The House of Representatives today voted 59 -13 to approve an $8.94 billion 2017 state budget bill that includes no broad-based tax increases, provides tax relief to retirees, enhances the state’s economic development tools, fully funds education, significantly scales back a proposal to tax medical marijuana and rolls back parking fees at state beaches to 2011 levels.
The bill will now be sent to the Senate, where a hearing and vote by the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled tomorrow at 4 p.m. The full Senate is likely to take up the measure Friday.
“I’m very proud of this budget. There are no new taxes or fees for the general public. In fact, we’ve eliminated those that were proposed, reduced fees and provided tax relief for seniors, low-income earners and small businesses while maintaining our commitments to economic development and education. It’s a pro-business, pro-jobs, pro-economy and pro-citizens budget, one that is the result of many, many hours of listening, thoughtful negotiating and consideration. I believe the citizens of our state will be happy with this budget,” said House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello.
Said House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin L. Abney (D-Dist. 73, Newport), “I believe this budget reflects what the people of Rhode Island have been asking for for a long time. We listened to many Rhode Islanders, and they want us to concentrate on encouraging job growth, rebuilding the economy and providing tax relief.”
The bill (2016-H 7454A) includes an initiative added by the House Finance Committee last week to provide a state income tax exemption to all retirees who have reached the full Social Security retirement age beginning in the 2017 tax year as a means to provide tax relief to seniors living on fixed incomes. The program would exempt the first $15,000 of income from state income taxes for retirees earning up to $80,000 as single tax filers, or up to $100,000 for joint filers. Last year in the 2016 budget bill, the General Assembly exempted all Social Security benefits from state income tax for those under the same income limits. This year’s initiative applies to other types of retirement income, including public and private pensions. The move would benefit over 60,000 taxpayers and provides $14 million of annual tax relief.
The House declined to include the governor’s proposal to increase the cigarette tax from $3.75 per pack to $4. It also significantly reduced fees associated with a proposal included in her budget proposal to require “tags” on medical marijuana plants grown by patients or caregivers. While the House maintained her goal of more closely regulating medical marijuana and assisting law enforcement efforts, it reduced the proposed tag fees from $150 each for patients growing their own plants or $350 for caregivers to a maximum of $25 for either. Those currently eligible for reduced license fees because of Medicaid eligibility or a disability would not pay any fee. That price is expected to cover only the cost of regulating the system, rather than raising revenue for other state spending, House leaders said.
The House concurred with Gov. Gina Raimondo’s plan to increase the earned income tax credit to 15 percent of the federal credit, after raising it from 10 percent to 12.5 percent in 2016. The change will affect 83,000 tax payers earning $50,000 or less, allowing them to keep more of what they earn, and helping Rhode Island businesses who benefit from the increased spending power of those consumers.
The House restored the Medicaid COLA for nursing homes, which was frozen under the governor’s budget proposal, with 85 percent of the $7.8 million increase earmarked for raising the wages of direct care workers in nursing facilities. Front-line workers who care for the developmentally disabled or deliver critical home care services would also benefit from the $13.3 million in the budget directed to increase their compensation. In total, the budget allocates $15.4 million more for services provided to those with developmental disabilities than the budget enacted last year.
Just in time for beach season, the House slashed parking fees at state beaches — mostly in half — to better enable Rhode Islanders and visitors to enjoy one of the state’s greatest treasures. The cuts, effective July 1, eliminate hikes made in 2011, and apply to all types of passes: single-day weekend and weekday as well as season passes for residents, nonresidents and senior citizens. (Admission to state beaches themselves is free.) Those who have already purchased season passes will be eligible for a credit for the difference.
The House also added a further reduction in the state’s minimum corporate tax to help small businesses. Legislators reduced it from $500 to $450 in last year’s budget bill. The committee approved a further reduction to $400.
To help businesses of all sizes, the House concurred with Governor Raimondo’s proposal to restructure the unemployment insurance taxes paid by employers, saving them an estimated $30 million. The changes to the program, which took in $113 million more than it paid out last year, would cut the average cost per worker from $708 to $631 without changing benefits or eligibility, while maintaining the trust fund’s long-term solvency goals.
The House continued commitments made last year to economic development initiatives, enhancing several, including additional funding for the Rebuild Rhode Island tax credit to cover financing gaps for business development or expansion projects, adding $7 million for the First Wave Closing Fund ($2 million more than the governor’s proposal), and creating a new Air Service Development Program to encourage more direct flight between T.F. Green Airport and major metropolitan areas.
The House left intact most of the bond questions proposed by the governor, with some reductions in amounts to be borrowed based on the identification of other sources of funds, and some additions. The bill would place five bond referendums on the November ballot: $70 million for rebuilding port infrastructure, including $50 million for piers at Quonset Point and $20 million added as an amendment today for an expansion to ProvPort; $45.5 million for higher education projects; up to $50 million for affordable housing (with $10 million added by the committee to go toward blight remediation), $35 million for environmental and health initiatives and $27 million for the state Veterans’ Home.
The higher education bond includes $20 million to help develop an “innovation center” connected with the University of Rhode Island to encourage innovation and job creation by connecting the state’s businesses, medical facilities and universities so they can collaborate on new ventures.
The House did not include the governor’s proposal to borrow $40 million for additional school construction, instead opting to include $80 million for new and ongoing construction commitments within the budget without additional borrowing until a recently begun professional assessment of statewide school construction needs has concluded.
The budget approved by the House fully funds the sixth year of the 10-year phase-in of the state education funding formula, increasing that aid by a total of $49.3 million. In response to an issue identified by a panel that studied the formula earlier this year, the committee included a one-year pilot program to send more funding to schools with high numbers of English language learners, although House leaders suggested that the funding formula should be tweaked to create a permanent fix in future years.
The House also included a measure to address another question of school funding equity: local districts’ payments to charter schools their students attend. The House moderated the governor’s proposal somewhat, allowing districts to reduce payments by the greater of 7 percent of their local per-pupil spending or the difference between their unique costs and those of the charter schools, whichever is greater. The change results in $1 million more for charters than the governor’s original proposal. The House also provided some temporary relief for districts with particularly high concentrations of students attending charter or state schools, and added a protection for teachers at “empowerment schools,” preventing them from being fired or laid off solely as a result of the school becoming an empowerment school.
The House concurred with the governor’s proposed tuition freeze at the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island, as well as her proposal to allow Rhode Island students to take the SAT and the PSAT for free and during the school day.
The House added funding for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority to avoid the need for fare increases through the end of 2016.
Through an amendment added today, the House restored $300,000 to the office of the Health Insurance Commissioner to maintain partial funding for employees who oversee insurance regulation oversight.
The House restored tourism promotion funds to the state’s regional tourism districts at their 2015 level for one year, so they can promote the state’s tourism resources while the Commerce Corporation reorganizes its statewide tourism promotion campaign.
The House added a measure to clarify state law regarding transportation network companies, such as Uber, to ensure that they are subject to state sales tax, just as taxis are.
The budget approved by the House eliminates the Community Service Grant program in favor of two transparent methods of funding community organizations: itemized budget appropriations and competitive programs, both administered by state agencies. The total of the two programs is about $6 million, down from more than $11 million in the current year’s budget.
Speaker Mattiello praised Chairman Abney’s hard work on the budget. Chairman Abney was appointed chairman only a month ago in the thick of budget negotiations, and the speaker said he was very proud of the strong leadership and determination Chairman Abney demonstrated in bringing the budget to this point.