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Rhode Island House passes nearly $10B budget

By JENNIFER McDERMOTTJune 22, 2019

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island’s House of Representatives passed a nearly $10 billion state budget Saturday that would expand the state’s pre-kindergarten program and add six new medical marijuana dispensaries.

The Democratic-controlled House approved the budget 64 to 9, voting along party lines after about three hours of debate. Most of the budget articles were passed Friday night.

The Senate must still approve the budget.

The $9.97 billion plan would increase state spending by $393 million over the plan approved last year. Both Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo wanted to make large investments in education. The budget would add 270 to 300 more pre-K seats to the 1,080 that are already funded and provide additional state aid to municipalities for public schools.

It would create a board of trustees for the University of Rhode Island. Currently the six-member Council on Post-Secondary Education oversees the state’s universities.

Several lawmakers expressed concerns that allowing for a total of nine medical marijuana dispensaries would hurt existing marijuana cultivators in the state. That budget article still passed by a wide margin.

It doesn’t include the governor’s proposals for legalizing recreational marijuana, expanding the state’s free college tuition program, increasing the minimum wage or adding several new taxes, including a fee on large companies based on their number of employees using Medicaid.

It would eliminate the tax on feminine hygiene products and continue to phase-out the car tax. It creates a $5 million annual fee on opioid manufacturers, aimed at compensating the public for the opioid epidemic, and adds a tax on digital downloads and streaming services, including Netflix.

The article that makes the appropriations for fiscal 2020 was amended unanimously. A $200,000 grant for the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence was restored and $1 million for a controversial treatment for brain injuries pushed by Cranston chiropractor Victor Pedro, was removed, among other changes.

Led by Rep. Joseph Almeida, a Providence Democrat, lawmakers praised the grant restoration. Almeida said the institute’s work saves lives.

Democratic Rep. Moira Walsh, also a Providence Democrat, said the $1 million for the chiropractor was a “wildly inappropriate venture.” She said she hoped that was the only questionable line item, but she’s willing to bet it isn’t. She encouraged her colleagues to look closer next year.

Mattiello is from Cranston and his relationship with Pedro goes back years.

Republicans voted against the budget. Minority Leader Blake Filippi said he was disappointed the chamber didn’t lower the sales tax or add more front-line workers to the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Filippi said he was also concerned marijuana cultivators would be put out of business and that the House was setting a bad precedent by taking away municipal sovereignty in Providence.

The budget would remove the city of Providence’s jurisdiction over zoning in the state-owned Interstate 195 redevelopment district, a change that some Democratic representatives from Providence took issue with too. Mattiello and Democratic Senate President Dominick Ruggerio were upset with Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza for jeopardizing plans for a proposed skyscraper on the land.

Additionally, the House allowed up to $25 million in tax credits instead of $15 million for that skyscraper, and excluded it from the total spending cap in a state program that provides financing for real estate development.

Among the other initiatives, the budget proposal includes an individual mandate that would penalize people who don’t have health insurance. And residents would have to get new state license plates with a design that is supposed to help with electronic tolling.

The House did not go along with a proposal to raise the hotel tax to spend $500,000 on a program to help the chronic homeless, despite several lawmakers speaking passionately about the need. Democratic leaders said they didn’t know enough about the program, but could revisit the issue next year.

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