The Governor’s Austerity Budget

Our budgets reflect our values, and future generations will judge us harshly if during a pandemic we drop the hammer on our most distressed communities. And yet Governor Raimondo is moving right along with budget cuts she first proposed last January. (She felt they were justified because the economy was doing so well.) But those budget proposals have never become law, and neither she nor the Director of Administration Brett Smiley have the authority to be acting on them.

Since Governor Raimondo, Speaker Mattiello, and Senate President Ruggerio all agreed to defer enacting a new budget until after the November election, state law dictates that prior budgetary mandates remain in effect. The budget that expired on July 1st is still operational. This would include the handling of the Distressed Communities Relief Fund passed back in 1990, which provides state assistance to municipalities with the highest property tax burdens relative to the wealth of taxpayers.

At a news conference held Wednesday by local progressive groups, Uprise RI spoke with former state rep and current director of Demand Progress, Dave Segal:

“Given the right-wing politics of our country over the last several decades, it’s a minor miracle that in the early 90’s the state created a tranche of funding that that specifically goes to the state’s most impoverished cities and towns, called the distressed communities fund. Yet in January, Governor Raimondo, even though she’s the first person elected to the governorship of Rhode Island as a Democrat this century, proposed to slash those funds in half,” continued Segal. “And now, even though the Assembly has not passed a budget, Raimondo, working through the Department of Administration, led by Brett Smiley, who, based on his time working for Providence, know how precarious the city’s finances are, is cutting this distressed funding unilaterally. They are doing this by fiat, seemingly in violation of the law, in the middle of a pandemic and economic crisis.

Of course the new cohort of progressives now celebrating their primary victories won’t be sworn in until next year, but the old guard must see that changes are afoot in the state Democratic landscape. Ian Donnis of The Public’s Radio spoke with Dennis Hogan, one of the founders of Reclaim RI:

“As lawmakers go into making some of these budget decisions, it’s really clear that a message has been sent from Rhode Islanders that they want to see a much more progressive direction from the legislature,” Hogan said. “People are really hungry for a government that represents them better, and think we’re just speaking to those concerns.”

Mr. Segal suggests several ways the state could make up the budget deficit: raising taxes on the top 3%; pausing the car tax phaseout; accessing our rainy-day funds; and using part of the federal CARES Act money.

Minor point but it is widely rumored that Mr. Smiley has his eye on the Providence mayor’s office — cutting the city’s funding to the bone during a pandemic seems like a strange start.

This is first and foremost a social justice issue, but even those motivated entirely by self-interest must see the wisdom of keeping our distressed communities stable and healthy.


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