R.I. General Assembly returns with PawSox, budget deficit at top of agenda

2018-01-03 | The Providence Journal

Jan. 03--PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Fixing schools. Closing the gender pay-gap. Protecting R.I. consumers against GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare. Continuing the car-tax phaseout.

In their opening-day speeches on Tuesday, the leaders of Rhode Island's overwhelmingly Democratic legislature -- House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio -- signaled their priorities for the 2018 election-year session that began on Tuesday.

The session opened with the state awash in a sea of red ink, the prospect of a $204-million deficit in the budget year that begins on July 1, and uncertainty about the potential loss of millions more in federal dollars as a result of decisions made in Washington by the GOP-led Congress and the Trump administration.

Mattiello said: "The budget picture is only going to get worse if we don't start fixing things between now and the end of the fiscal year." He, nonetheless, reaffirmed his commitment to phasing out the state's "onerous" car-tax, with the state reimbursing the cities and towns for the lost revenue. He also told colleagues he wants to see more regulatory reform: "Our state can, and must be, more friendly to businesses."

Ruggerio gave his personal commitment to Senate passage, for a second year in a row, of legislation to protect Rhode Islanders should the GOP-led Congress finally succeed in repealing the Affordable Care Act, known familiarly as Obamacare.

Last year's legislation -- which died in the House in the face of funding concerns -- would have required Rhode Island insurers that sell individual and small-group plans to cover Obamacare's "10 essential benefits," such as preventive, mental health and maternity services as well as contraceptives. It would have prohibited lifetime limits on benefits, and guaranteed coverage for dependents on their parents' plans up to age 26.

But the early days will be dominated by the team's bid for up to $44 million in city and state dollars to help build a "mini-Fenway" in downtown Pawtucket for the Triple A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox -- known as the PawSox -- that now plays at the 75-year-old McCoy Stadium.

A reworked version of the stadium-financing bill was introduced on Tuesday and slated for a potential vote by the Senate Finance Committee Thursday if a snowstorm does not postpone the action until Tuesday. Among the changes: A commitment to give Pawtucket a specific amount of money -- $250,000 -- from the sale of naming rights, instead of 50 percent. The reworked bill commits the team to paying overruns on constructions cost, but not land acquisition costs as suggested in an earlier version.

But the response among legislators outside the Pawtucket delegation remains tepid, despite the owners' assurances the investment will "pay for itself."

Senate Finance Chairman William J. Conley Jr. said Tuesday that research has convinced him that increased attendance and projected tax revenue will raise enough money to pay back the bonds. He said Ruggerio has been "100 percent supportive" of the PawSox legislation, and he remains hopeful that when Mattiello reviews it "he'll be convinced that it's a great project for the state of Rhode Island."

But Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, a banker, is among those saying: "I am just not comfortable with that risk to the taxpayers. It is a significant amount of money." And R.I. GOP Chairman Brandon Bell raised these questions and issues:

"Why is the Senate leadership forcing the Senate to vote on this legislation?...It is unpopular... Mattiello, who almost lost in 2016, is refusing to support the legislation...The PawSox owners have [not] agreed to accept the terms of the new legislation...Ruggerio admitted recently that the legislation is not a priority for him."

"The only thing Senators will accomplish by voting for the new PawSox deal is to anger their constituents," Bell said.

Ruggerio made no mention of the PawSox in his opening day speech, but said: "We're going to hit the ground running."

The Rhode Island he described is much improved from the state it was in only a few years ago. "Just five years ago," he recalled, "our state had double-digit unemployment, the highest rate in the nation. Today, the unemployment rate is near 4 percent ... and global companies like Infosys and GE are choosing to locate and create jobs here."

Despite Rhode Island's budget woes, he pledged an effort "to maintain" recent reductions in personal and business taxes, "while also caring for vulnerable Rhode Islanders and making wise investments."

Alluding to a task force recommendation that Rhode Island raise $500 million in the bond-market to launch a major school-repair drive, he said: "We need to invest in the physical conditions of our schools. The average school building is six decades old."

He also pledged an effort to provide insurance protection to the mentally ill, saying: "No one with a mental health condition should be turned away from a needed residential stay because of questions about insurance coverage."

Ruggerio also promised an effort to "close the gender salary gap."

"Rhode Island women make 82 cents for every dollar that a man is paid," said Ruggerio, citing data provided by the National Partnership for Women Families on the median annual pay for men and women in Rhode Island working full-time year-round jobs. He described legislation introduced last year by Sen. Gayle Goldin to ban employers from seeking wage histories from job applicants -- and barring employees from talking to each other about their pay -- as "sensible for all parties."

The House alone saw the introduction -- and, in many cases, reintroduction -- of 34 bills, including: Rep. John Lombardi's call for a public vote in November on four-year terms and term limits for state legislators; Rep. Robert Craven's attempt to spare patients from "surprise" medical bills by out-of-network providers at in-network facilities; and House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi's bill to require health insurers to cover all the costs of a mastectomy, without co-pays and deductibles, including the compression sleeves needed after surgery and prostheses.

-- With reports by staff writer Kate Bramson