OP-ED

RI's budget signals the end of legislative session is near

Posted 6/23/21

The $13.1 billion budget quickly passed last week by Rhode Island's House Finance Committee reflects the consensus-building approach of Speaker Joe Shekarchi. The spending plan continues the aversion of previous state leaders to broad-based tax

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OP-ED

RI's budget signals the end of legislative session is near

Posted

The $13.1 billion budget quickly passed last week by Rhode Island’s House Finance Committee reflects the consensus-building approach of Speaker Joe Shekarchi.

The spending plan continues the aversion of previous state leaders to broad-based tax increases. At the same time, the budget, thanks to previous rounds of federal stimulus money, includes almost $2 billion more in spending than what Gov. Dan McKee proposed in March. It also seeds new efforts to promote affordable housing and to reduce homelessness.

The budget comes amid an unusual situation: Rhode Island is awash in higher than expected revenue. Add to that pending decisions on how to spend more than $1 billion in additional stimulus money; an emerging consensus suggests this money should go for investments to bolster economic growth.

But Rhode Island’s structural deficit – in which escalating costs outstrip revenue – has been a constant for years. As a result, a fresh deficit dawns every January for legislative consideration, hindering the state’s ability to pursue long-term planning.

In short, Rhode Island’s fiscal outlook is considerably brighter than it was a year ago, but there’s still a long way to go.

Housing on the agenda

During his budget briefing, Speaker Shekarchi called housing an important economic development issue for the state.

“If you can’t find enough quality affordable housing for your workforce,” he said, “companies won’t move here, so this is a serious problem.”

The response in the budget includes creating a housing czar in the Commerce Department and steering some of the conveyance tax money from home sales of greater than $800,000 to encourage construction of affordable housing. At the same time, Shekarchi acknowledged structural barriers, including how many communities don’t want more families with school-age children to stress their municipal resources.

“Everyone wants housing, but no one wants in their backyard,” the speaker said. He said the state should try to incentivize change, but he also held open the possible future use of sticks – restricting aid to a community, for example – if it exhibits what he called “a silent prejudice against affordable housing.”

The fight over education in Providence

The push and pull of trying to improve public education: Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green shared an upbeat assessment with a state Senate committee last week on the takeover of the Providence schools. She said progress is being made across a variety of fronts after decades of neglect. The tone shifted later in the meeting of the Senate’s Committee on Rules, Government Ethics and Oversight, when Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro and some of her peers accused Infante-Green of hurting morale and not working collaboratively with teachers.

Got GOP candidates for governor?

GOP House Whip Mike Chippendale (R-Foster) said he’s not certain if Gov. Dan McKee’s incumbency is discouraging prospective Republican gubernatorial candidates from emerging for 2022.

During an appearance on Political Roundtable, Chippendale said the scant presence of Republicans in elected office in the state makes it harder to see first-time candidates coming: “And that’s when you see a town administrator or a Lincoln Almond-type of a candidate or Don Caricieri – who comes out of the business sector; he comes almost out of nowhere and runs. That almost inevitably will happen. I don’t know particularly who at this point is considering this seriously as a Republican, but I am certain that there will be folks and I suspect there will some good folks who are interested.”

The loyal opposition

Rep. Chippendale on the future of the RI GOP: “As long as I’ve been involved, it seems as if the GOP is always working on rebuilding. We are a small party in a state where it’s overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats.”

At the same time, he said, “I think people are voting less with a party affiliation and more with an ideological affiliation whether it’s fiscal conservatism or social liberalism … It is tough to be a Republican in Rhode Island, to say, ‘I’m a Republican.’ That opens up a door for all sorts of remarks, comments, et cetera. So certain folks just don’t want to [identify as a Republican] and stay unaffiliated [instead]. I get it, I respect it … I don’t think it’s an impediment going forward.”

Chippendale said the key for Republicans is outflanking the ingrained messaging of Democrats in the state.

A new approach on homelessness

During a House budget debate in 2019, Rep. Liana Cassar (D-Barrington) made an impassioned argument in support of a program meant to reduce homelessness. She said it required a relatively small state investment and would save the money by reducing demand for public services. This was when Nicholas Mattiello was speaker, and the majority of Democrats aligned with Mattiello was unwilling to go along with the initiative.

Flash forward two years: Now, with Joe Shekarchi as speaker, the budget passed by House Finance includes $6 million over five years to seed the program known as Pay For Success. According to the Urban Institute, “PFS ensures that the government pays only for programs that improve social outcomes. Additionally, PFS can help advance evidence-based policymaking and strategic thinking more broadly within government systems.”

Violet says CRT critics have it wrong

Controversies over schools teaching critical race theory (defined differently by different people) have flared in a handful of local communities.

Arlene Violet writes that the opposition to teaching overlooked elements of American history is misplaced: “Certainly, one race or sex is not superior to another. To ignore systemic oppression and its impact on the past and present policies, however, is to put one’s head into the sand. I was struck by the fact that even recently, most white Americans were unaware of the Tulsa Race Massacre of June 1, 1921, when mobs of white residents attacked black residents and destroyed homes and businesses in the Greenwood district in Tulsa. Thirty-five plus square blocks of the neighborhood – at the time the wealthiest black community in the United States, known as ‘Black Wall Street’ – was decimated, with up to 300 people dead. Ten thousand black people were left homeless and property damage of black businesses and homes was an estimated at $1.5 million in 1921 dollars. It is precisely the omission of this kind of event in local, state, and national histories that establishes the need to examine systemic problems.”

Looking for new leaders

The Rhode Island Foundation is looking for applicants for its new Equity Leadership Initiative. (The deadline is July 12.) The goal of the program is to create a pipeline of leaders of color in different fields across the state.

Via news release: “Applicants must be residents of Rhode Island who identify as Asian, Black, Hispanic or Latino, Indigenous, or multiracial. They must currently be engaged in work in the public, private or nonprofit sector. Applicants must also have a demonstrated track record of, and commitment to, racial equity and social justice. The 12-month leadership development initiative is scheduled to begin in September, those interested in applying must be able to participate in monthly leadership and program activities. Up to 20 applicants will be invited to participate in the inaugural ELI cohort. There is no cost to apply or participate.”

Taxing matters

While progressives discount the idea that higher taxes would lead more people to leave Rhode Island, top state officials remain reluctant to raise the state income tax.

By way of explanation, Speaker Shekarchi said, “I just don’t want to drive people out of Rhode Island and businesses. I mean, I talked to a business in northern Rhode Island. I mean, they were very, very concerned with the so-called tax the rich, and it was a big, large insurance company and he’s like, I’m two miles or three miles from the Massachusetts border.”

Watch for progressive groups to continue to try to boost their legislative presence to change the equation on tax policy.

You can follow Ian Donnis on Twitter @IanDon. For a longer version of this column, visit www.thepublicsradio.org.

politics, Donnis

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