Photo by Morgan Macia

The Rhode Island House of Representatives voted 59-6 today to approve a pared down state budget for the 2021 fiscal year that restores funding to cities and towns, uses federal coronavirus relief funds to aid struggling Rhode Islanders and does not raise taxes or fees.

While it does include seven bond referendums that will be put before voters in a special election, the plan does not initiate any new programs, and is intended only to formally establish state spending for the fiscal year that began July 1, memorialize the planned use of $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds which are coming up on a Dec. 30 deadline for use, stay current on obligations and prevent current programs from expiring.

“This budget is about making sure we take full advantage of the federal funding available to help take care of Rhode Islanders and get us through this pandemic. We are just a few weeks away from the start of a new session in January, and at that time we look forward to a full discussion of new policies and ideas,” said House Speaker-elect K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick) in a statement. “For now, we need to hold the line and fully support our schools, our cities and towns, and our existing efforts to help the people of Rhode Island, and I’m proud of the way we have come together to do exactly that within the resources we have. With this budget in place, we will be able to turn our focus to the future, to economic recovery as the vaccine rolls out, and to helping provide resources as well as hope to the people of Rhode Island in 2021.”

Said House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin L. Abney (D-Dist. 73, Newport) in a statement, “Like so many aspects of our daily lives in 2020, this year’s budget is different than years past, but it differs out of necessity and with the goal to support the state and its residents as best as possible during these trying and uncertain times. This ‘skinny budget’ will keep our crucial services and supports running, it will provide much-needed relief to our cities and towns, and most importantly, it will help our struggling families and small businesses during the pandemic. We are going to have plenty of challenges to confront in next year’s budget, so I am thankful we were able to put together a document this year that continues to serve the people of Rhode Island without raising taxes or cutting crucial services to our residents.”

The plan (2020-H 7171A) restores cuts that had been proposed by the governor, and in some cases temporarily instituted, to municipal aid including distressed communities and car tax reimbursements, provider rates and social programs. The bill fully funds state aid to education according to the state education formula. The committee was also able to avoid proposed fee increases at the Veterans Home.

That means that in addition to maintaining current law local aid commitments, an additional $25 million in relief will be heading to cities and towns, and an additional $40 million to school districts through the funding formula and ensuring that $80 million was not put in jeopardy by not enacting a new budget.
The restoration of those cuts – and bridging a $275 million budget gap that was estimated to be as high as $900 million in June – was made possible largely through full and creative use the federal coronavirus relief funding, revenue collections that turned out to be better than they looked earlier in the year, and lower-than-expected caseload costs.

With the federal funding, the budget provides significant assistance to Rhode Islanders who are facing increased economic hardship this year. The budget more than triples support for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank to $800,000; and includes extra payments to families enrolled in RIWorks; increased housing, rental and eviction relief assistance; and extra payments to those who are affected by the current “pause” instituted to contain the spread of the virus. Lawmakers were able to restore grants to the business incubator Urban Ventures and the Boys and Girls Club, both of which had faced elimination.

Federal Coronavirus Relief Funds were able to be used for Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and University of Rhode Island to help them with pandemic-related budget gaps.

The bill continues the Rhode Island Promise program for one more class of students.

The bill provides a six-month extension on a number of RI Commerce programs that were set to expire. Legislative leaders expect to debate longer extensions of these programs in the FY 2022 budget.

The bill includes no cuts to state agencies that would result in staff layoffs at this time, although it does not preclude layoffs the state colleges and URI may make.

The proposal includes $400 million in bonds in seven ballot questions that will be put before voters in a special election March 2, to be conducted much like June’s presidential primary, with mail ballots encouraged but also polling places available in every community.

The bond questions include:

  • Question 1 — $107.3 million for higher education, including $57.3 million for a fine arts center at URI, $38 million for the Clarke Science Building at RIC and $12 million to renovate CCRI’s campuses.
  • Question 2 — $74 million for environment and recreational projects, a total of $10 million over the governor’s original proposal.
    • $4 million for local recreation projects
    • $3 million for natural and working lands
    • $15 million for clean and drinking water
    • $7 million for municipal resiliency projects
    • $33 million for state beaches, parks and campgrounds
    • $4 million for the proposed park on the former I-195 land in Providence
    • $6 million for Providence River dredging (included in the 2018 green bond, but funding proved insufficient)
    • $2 million for the Woonasquatucket Greenway
  • Question 3 — $65 million for affordable housing, an increase of $40 million over the original proposal, included in the amendment offered by the governor in July.
  • Question 4 — $71.7 million for transportation initiatives
  • Question 5 — $15 million for early childhood care and the educational capital fund
  • Question 6 — $7 million for arts and cultural infrastructure, including $6 million for the cultural arts and economy grant program, and $1 million for the state preservation grants program.
  • Question 7 — $60 million for commerce infrastructure, including $20 million for the Port of Davisville at Quonset and $40 million for industrial site development.

While the Assembly usually passes the state budget in June, lawmakers put off this year’s budget while awaiting word from Congress about final federal funding levels. Without additional federal aid next year, House leaders said they expect to face extremely difficult challenges creating the FY 2022 budget in the coming session.

Including the federal coronavirus funding, the budget totals $12.75 billion.

The budget now goes to the Rhode Island Senate for consideration.