and an increasingly crowded field of candidates is forming to challenge Raimondo as she seeks a second term.

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