PROVIDENCE — Here are 13 things to know about the $13.6 billion state budget for fiscal year 2023 that the House Finance Committee approved late Thursday night:
1. The $13.6 billion total is $773 million more than the budget Governor Daniel J. McKee proposed in January.
House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, said he understands concerns about the growth of the state budget. But he said it would be “shortsighted” not to take advantage of federal funding. “If there is an opportunity for a federal dollar available to the state of Rhode Island, I want it,” he said, “and I want it spent wisely and prudently because we have needs.”
Rhode Island received more than $1.1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, and it had a state budget surplus of $878 million for fiscal year 2022.
“These allocations are one-time funds, and I look at them as a bridge — a bridge to solve some problems the state has had for a long time. I look at it as a bridge to eliminate taxes on some of our Rhode Islanders,” Shekarchi said. “The overall theme here is we have positioned the state to withstand another downturn.”
2. The budget eliminates two of McKee’s pet education projects.
The governor had proposed $15 million to start 11 “municipal learning centers,” such as the one he launched as mayor of Cumberland, and he had proposed $6.5 million for “higher education academies.” But the House Finance Committee said it “does not concur” with those proposals.
Shekarchi said the House did not back the municipal learning centers because it’s a new program and lawmakers tried to concentrate on existing programs. “It’s untested,” he said. “I think there’s some merit, to be quite honest with you. But, he said, “There was not a lot of interest from my colleagues in the House about municipal learning centers, and we decided to reallocate the money in other areas in the budget for education.”
Similarly, the higher ed academies are a new program, and the House decided to “finish the work we are doing,” Shekarchi said. But he said it’s something the legislature could consider in January.
3. The budget does not include funding for the Tidewater Landing soccer stadium project in Pawtucket.
The project has run into significant cost inflation since its part-public and part-private financing was announced in February 2021, and Pawtucket and the developer, Fortuitous Partners, are asking the state Commerce Corporation to add another $30 million in public financing through additions to what’s called tax increment financing.
“I can tell you there is no allocation for the city of Pawtucket or for Tidewater in this budget,” Shekarchi said. “I have not received a formal ask in terms of a budget article from the administration or Commerce. I’ve been briefed on what’s going on, and if at some future point there is an ask, we will give fair consideration through the House Finance Committee through an open process.”
4. The budget includes $1 million for engineering and design work on suicide prevention barriers on the state’s most iconic bridges — the Newport Pell, Mount Hope, and Jamestown Verrazano bridges.
“That is a very, very emotional issue,” Shekarchi said, noting that Representative Joseph J. Solomon Jr., a Warwick Democrat, has been pressing for action. “I’ve heard from people who lost family members.”
He said he doesn’t know what the final cost of the barriers will be, but he said, “I think it’s important we at least show the people who are very concerned that we are taking this issue seriously, including The Samaritans of Rhode Island.”
5. The budget includes $12 million to renovate an existing psychiatric residential treatment facility in Rhode Island — double the amount proposed by McKee.
Rhode Island’s child advocate, Jennifer Griffith, sounded the alarm, warning that the state lacks the necessary number of psychiatric treatment beds, particularly for girls, and has been sending dozens of children to out-of-state facilities, costing the state millions.
Shekarchi said the $12 million will provide “a short-term infusion to get that facility open and running right now.” And as a more long-term solution, the Rhode Island capital plan includes $45 million to build a new facility at a yet-to-be-determined site, he said.
6. The budget calls for a total of $300 million for school construction projects, said House Majority Leader Christopher R. Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat.
That includes the $250 million school construction bond proposal that was in McKee’s budget plan and that will be on the November ballot. “Additionally, we have added $50 million to the state budget to do school construction,” he said. “We know that having schools that are warm, safe, dry, and ready for the 21st century is really important to our education system.”
7. The budget also includes the $250 million that McKee’s budget requested for housing.
“We thought that was the right amount at the right time,” Shekarchi said. But while that’s a one-time allocation, the budget will continue other housing programs, including a “pay-for-success program” to help people without homes. “We want to build permanent housing for homeless people here in Rhode Island,” he said.
8. The budget calls for cannabis to generate $6.6 million, including $2.9 million from the 7 percent sales tax and $4.1 million from a 10 percent excise tax.
On May 24, the General Assembly voted to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana in Rhode Island. The licensing fees for cannabis businesses are expected to generate $1.1 million for the new “Social Equity Fund,” but no expenses are budgeted from those funds in fiscal year 2023.
9. The budget does not adopt the proposal, made by Senator Megan Kallman and Representative Leonela Felix, to make bus rides from the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority free for all riders.
But Shekarchi said the budget does include a pilot program that would make bus rides free on the busy “R line,” which includes Broad Street and North Main Street in Providence. “That is going to start for free in the fall,” he said. “We will see how that goes and how that affects ridership.”
10. While death and taxes are certain, the budget would expand sales tax exemptions for funeral items such as grave vaults, burial tent setups, and prayer cards.
11. The budget doubles the amount that the Rhode Island Foundation will distribute to assist nonprofit organizations from $10 million to $20 million.
12. Another November ballot question will seek voter approval for $100 million in borrowing for new construction and repairs at the University of Rhode Island Narragansett Bay campus — double the amount proposed by McKee.
13. The House Finance Committee voted 11 to 3 for the budget proposal, which will come before the full House next Thursday.
Three Republicans cast the “no” votes – House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, Representative George A. Nardone, and Representative Robert J. Quattrocchi.