In the Old Dutch poem, Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailed off in a wooden shoe and, through their meandering, made all who heard their tale bored and tired. A similar tiresome tale is being told in the Ocean State currently. It is the tiring story of our state budget impasse.
In our ridiculously bloated and inefficient state government, we can expect few triumphs that serve the public good. Mostly we Rhode islanders know that special interests and unionists are served before any considerations of attending to the needs of the unconnected, common citizen.
Understanding this inevitable reality, the outrageous 9.2 billion dollar budget was viewed as the normal ever-escalating, pro forma, run-of-the-mill misuse of our tax dollars. However, this year the Speaker of the House, Nicholas Mattiello (Wynken in this equation), crafted a six-year phase out of the car tax and passed it through his chamber. Apparently, as Mattiello himself reported with a wink, a hug and a handshake, he believed that his upper house counterpart, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, would be compliant and simply rubber-stamp the Speaker’s wishes.
Unreasonably, Dominick Ruggerio (Blynken is this formula), after apparently assuring the speaker of his agreement with the budget, blinked. The Senate president changed direction and demonstrated his newly found power and refused to endorse the budget, unless there was a kick-out clause in the car tax phase out plan in the event of an economic turndown.
Was Ruggerio’s motivation an ego-generated example of a man who has been in the senate for a thousand years and just been elevated to the coveted senate president position and therefore wanted to showcase his dominance? Or does the senate president have heartfelt reservations about the sustainability of the car tax phase out?
After years of experience with the former Senate President, Pavia-Weed, who relegated herself to being virtually ceremonial since she fell in line with most House requests, Mattiello was bowled over by Ruggerio’s resistance.
Constitutionally, the bulwark of legislative work falls in the purview of the House of Representatives, whereas the primary role of the State Senate is to advise and consent. But legislation must move through both chambers and then be signed into law by the governor (Nod in this scenario).
If there was ever a time for intercession by the chief executive, it is now. Governor Raimondo should be sitting down with both Mattiello and Rugggerio, preferably over three glasses of something expensive and brown, and hash out the differences between the two.
First of all, the car tax phase out itself is only a bone of contention because it was born out of a political reality. In Speaker Mattiello’s home district in Cranston, he was mightily challenged last election cycle and was in danger of losing his seat until he cleaved on to the car tax elimination issue.
Finding a way to curry favor with the electorate, which arguably won him the election by a handful of votes, he imperatively must turn his promise into law. This is why Ruggerio’s surprise 180-degree turn shocked the speaker to his political core. Mattiello cannot concede the issue and renege on his assurances alas he would appear weak and foolish.
Similarly, since Ruggerio has thrown down the gauntlet and asserted his senatorial power, if no concessions are offered on the speaker’s part he would also appear diminished.
In accordance to the law, the state will continue to operate under the current budget parameters. Yet while this budget impasse purgatory continues, certain aspects are problematic. First of which, every month of the status quo Rhode Island loses $2.5 million in potential new revenue. Elements like the loss of the increase of the cigarette tax, the loss of internet tax revenue, increase in fines and penalties issued by the Department of Labor and Training in regard to employer violations, and a new sales tax on vehicle document fees are all in limbo until a new budget is signed.
Along with serious revenue-related issues are Raimondo’s pet projects, like another raise in the minimum wage. A raise from $9.60 per hour to $10.10 per hour is stalled due to the budget limbo. Also, the governor’s now well watered down free college tuition program is also on hold. One might speculate that these often crowed about proposals would be impetus enough for the governor to sit in a room with Mattiello and Ruggerio and see what could be bargained. The public relations governor should be alarmed at how a malingering budget impasse might affect her future talking points on these issues.
Conflicting public statements by Wynken and Blynken have abounded in this banal battle. Foremost is the characterization of a deal in place. Mattiello has said that there was an agreement sealed with a hug and a handshake. In response Ruggerio said, “There was no handshake.” Matteillo stated, “When I shake someone’s hand, I expect that what we agreed to will be honored,” and, “You end up with breakdowns when you can’t rely on a handshake. That handshake is the most important sacred honor that we hold, and I am not going to characterize, but I am troubled when I can’t rely on that handshake.” In other words, no “take-backs” Blynken!
Furthermore, Mattiello supported his argument: “The budget deal we passed was responsible. It was balanced, had car tax relief for all citizens that own a car, a minimum wage hike, and continued to focus on improvements to our business climate. The senate president gave me his word that he supported the budget.” In other words, “liar, liar pants on fire, Blynken.”
Senate President Ruggerio stated his case on the matter. “We agreed on some bills which didn’t come to fruition, but we never discussed my support of the budget. He knew how I felt. He knew I was concerned about sustainability and I mentioned it on numerous occasions.” In other words, “Wynken, you are not the boss of me.”
Collaterally, 27 of the state’s municipalities were holding off on issuing some tax bills, while seven are mailing out under the current undiscounted rate not knowing whether car taxes will indeed be modified. Meanwhile, school districts are unsure how much money they will have to contend with since the 45 million in education aid to cities and towns are stuck in that budget purgatory. This amounts to approximately 5.2 percent less in anticipated spendable revenue. Unless resolved, school districts will be facing a balancing act of cuts at least in the short term.
Wavering on the edge of the financial ledge already, the City of Providence will be further jeopardized by the state budget purgatory. Mayor Jorge Elorza stated his dismay, “If the budget impasse is not resolved within the next few weeks, the impact will be devastating to cities and towns. Providence stands to lose over $10 million in our schools alone, and this deficit can only be closed by massive layoffs. Cool heads have to prevail and a budget has to be passed as soon as possible to prevent layoffs and cuts as we head into the next school year.”
Yes mayor, cool heads have to prevail and mature heads have to prevail, more importantly. Standing ones ground on a matter that is transient anyway is a foolish argument. Ruggerio’s “kick-out clause” or “trigger” requirement is indeed essentially irrelevant. Down the line, if anticipated revenue lessens, then a reversal in the car tax phase out will occur anyway during the normal budget process, just as it has in the past.
So Blynken, stop blinking and go back to your original informal agreement with Wynken. As for Wynken, so you were lied to. You are a lawyer and a politician. Certainly, you have heard falsehoods before. Get over it.
As for Nod, please stop spending all your time on projecting a political personality and sit down with Wynken and Blynken and work this out to the benefit of us all.
Wynken, Blynken and Nod should resolve their petty differences before they put us all to sleep.