PROVIDENCE – It was 3:41 a.m. on Friday when House Speaker Gordon Fox brought down the gavel on the 2013 budget debate, sending the document across the Rotunda to the Senate. Twenty-four hours later, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel DaPonte of East Providence raised his gavel to open the panel’s hearing on the budget.
Compared to the 11-hour-plus marathon the night before, the Senate committee wrapped up its deliberations in little over an hour and now the full Senate will take up the measure Monday. If it passes there, the budget will go to Gov. Lincoln Chafee for his signature or veto.
The budget made it through the House largely the same way it emerged from the House Finance Committee a week earlier, with only a few relatively minor tweaks approved by finance chairman Helio Melo and House leaders. Scores of attempts to amend the budget – to, among other things, an increased income tax on the wealthiest Rhode Islanders, or to use some of the leadership’s coveted legislative grant program to avoid a new tax on taxi rides – were dashed against the rocks of the solid Democratic majority in the House and drowned by lopsided votes.
The $8.1 billion budget expands the state’s 7 percent sales tax to an array of new services, including taxicab and limousine rides, charter bus services, clothing costing more than $250 per item,dog grooming and other pet services (but not veterinary or laboratory fees). It also kicks up the cigarette tax by four cents per pack, from $3.46 to $3.50. It also taxes packs of “little cigars” as cigarettes, put forward as a way to deter young people from smoking them.
Car washes were saved at the last minute from the 7 percent levy, on the theory that they are more environment-friendly because they re-use their water and are therefore preferable to individuals send soapy water down their driveways and into storm drains. Even more dramatically, the tax on package tours and sightseeing services, assessed just last year, was repealed. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, whose home district of Newport relies heavily on tourists using those services, was instrumental in getting rid of that tax.
Central Falls police and fire department retirees, who bore the brunt of their city’s collapse into bankruptcy got their first official good news in a long time when the House passed the budget article allocating $2.6 million that will go toward restoring their pensions – which had been axed by as much as 55 percent – to 75 percent of what they were receiving before the bankruptcy. That money will only last for five years, however, at which point the post-bankruptcy cuts will be restored if no further action is taken. It is part of a settlement that warded off a court battle from the retirees on the city’s plan to emerge from bankruptcy.
Central Falls Rep. Agostinho Silva thanked his colleagues shortly after the vote, telling them, “this ends a dark chapter in our lives.”
In a written statement issued on Friday, Silva added, “A lot of hours went into crafting this settlement and reaching a compromise that everyone could agree on. There have been countless meetings with the governor’s office, the receiver and my constituents. But I can finally say that we are in a place where we are poised to move past our struggle with receivership. Central Falls is entering a new transition, and this funding is a part of it. If the Senate approves this budget, the $2.6 million in funding is going to quicken that transition, enabling the people of Central Falls to put this all behind them much faster.”
The new budget would also change the way education is administered in the state from kindergarten through college. It would abolish the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education, as well as the Board of Governors for Higher Education and would replace them with an 11-member Rhode Island Board of Education appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. A plan to place a chancellor at the head of that body was scrapped before the budget came to the House floor on Thursday.
It would also create an Executive Committee of Education, comprising the presidents of URI, RIC and CCRI, and the commissioner of elementary and secondary education to advise the board.