Progressive Democrats, following a series of primary victories in legislative races last week, said elected officials should wipe out Rhode Island’s $900 million deficit without cutting social services for the needy and those recovering from COVID.

During an afternoon news conference Wednesday outside the Statehouse, Reclaim RI, a group started by Bernie Sanders supporters, gathered with some of the candidate supported by the group, including House primary winners David Morales of Providence, and Leonela Felix and Meghan Kallman, both of Pawtucket.

"Too many of my neighbors in Pawtucket are already struggling, and the governor’s proposed cuts to the distressed communities’ relief fund will only worsen matters, Felix said in a statement. “Reducing aid to Pawtucket and other municipalities means higher taxes and cuts in services which will hit our low-income and working-class families hardest. In the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis, this decision is highly troubling.”

While Rhode Island has long suffered from perennial budget deficits, the pandemic has blown up the amount of red ink for the budget year that began July 1. Without more federal aid, some observers expect draconian cuts to the budget, most of which is devoted to social services and public schools.

Last week, Gov. Gina Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said the state will not take up the current budget until after the November election. GOP lawmakers and some progressives have criticized that move.

Dennis Hogan, one of the founders of Reclaim RI, said voters’ support for progressives in last week’s primary shows that elected officials should not pursue what critics call an ‘austerity budget.’

“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.”

Progressives suggest a number of alternatives could be tapped to close the deficit: raising taxes on affluent Rhode Islanders; pausing the phaseout of the car tax; using unspent rainy day money; and using part of the federal CARES Act money delivered to the state.

Asked about arguments that higher taxes would send a negative signal about Rhode Island, Hogan said the consequences of an austerity budget – like increased homelessness and less help for people recovering from COVID – would also be negative.

Raimondo spokeswoman Audrey Lucas offered this statement: “The governor continues to call for much-needed relief for states amid great uncertainty. Many difficult decisions will need to be made if the state does not receive more federal stimulus funding. However, Governor Raimondo’s commitment – as it has been throughout this crisis – is to protect Rhode Islanders and give them the tools they need to pull through this recession as quickly as possible.”

Mattiello spokesman Larry Berman said it’s too soon for specifics on the budget.

“Not knowing how much additional federal assistance will be forthcoming to all states,” he said, “it is premature to speculate on the details of the budget.”

This story has been updated.

Ian Donnis covers politics for The Public's Radio. He can be reached at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org