PROVIDENCE — Rhode Islanders: get ready to head back to the ballot box.
After picking presidential nominees in June, deciding state legislative primaries in September, and surviving the tumultuous general election in November, Rhode Island voters will be asked to vote on $400 million in bond items in March.
On Tuesday night, the House Finance Committee voted 11 to 2 to pass a $12.7 billion state budget that uses federal coronavirus relief funds to plug a $275 million budget gap. With current fiscal year now nearly halfway over, the full House is scheduled to take up the budget at 3 p.m. on Dec. 16 at Veterans Memorial Auditorium.
House leaders said the budget will result in no layoffs, tax increases, or social service cuts, and it will restore the “distressed communities” funding to cities and towns that Governor Gina M. Raimondo had proposed slashing.
House leaders said they are putting off decisions on hot topics such as legalizing marijuana and increasing taxes on the wealthy newly elected legislators take office in January.
But they said they plan to place seven bond items on the ballot in March, asking voters to decide whether to borrow money to build affordable housing, renovate state college buildings, fix up state parks, and prepare industrial sites for development.
“Those bonds are very important to a lot of constituencies,” said House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat who has locked up the votes to become House Speaker on Jan. 5. “We recognize it’s a significant amount. But the time to spend is right now when the interest rates are low and the economy needs it.”
Shekarchi said his “best estimate” is that the bond items votes will take place the first Tuesday in March. He called for holding the referenda primarily through mail ballots, with a limited number of polling places open in each city and town.
Representative Christopher R. Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat who will be the next House Majority Leader, said the highlights of the budget package include restoration of $30 million in funding for cities and towns, plus the bond items.
“I’m very excited about the bonds,” Blazejewski said. “There’s $400 million bonds in potential bonded spending that we have included in this budget, including $107 million for higher education, $74 million for the green bond … and then finally, $65 million for affordable housing.”
In January, Raimondo had proposed three bond items, and in July she expanded those proposals to provide $310.5 million for housing and infrastructure, $117 million for higher education, and $69 million for parks and recreation — for a total of $496.5 million.
House leaders said they are backing $400 million in bonding proposals — representing $70 million more than Raimondo’s original proposal but nearly $100 million less than her amended proposal. The main difference was the elimination of $107 million for a new state health laboratory, they said, explaining that more information was needed before that project can proceed.
“I didn’t want to use all of the state’s borrowing capacity this year,” Shekarchi said. “As great as some of these proposals were, some of them were just added on in July, and I think they needed a bit more due diligence and preparation. But I’m willing to consider all of those next year, and again, next year is in three weeks.”
House leaders are splitting Raimondo’s three proposed ballot questions into seven. Here are the questions voters will need to consider in March:
Question 1: Should the state borrow $107.3 million for higher education, including $57.3 million for the University of Rhode Island Fine Arts Center, $38 million for Rhode Island College’s Clarke Science Hall, and $12 million for renovations at Community College of Rhode Island campuses?
Question 2: Should the state borrow $74 million for a “green bond” that includes $33 million for state beaches, parks, and campgrounds; $15 million for clean drinking water; $7 million for municipal resiliency projects to address climate change; $6 million for Providence River dredging; $4 million for local recreation projects; $4 million for a park on former Interstate-195 land; $3 million for natural and working lands; and $2 million for the Woonasquatucket River Greenway?
Question 3: Should the state borrow $65 million for affordable housing?
Question 4: Should the state borrow $71.7 million for transportation projects, including $41.7 million to replace funds taken from the capital improvement projects for a supplemental budget in June?
Question 5: Should the state borrow $15 million for early childhood care and education?
Question 6: Should the state borrow $7 million for arts and cultural infrastructure grant programs arts, including $1 million added for preservation grants?
Question 7: Should the state borrow $60 million for commerce and infrastructure projects, including $40 million for industrial site development, and $20 million for Port of Davisville infrastructure at the Quonset Business Park?
In answering questions from reporters, Shekarchi noted that Representative Nicholas A. Mattiello is currently House Speaker, although the Cranston Democrat lost a November election to Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung. He said he’s not sure what role Mattiello would play in the budget process.
“I respect him, I like him,” Shekarchi said. “If he wants to show up and is willing to preside, or if he wants to show up and just vote, he can do that. And if he doesn’t want to come, that’s his choice. But either way, he has been very gracious.”
Mattiello has provided him with advice and made the House staff available, Shekarchi said. “He has let me run with this budget,” he said.