On a 59-to-13 party line vote, the House of Representatives on Wednesday approved an $8.9 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
With just 12 Republicans among 75 state reps (and an independent who caucuses with them), the GOP had little realistic chance of making changes in the spending plan.
Yet with an eye to November elections and their philosophical split with House Democrats, Republican lawmakers pressed a series of amendments aimed at cutting state spending or instilling larger tax increases.
One example was a move by Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) to resume the phaseout of the state car tax, starting with an initial increase in the exemption from $500 to $1,500. She said the money to pay for the cost could be found in other parts of state government.
The GOP opposition marked a change from last year, when the budget enjoyed unanimous Republican support, and in an unusual move, passed while there was still daylight.
"It helps the poor, it helps the rich," House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) said of the spending plan. "It does not really help the vast majority of our constituents. It doesn’t hurt them – and I give credit where it’s due. But it doesn’t help them enough and that’s why I will not be able to support this budget."
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello responded by characterizing the proposed GOP spending cuts as unrealistic. The car tax amendment was defeated 14-to-57.
Mattiello repeated his mantra that the latest state spending plan is pro-business and pro-taxpayer. He pointed to cuts in state beach fees, reductions in the state corporate minimum tax, the state unemployment insurance tax, and a new exemption on the first $15,000 of pension income for income-eligible retirees.
The budget restored some earlier cuts, including $200,000 to the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, and some positions at the state Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner, while cutting $300,000 to the John Hope Settlement House, amid questions about its bookkeeping.
"I am grateful to the House for their partnership to pass this jobs plan," Governor Gina Raimondo said in a statement. "We are investing in our students, empowering our teachers, making it easier to do business, and building on our momentum to create high-wage, high-skill jobs in Rhode Island."
Among other measures, the budget freezes tuition at state colleges and tweaks an incentive meant to spur development in the I-195 District.
The biggest late-minute surprise in the budget was the inclusion on the November ballot of a question seeking $20 million to make infrastructure improvements at ProvPort.
Critics like Rep. Dan Reilly (R-Portsmouth) questioned why taxpayers should be on the hook for a facility that is not state owned. Supporters say the improvements would spark jobs, and Mattiello said the inclusion of the question was requested by the state Commerce Corporation.
The ghost of 38 Studios continued to reappear during legislate debate. Morgan called for taking $750,000 from the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority to pay for an independent probe of the failed video-game maker, but her amendment was easily defeated.
The Senate Finance Committee is expected to take up the budget Thursday afternoon.