By Nicholas A. Mattiello
There is nothing more important than integrity and keeping your word. It is unfortunate that Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and his leadership team reneged on a commitment to pass the state budget as negotiated, and did so at the 11th hour, without warning. These last-minute shenanigans only increase public distrust and threaten our ability to serve citizens responsibly.
The House takes its responsibility of shepherding the budget to enactment very seriously. The governor’s budget proposal is introduced in the House. After hundreds of hours of public hearings, our chamber debates and votes on every article. The final product is not the document the governor proposed, nor the sole wishes of the speaker or the House. It is the product of public input, shared values and priorities of the governor, the House and the Senate, forged through negotiations and compromise.
This was the fourth state budget that I have been involved with as speaker. As always, the Senate was a partner in the negotiations. After numerous discussions over several weeks, President Dominick Ruggerio gave me a handshake agreement that the Senate would approve the negotiated budget.
I was surprised later to learn that the Senate concluded that this budget needed an amendment to protect the rainy day fund, a conclusion I strongly disagreed with. I wondered: Where was this sense of urgency when the Senate Finance Committee overwhelmingly approved the House budget without amendment? Where was this concern when several senators offered glowing praise of the budget? Why wasn’t this issue raised when I had lunch twice with President Ruggerio in the week leading up to June 30, our final day of the session? In fact, the president told me the budget vote was scheduled for June 29. Any of these moments would have been appropriate times to share the reservations that are now cited for backing out of the budget deal.
As we were concluding House business on June 29, I learned from my staff that the Senate had delayed consideration of the budget. I became concerned that it would be held hostage as disagreements ensued over unrelated issues.
On the afternoon of June 30, word spread that President Ruggerio was planning to support an unannounced budget amendment. Again, with no direct communication from Senate leadership, I surmised that this move was designed to drag out negotiations on other legislation, and I would have no part of it.
This led me to send our House members home for summer recess. I was not going to let late-night maneuvers attempt to wear us down as in the past. The bad experience of ending our final session in the early-morning hours last year led me to promise the public that the House would adjourn no later than 10 p.m. I informed President Ruggerio weeks ago that this commitment would stand.
The Senate’s budget amendment would stop the car-tax phase-out if a very specific series of events occurred. This limit does not apply to any other budget measure, nor is it appropriate in this case. Future legislatures will consider the full array of state spending and revenues when facing any downturn. I do not favor language that — at the outset — would subordinate car-tax relief to other priorities.
The car-tax phaseout is not only a campaign promise. It is our response to the public’s pleas for relief from the highest car tax in the nation. Only half the states even have one. The House voted to reduce the car tax by a margin of 75-0.
It is unfortunate that many other legislative priorities of my hardworking colleagues were caught up in the Senate’s action. The House worked hard to reach compromise on legislation regarding domestic violence, earned paid sick time and small business health care affordability. I am confident that if we work together we can continue to be responsive to Rhode Islanders on car- tax relief and a host of other important issues.
None of that can happen if a deal is not a deal, and your word cannot be trusted.
I urge the Senate to pass the budget that President Ruggerio agreed to, and that the Senate Finance Committee overwhelmingly approved.
– Nicholas A. Mattiello (D-Dist. 15, Cranston) is the Speaker of the House of Representatives.