Scott MacKay Commentary: Speaker Mattiello Prevails in RI Budget

Jun 23, 2017

Sometimes it’s hard to figure who’s in charge at the Rhode Island Statehouse. This year isn’t one of those times, as RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay explains.

In case you were wondering who’s running things on Smith Hill these days, we bring you House Speaker Nick Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat who has ushered in a $9.2 billion state budget that includes his pet project, cutting Rhode Island’s  disdained car tax.

The politics of state budgets are often to referred to by reporters as "MEGO " stories, as in my-eyes-glaze-over. Yet, the old adage that you can judge a politician’s priorities by his or her budget proposals may be trite, but in this case it’s true.

At the beginning of the 2017 General Assembly session,  lines were drawn. Mattiello, fresh off a reelection campaign that he barely won, promised to begin phasing out the car tax. He said he heard complaints about this unfair levy as he knocked on doors in his western Cranston district, a conservative neighborhood that supported Donald Trump in the presidential election.

Then along came Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat who lives in one of the state’s more liberal districts on Providence’s East Side. Her marque initiative was a plan to grant free tuition to students attending the state’s three public colleges – The Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island.

Raimondo did her best to marshal support  for this, touting it to business and labor groups. The Democratic Governors Association spent nearly $500,000 on television spots urging support for the plan.

Then the House wrapped up the taxing and spending plan for the budget year that begins in July. Mattiello’s car tax initiative was included precisely as proposed. Raimondo’s education plan was gutted, with only a face-saving slice left – free tuition at CCRI.

Mattiello got this done despite his glaring lack of what in political patois is known as a “safe seat” that’s reliably Democratic. This is testament to his negotiating skill and the way in which he is able to balance the interests of a Democratic caucus that represents a wide spectrum of views, from East Side liberals to North Providence conservatives.

More remarkable was that the speaker was able to grind out $26 million for his car tax trim in a year when the budget was projected to be $100 million in the red. The way this was done wasn’t pretty, or particularly fiscally responsible. The end product relies on $25 million in phantom savings that Raimondo has to find in managing state spending.

Another trite truism: For all the debate every budget generates, lawmakers mostly focus on marginal items. More than 80 percent of every budget is locked up in education aid to cities and towns, Medicaid and other social services and the janitorial functions of  government, such as heating the buildings,  and paying state workers.

The Medicaid budget is more than $2 billion, but it's difficult to reduce, even though Raimondo has tried. The health care provider complex of hospitals, nursing homes and insurance companies are strong lobbies.

Not everyone is pleased with the budget.  It has been slammed  right and left. With liberal now a forbidden label, Democrats who call themselves progressives wanted a budget with a marginal tax increase for the wealthy. Republicans  complained that the budget –which GOP lawmakers voted against—hikes spending too much and contains too many accounting gimmicks.

It looks like Rhode Island has muddled through once again. Lawmakers will be back in six months, when tougher decisions will be confronted in an election year.   The biggest threat –the Obamacare repeal proposed by President Trump and congressional Republicans, which could cost our state $200 million in federal health care subsidies.

Rhode Islanders have long been skeptical of Smith Hill politicians. But if you think they're dysfunctional, take a look at what’s going in Washington, where compromise has become a dirty word.

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