PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island House of Representatives passed the $14 billion state budget on Friday after a rip-roaring debate over a failed attempt to restore annual cost-of-living adjustments for state pensioners.
Representative Charlene M. Lima, a Cranston Democrat, led the charge to try to amend the budget to increase payments to state retirees who were denied annual cost-of-living increases by the 2011 pension overhaul led by former treasurer and governor Gina M. Raimondo, now the US Secretary of Commerce.
“What we are talking about here is restoring a COLA in a $14 billion budget to give (to) these people, who are part of the biggest heist in Rhode Island history,” Lima said. “The Bonded Vault was considered Rhode Island’s biggest heist, and I’ll tell you today it was not. The biggest robbery in Rhode Island history was treasurer Raimondo’s pension vault robbery. She called it the 2011 pension reform. I call it the 2011 pension ripoff.”
The budget approved Friday would allow state retirees who are expecting cost-of-living increases every four years to begin receiving those increases sooner, spread over four years. And it would direct state General Treasurer James A. Diossa to review the 2011 pension system overhaul, looking to see if it is having unintended consequences and to recommend proposed changes.
But Lima dismissed those measures as inadequate, saying they would provide the average retiree with 74 cents a day, when pensioners have waited 12 years for cost-of-living adjustments.
“You have elderly people who worked their whole life who were robbed,” Lima said. “They did nothing wrong. The state didn’t pay into the pension system. They didn’t have the opportunity to go back to work. They are suffering. Where is the equity in that? How do you look at these people in their mid-70s and say we’ll give you 74 cents? That’s insane.”
Lima proposed two amendments, saying she was aiming to provide cost-of-living increases of 3 percent this year. Based on an average pension of $50,000, she said that would equate to $1,500.
But House Majority Floor Manager John G. “Jay” Edwards, a Tiverton Democrat, moved to table her proposed amendments, and his motion passed by votes of 57 to 12 and 51 to 17.
Lima, who was replaced as deputy speaker in January, said legislators were trying to shut her up and avoid a vote on her amendments. “They don’t want you to know that they don’t want to help you,” she said. “So they are going to hide on a motion to table. You see what they are doing? They are screwing you again.”
Representative Patricia A. Serpa, a West Warwick Democrat who is a retired public school educator, said she voted for the 2011 pension overhaul, but now she believes that “we were cheated” and “we were lied to.”
“I’m disgusted with my vote,” she said. “I did it on half truths, thinking that they were for the public good, and they weren’t. They were all no good, and I would never, ever, ever do it again.”
Serpa said that “in a perfect world,” she would love to get her cost-of-living increases back. “I would like it all back in a nice chunk of change,” she said, but “that’s not going to happen.” She gave House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi credit for beginning to acknowledge and address the problem in the proposed budget. But she said she is counting on the treasurer’s working group to come up with substantial recommendations.
Representative Susan R. Donovan, a Bristol Democrat who is a retired public school teacher, said she has never received a cost-of-living adjustment in her pension. She said she agrees that “we have to do something in the future for these people, for me. We just can’t go on year after year after year without getting anything. I worked 35 years, so I’m really relying on that commission to come up with some really good recommendations.”
Before the budget debate began, Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, announced that a last-minute budget amendment will add $7 million for early childhood programs from unspent federal funds. He said that includes $3 million to preserve Head Start and Early Head Start seats, and $4 million for a pilot program to expand eligibility for child care, at no cost, to certain child care workers.
“Quality child care is very important to the House and Senate leadership and membership, and many members encouraged me to help find resources to help preserve these vital programs,” Shekarchi said in a statement. “It is critical that we continue to address staffing shortages within both programs in a sustainable way.”
Paige Clausius-Parks, executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, said the RIght from the Start campaign thanks Shekarchi for including funding to ensure more Head Start and Early Head Start classrooms are able to open in September compared to the previous year.
“Child care and early learning programs are foundational to Rhode Island’s kids, families, and our economy,” she said. “They provide our babies and young children with high quality learning opportunities, and they enable parents to work and contribute to our economy. And all of that is enabled by our workforce of early educators who deserve worthy wages for the work they do.”
In May, Clausius-Parks appeared on the Rhode Island Report podcast, warning that 30 Head Start classrooms closed during this school year, and 14 other Head Start programs limited enrollment despite a waiting list of more than 230 young children. She called it an “alarming and concerning” trend, saying those 230 children were unable to enroll in Head Start programs because of “the workforce crisis that we’re having right now with early learning programs.”
After a series of votes on each of the budget’s 13 articles, the House passed the overall budget by a vote of 68 to 4. The no votes came from Republicans Patricia L. Morgan, George A. Nardone, Robert J. Quattrocchi, and Brian J. Rea.
But House Minority Leader Michael W. Chippendale, a Foster Republican, and four other Republicans voted for the budget. “The Fiscal Year 2024 budget process in the House was different than previous years for the House minority caucus,” Chippendale said. “When the governor released his budget in February, leadership in the House minority worked collaboratively with leadership in the majority to craft a better budget for Rhode Island citizens and small businesses.”
He said Republicans worked with House fiscal staff and Shekarchi’s office to integrate two dozen “good-government proposals” into the budget. He said of the biggest achievements was offering changes in Medicaid language “that cost the state nothing but avoids potential compliance fines from the federal government and gains greater access to federal funding.” He also cited increases in funding for conservation districts, farmland preservation, and the addition of two forest ranger positions that will benefits rural areas of the state.
“While this may not be the exact budget that I would have created, it is a budget that I can support,” Chippendale said.
Shekarchi issued a statement after the budget’s passage, saying, “Our top priority, of course, is addressing our housing crisis, and we have worked hard, in collaboration with Governor McKee and our colleagues in the Senate, to identify the most effective ways we can direct the funding we have toward solutions that will help create more affordable housing access.”
For example, the House added an additional $31 million to support housing development, including $21 million for a new program that allows the housing secretary to target projects. The House approved $45 million from State Fiscal Recovery funds to increase facility capacity for individuals experiencing homelessness, three times the current level.
The budget fully also funded Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor’s request for 21 employees in the state housing department. But it did not include a proposal submitted in the governor’s housing amendments that would have authorized eminent domain powers for the housing department.
Woonsocket Representative Jon D. Brien, the only independent in the House, said he wanted to “echo the sentiments” of both Chippendale and House Majority Leader Christopher R. Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat. “I want to congratulate you, Mr. Speaker, for bringing the three disparate groups in this House together,” he said, drawing laughs. “The independent caucus does support the budget.”
Blazejewski said, “It sounds like it’s going to be a tripartisan budget.”
The budget bill now goes to the state Senate, and the Senate Finance Committee is expected to consider it at 3 p.m. Tuesday.