PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island’s legislative leaders unveiled a revised $9.9 billion state budget late Friday that includes six new medical marijuana compassion centers and adds 280 pre-kindergarten seats, but they declined to expand Governor Gina Raimondo’s signature free college program beyond the Community College of Rhode Island.
The House Finance Committee received – and quickly approved – the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 shortly before midnight, setting the stage for a vote from the full House next Friday. The Senate is expected to take up the budget in the final week of June.
In a briefing with reporters prior to the vote, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he was proud of the budget the committee was putting forward, suggesting the plan makes key investments and education and economic development without significantly raising too many taxes or fees.
“The principles of the budget are to make sure it’s business-friendly, did not impose any new taxes that we felt were onerous to our economy and we wanted to continue the environment for economic growth,’’ he said.
The proposed budget is $393 million more than in the current fiscal year, and includes for the first time a sales tax on digital media downloads, like music or movie streaming services. It does not raise the minimum wage and includes no increase to the hotel tax.
The House’s version of the budget is significantly different from the one Raimondo proposed in January, which sought to legalize the use of recreational marijuana, included a universal pre-kindergarten program and expanded the Rhode Island Promise college scholarship to Rhode Island College.
Mattiello said there wasn’t an appetite among lawmakers for legalizing pot, but the budget does include six new medical marijuana compassion centers, for a total of nine statewide. The state expects to raise $8 million in new revenue from the additional compassion centers.
The budget slims down the pre-kindergarten proposal, adding about half of the 540 “high-quality” seats for four-year-olds that Raimondo wanted. She has proposed adding 4,000 new pre-kindergarten seats over the next four years. Mattiello said lawmakers committed about $8 million to the program, replacing about $5 million in lost federal funding and adding another $2.75 million for the additional seats.
Mattiello said there was little interest in expanding the free college program to RIC, noting that the scholarship program lures students from other universities in the state. The scholarship will remain in place for students at CCRI.
Joe Fleming, a longtime Rhode Island pollster, said the budget is a mixed bag for Raimondo, who campaigned hard over the last six months for both Rhode Island Promise and universal pre-K. But he said Mattiello has been clear for months that those proposals might not make the cut.
“It is somewhat of a setback, but at the same time she still has three more years to get these programs done,” Fleming said.
The budget includes the third year of Mattiello’s proposal to phase out the car tax for cities and towns in exchange for a reimbursement from the state. Mattiello has said he wants to eliminate the tax altogether in the coming years.
Other key items in the budget include a plan to allow the University of Rhode Island to create its own board of trustees that would function separately from the state Council of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The budget also includes a plan supported by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio that would strip Providence of its zoning authority on the I-195 land. Mattiello called it a significant economic development tool, in part because critics have complained that city leaders interfere with the permitting process.
On the education side, House leaders committed to an additional $40 million in funding for cities and towns, as well as a $5 million line item dedicated solely to English language learners.
The House budget was met with praise from Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, a sign the final weeks of the legislative session could move quickly.
“I am pleased that so many of the Senate’s priorities have been included in the budget the House Finance Committee took up this evening,” Ruggerio said in a prepared statement. “Among those priorities are funding for pre-kindergarten programs, free RIPTA bus passes for low-income elderly and disabled, the opioid stewardship program, hospitals, and expansion of Rebuild RI to include historic projects.”
House Minority Leader Blake Filippi was one of three Finance Committee members who voted against the budget Friday. Asked what he thinks of the plan, he said, “I’ve got the read it.”