PROVIDENCE — Governor Dan McKee Monday signed the $13.6 billion state budget for fiscal year 2023, which he called a historic investment to “maintain Rhode Island’s economic momentum.”
“Rhode Island has momentum right now. This budget is to ensure that momentum continues,” said McKee in aState Room packed with reporters, lawmakers, and advocates. “This is a budget we can all be proud of.”
While he and local lawmakers stepped up to the podium to speak on the budget, a gaggle of abortion rights advocates wore pink, donned pins that said “bans off our bodies,” and shouted “Abortion is health care” on the other side of the State Room’s closed doors. Some whispered “remember the women” to those walking into the room.
Since Friday, the day the U.S. Supreme Court ended nearly 50 years of constitutional protection for abortion, overturning Roe v. Wade in a 5-to-4 decision, advocates have called for the Rhode Island General Assembly to reconvene in a special session to pass the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which was reintroduced this session by Representative Liana Cassar and Senator Bridget Valverde. Rhode Island passed the Reproductive Privacy Act in 2019, protecting the right to an abortion in the state, but abortions are not covered by Medicaid here.
The Equality in Abortion Coverage legislation would allow Medicaid funds to cover abortion services, which McKee and Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos both said they support, but did not include in the budget. Lawmakers never voted on the bills.
The $13.6 billion budget is about $733 million more than the budget the governor proposed in January. It does not include funding for the Tidewater Landing soccer stadium project in Pawtucket or McKee’s proposed municipal learning centers. The budget does include $250 million in investments in housing development, the expansion of Medicaid coverage for children and women postpartum through 12 months, and the elimination of taxes on military pensions.
“We’ve made investments. I didn’t want to just spend the money, but I wanted to make investments,” said Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat. He highlighted a $300 million investment in K-12 school construction and an additional $67 million to ensure school districts do not experience funding cuts due to enrollment declines.
Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, said this year’s budget is “the best” he has seen since the he became a lawmaker.
“I know there are a lot of people out there that say we should raise taxes. I don’t like to raise taxes,” he said. Ruggerio also said the state eliminated the car tax “a year ahead of schedule.”
While the governor and other local lawmakers touted the budget, Matos devoted her remarks to thanking advocates for speaking up. Matos did not specify which issue-based advocates she was thanking, but on Friday, she attended at least one abortion rights speaking engagement after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
While heading into the Rhode Island Democratic convention in Cranston on Sunday night, Shekarchi told abortion rights supporters that he was having conversations with the governor, Senate, and House members to potentially reconvene in a special session.
In a statement to the Globe, Shekarchi said, “The four members of my leadership team proudly supported the Reproductive Privacy Act in 2019 to ensure that women of Rhode Island continue to be able to make the personal decision to access safe and legal abortion.”
A two-thirds majority is needed in both chambers to ensure passage.
After the FY23 budget was signed Monday, Ruggerio — who personally opposes abortion but did issue a joint statement Friday with Senate leadership committing to preserving the 2019 Reproductive Privacy Act — told the Globe that he sees “no reason” to reconvene, not for the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act or even to approve judicial appointments.
The Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, Ruggerio said, “is a monetary item that is not in the budget. We’ll take a look at that when we come back in January. But I have no intention to deal with that issue at this point in time,” said Ruggerio. “I just think there are other things that we’re dealing with at this point in time. We have an election that we have to get through. We didn’t intend to come back. I don’t see a reason to come back at this time.”
When a Globe reporter brought up that Shekarchi had been speaking to his and the governor’s office about reconvening, Ruggerio said, “We can discuss it. But at this time, we are not looking to do that at this point in time. Things could change. Around here, things can change overnight.”