Scott MacKay Commentary: RI Statehouse Pols Forget To Put Public First

Jul 7, 2017

Rhode Island is now a week into a new fiscal year without an approved budget. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says the longer this goes on, the worse lawmakers look. 


Reporters call Rhode Island politics the gift that keeps on giving. Why? Just look at the Statehouse.

The ornate House and Senate chambers have been empty since a blow-up last Friday between the House and Senate leadership led to an abrupt end to the 2017 General Assembly, leaving the state without a new budget.

There were a few other issues left in limbo.  Most prominent were measures that would grant paid sick time to private sector workers who don’t have that benefit and limiting access to guns for those found to be domestic abusers.  But compromises between the chambers on those topics were in the works. Neither appeared weighty enough to cause a fissure so deep that it would crash a legislative session.

As is the case with every budget, there were divisive issues in this year’s $9.2 billion package of taxes and spending. House Speaker Nick Mattiello made it clear from the outset that his top priority was a phase-out of the unpopular car tax. Gov. Gina Raimondo wanted a free tuition plan for the state’s three public  colleges—the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island.

But this precariously balanced package was moving through the Statehouse sausage grinder and on the road to approval. Raimondo’s tuition plan had been sliced down to including just CCRI. Mattiello’s car tax phase out was on a glide path to repeal over six years. The Senate Finance Committee approved the budget without any amendments. A tortuous debate over a taxpayer subsidy to build a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox had been stalled until the fall. A potentially disruptive joust over legalizing recreational marijuana was shuttled off into to a study committee.

Then on the cusp of budget approval and adjournment, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio insisted on an amendment aimed  at the core Mattiello’s car tax plan. The amendment would have suspended the phase out if state revenues fell short, or if another recession hit.  

A furious Mattiello adjourned the House, in essence taking his football and team home. Since, there have been fingers of blame pointed by both sides and talk radio slings, but no meetings between Mattiello and Ruggerio.  Raimondo has urged the two sides to make peace, but has studiously, and wisely, refused to choose sides.

Rancor isn’t unusual in the deeply personal orbit of politics in tribal states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Sports, politics and revenge, not necessarily in that order, have long been the Holy Grail of Smith Hill and Beacon Hill.

Overtime legislative sessions aren’t anything new. In 1971, the Assembly went until July 22, a record. That was the year lawmakers approved an income tax - for the first time in the state’s history. During the credit union crisis of the early 1990s, extra innings were common as lawmakers grappled with complex questions, such as how to liquidate financial institutions and put millions of dollars back into the hands of depositors.

The remarkable aspect of the current mess is that nothing big is at stake between the House and Senate. The amendment the Senate tacked onto the car tax doesn’t mean much, because one Assembly can’t bind future Assemblies. That means the phase-out can be adjusted at any time in the future. So what’s the point of a fight on this?

In recent days, journalists, pundits and pols have all tried to come up with logical theories concerning what happened. So far, none of them have passed the laugh test. One rumor even has people close to Ruggerio overhearing Mattiello allies dissing the Senate leader over drinks at a Providence tavern.

Which brings us to an unassailable conclusion: Once again the Statehouse  crowd has put its own internal hissing matches, petty rivalries and revenge ahead of the public interest. And they wonder why voters are skeptical  of Rhode Island politicians?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org