It’s 3:38 am — do you know where your state budget is?

Jun 8, 2012

House Speaker Gordon Fox cut a comfortable figure on the rostrum last night as the chamber made its way through another mind-numbing 12-hour budget debate, adjourning shortly before 4 am with an $8.1 billion spending plan.

When Representative Daniel Gordon invoked Moses (“Let my people go!” Gordon said, in a protest of possible tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge, Fox had a game response. “Should I touch this?” Fox said to rippling laughter from the reps. ”Because, Representative Gordon, if you truly can channel Moses and you can part those seas, we don’t even need the bridges!”

This gift of gab and institutional comfort come from habit; Fox has been in the House for almost two decades, morphing from a liberal rep to a pragmatic insider, and he’s long since consolidated his hold on power.

But Fox was less sure-footed in talking about the meltdown of 38 Studios, which filed for bankruptcy yesterday. A few hours before the budget debate, he spoke with Sean Daly of WPRI-TV and myself outside his third-floor office:

Do I regret that there was a vibrant, thriving business that was there that looked like it was sustainable? I absolutely regret that suddenly and without warning, there’s, like, financial damnation and they’re out of business. I don’t know what happened down there.

Don’t know what happened down there?

Even Rhode Islanders with a passing interest in the news recognize that 38 Studios had a flawed business plan and burned through its cash. Fox was part of the small group, along with his friend, lawyer Mike Corso, and former EDC director Keith Stokes, that helped to put together the company’s $75 million state loan guarantee.

The fallout from this debacle will continue to settle for months to come, so perhaps it’s not unusual that someone close to the deal is talking in distanced generalities.

A few hours later, Fox was back in his comfort zone overseeing the House budget vote.

He free-styled some Shakespeare (“Cut me; Do I not bleed?” from Merchant of Venice). Fox repeatedly reminded reps in their seats that they had to vote. And he exploited the privilege of majority to procedurally quash a series of amendments. 

Shifting the levers of institutional power are far easier than moving Rhode Island past its decades-long struggle for a better economy. That partially explains why pols sometimes lunge for the supposed killer app (38 Studios). Fostering an investment-based approach to improving state infrastructure is painstaking and more complex.

by the time the budget passed early today, it was 3:38 am and the glazed looks of many lawmakers showed it was well past their bedtimes.

The close in the wee hours is an annual Statehouse rite – just like the closed door talks that shape the spending plan and the absence of time (about a week) that even the most curious legislators have to consider most of it. Some other details — like killing the state Office of Higher Education next year — popped up unexpectedly.

Just like last year, ruling Democrats can point to how they wiped out some of Governor Lincoln Chafee’s unpopular tax initiatives, particularly a two percentage point increase in the meal and beverage tax. They boosted local education aid and restored some of the previous cuts to services for the developmentally disabled.

Yet the House budget also includes more than $17 million in new taxes on things like cigarettes, pet grooming, taxi and limo rides, and clothing/footwear that costs more than $250. That’s a significant hike in a year with a $100 million surplus.

Republicans led the charge in decrying a missed opportunity to cut spending. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry said it was wrong to balance the budget in part on the backs of working stiffs:

We’re talking taxi cab drivers. These are working class people, many of them are immigrants. They work hard, they work at a dangerous job. They work lousy hours, they don’t make a lot of money, and we are going to tax them to the tune of $960,000?

Newberry said the lawmakers could make up the same amount by cutting into the $2.3 million budget for legislative grants. His amendment to make that change — like scores of others opposed by leadership — was soundly defeated.

By the time it was over, the lawmakers trudged out of the chamber, toward sleep and back to a state still seeking brighter days.