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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Let the new legislature, not the lame ducks deal with RI budget

The 'lame duck' special session

If we’re going to wait until November for the 2021 budget, we might as well wait until January

By Steve Ahlquist 

There is no guarantee, come January, that the leadership of the Rhode Island State House will be anything like the way it is currently configured. 

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio may have successfully defended his senate seat, but he demonstrated weakness, outspending his virtually unknown opponent to the tune of 28-1 and barely scoring 60% of the vote. There are already rumblings that he will soon be one senator among many, instead of senate president come January.

Speaker Nicholas Mattiello had no opponent and he received a mere 819 votes in the primary. Mattiello’s Republican opponent, Barbara Ann Fenton Fung, garnered 1086 votes in her unchallenged primary bid. 

Mind you, Democrats and Republicans were both incentivized to vote in the primary because each party had a hotly contested campaign for Cranston Mayor. So Fung getting 267 votes more than Mattiello may be significant and predictive. Mattiello won his last two races by slim margins against a Republican challenger with much less appeal than Fenton Fung, who is the spouse of the very popular Mayor Allan Fung.

And even if Mattiello wins re-election, his leadership of the House is not guaranteed.

So the coming General Assembly might look very different. New leadership may well be responding to the challenges that Covid and the economic crisis are bringing to bear in very different ways than what’s happening now. 

So it’s with a grain of salt that I read a joint statement from Ruggerio, Mattiello and Governor Gina Raimondo that they want to wait until after the November elections before they begin any deliberations on the budget.

“As we await direction from Washington regarding additional relief for states, Rhode Island’s FY21 budget picture remains uncertain. COVID-19 has caused significant damage to our national and local economies, and it is critical we have a full understanding of the funding available to the State,” say Ruggerio, Mattiello and Raimondo. 

“Likewise, the placement of bond issues on the ballot is directly linked to the overall budget plan. Given these considerations, we look forward to holding a special session in November to consider the FY21 budget, as well as a special election shortly thereafter to vote on this year’s bond initiatives.”

Because of our state leaders, voters will be unable to vote on important bonds in November, bonds that would have injected needed stimulus money into Rhode Island’s economy to fund infrastructure, green economy, education and more. 

Interest rates are at record lows and can only go up as the economy settles. A special election to consider these bonds in the spring is a new cost that the state could have avoided if our “leaders” had been actually, you know, leading.

In November, the only budget possible might be a rushed document from a lame duck General Assembly that in no way represents the present will of the people (If indeed the General Assembly ever did represent the people under the present leadership.)

If indeed we are going to wait until November for any action to take place, why not wait a little more? General Assembly Republicans issued a statement calling the plan to wait until November to begin discussions on the budget “an abdication by the Governor, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate of their basic responsibilities to the citizens of Rhode Island.” And they are correct.

Our leaders have shown us that they are not leaders at all, so we should not allow a budget of their creation to ruin our lives for the next year as they impose crippling austerity to protect their rich and connected friends and donors. Instead, let’s wait for the new leadership and elected legislators taking power in January. It’s in January, after all, when we’ll have a more clear idea about what a new Congress and perhaps a new President has in store for us in terms of federal bailouts.

We know that Rhode Island’s response to the last recession – brutal cuts to social programs and tax cuts for the rich – was not only cruel, it did not work, and delayed our recovery for four long extra years. It’s past time for new ideas. Our new General Assembly can approach the budget in January with fresh perspectives and deliver a budget that will not only protect the most vulnerable Rhode Islanders, but will also put the state on a path towards a robust recovery. 

Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade. 

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