PROVIDENCE, R.I. – With the General Assembly starting its new session Tuesday, the legislature's most powerful committee - the House Finance Committee - is about to go through a drastic makeover. The committee faces a steep learning curve just as the state approaches a gaping budget deficit for the next fiscal year.
The most recent chairman of the House Finance Committee, Steven Costantino, used to keep a photo in his State House office showing him with his head in his hands. That same head-in-hands frustration is familiar to former state rep Tony Pires, because he led House Finance for nine years, starting in 1992.
"I knew that feeling impeccably," Pires says. "It is something that changes you. You know, I think if it's looked at in the right way, it just humbles you in terms of the enormity of the responsibility."
That responsibility is now even more enormous since Rhode Island faces an almost $300 million deficit for the fiscal year starting July 1. That would make for a challenging situation under normal circumstances. But these aren't normal times.
"I wouldn't be telling the truth if I didn't say I was concerned," says House Speaker Gordon Fox.
Fox is especially anxious because of a looming double whammy: The first part is that almost $300 million deficit, most of it caused by the loss of $240 million in federal stimulus money. The second part is that the House Finance Committee is going through its greatest turnover in a generation.
Half its 16 members are no longer in office, most of them lost their re-election bids. The knowledgeable former chairman Steven Costantino, lost his run for mayor of Providence and has since landed a job in the Chafee administration.
Speaker Fox says the evaporation of all this institutional memory will take a toll.
"A lot of the work is based about experience and knowing where you're going from where you came," he says, "so we've lost a lot of experience on that committee."
The House Finance Committee plays a vital role since it's the first place where the state budget lands after being proposed by the governor during the third week in January. Gary Sasse is a former state revenue director for Governor Don Carcieri.
"The House Finance Committee is responsible to vet the budget, and effectively, the House Finance Committee serves as a check and balance on the governor," Sasse says, "because not only do they enact the budget, but they're also responsible for monitoring its implementation."
And for now, it hasn't been established just who Speaker Fox will pick to lead House Finance in the new session. Three reps have expressed interest in chairing House Finance, including John DeSimone of Providence and Raymond Gallison of Bristol.
But in a signal that he's the frontrunner, House Finance vice chairman Helio Melo used former chairman Costantino's emptied-out State House office for a recent interview. A crate for one of Melo's dogs sat unoccupied in a corner. Like Fox, Melo declines to offer specifics on how the state might come to terms with the looming deficit.
"I do believe there will be challenges," Melo says, "but everyone working together, we'll make it through."
One bright spot is how House Finance's permanent advisory staff gets high marks from observers like former state revenue director Gary Sasse.
The Finance Committee does its work in Room 35 in the State House basement. At the front of the long room, the committee members sit arrayed behind a raised panel of chairs arranged like a half-circle. There are rows of chairs facing the panel for the audience of business people, union officials, and municipal leaders, and other lobbyists who attend committee meetings.
In the run-up to the new legislative session, Room 35 remained desolate. But it won't be long before the committee room is full of sharp debate as House Finance begins to wrestle with the task of resolving Rhode Island's latest budget deficit.
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