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Scott MacKay Commentary: Raimondo's Budget Challenges And Secrecy

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Gov. Gina Raimondo is scheduled to release her first state budget on Thursday. Part of the challenge is to slash a projected $190 million deficit. So...

Gov. Gina Raimondo is scheduled to release her first state budget on Thursday. Part of the challenge is to slash a projected $190 million deficit.  So what will get cut? RIPR Political Analyst Scott MacKay tells us what to watch out for.

There is that ancient Statehouse cliché: If you want to figure out what a governor’s priorities are, check out the budget. Rhode Islanders get their first look at what our new governor, Gina Raimondo, values when she releases her spending and taxing plan for state government on Thursday.

The governor has already talked about some of her objectives, especially about reigning in the growing cost of the Medicaid program that finances medical care for the poor and the elderly, especially those confined to nursing homes.

Raimondo has also engaged in a pre-budget joust with House Speaker Nick Mattiello, a Cranston democrat, over the way the House considers the annual state spending plan. In comments that quickly went viral, Raimondo accused lawmakers of making decisions behind closed doors. Quote – they hack it up every which way and out pops a budget, Raimondo said.

So it’s time to shatter some budget myths. The governor is the politician who puts together a budget in private and drops it on the Assembly. The House Finance Committee holds public, televised meetings where any Rhode Islander is welcome to testify. Lawmakers do tinker around the margins of the budget, but for the most part they leave about 90 percent of the governor’s proposal intact.

About two thirds of any budget is made up of two things: health care and education. That includes education aid, mainly for local schools, and social service and medical programs for the underprivileged and elderly. About 20 percent of the budget is salaries for state employees. The rest is largely for such functions as chasing, prosecuting, sentencing and jailing criminals and the janitorial aspects of government… keeping the buildings heated and the lights on.

As far as honest budgeting goes, Mattiello disclosed after Raimondo’s ill-timed attack that she made an inquiry about slipping $40 to $50 million in so-called placeholder Medicaid cuts in her first budget without detailing where the cuts would come from. The speaker called that unacceptable and he’s right. No governor, especially a rookie elected with less than 50 percent of the vote, ought to get away with such a large ``trust me’’ provision in the budget.

Rhode Island’s sluggish economy and the runaway costs of Medicaid have led to a deficit. Yet there is light at the end of this tunnel. Income tax collections so far are exceeding expectations by about $40 million.  After Mattiello took the governor to the woodshed for her comments, she apologized in a private meeting in his office, according to Statehouse sources.

Raimondo may well have crossed the line between confidence and arrogance, but this doesn’t mean the Assembly is off the hook. Too often in the past, lawmakers have slipped last-minute amendments, called articles in Statehouse argot, into the budget without thoughtful scrutiny. This how slot parlor gambling became legal in the 1990s and how, more recently, the Assembly reorganized the way elementary, secondary and higher education is run.

And wouldn’t we love to know what really happened when then-Gov. Donald Carcieri, then-Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed spoke privately about 38 studios? What a fiasco that turned out to be!

Speaking of transparency, how would you like to be Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien and his administration director, Tony Pires. They thought they were dealing in good faith with the Raimondo Administration on the Pawtucket Red Sox matter.

So how do you think they felt when they clicked on Chanel 12 and discovered that Raimondo met privately in December with James Skeffington, a representative of the new ownership group that plans to move the team from Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium to a new ballpark to be built on Providence’s downtown waterfront?

``We were very, very surprised to see that,’’ said Pires.

In this budget season, transparency is crucial because cuts to social services affect people’s lives. And there are other important challenges to consider. Like how to fix the state’s aging roads and bridges. That has too long been ignored and our harsh winter has left the state pockmarked with potholes.

Hopefully, Raimondo has learned her lesson. And hopefully Mattiello and Paiva Weed will insist on careful and honest budget deliberations.  Rhode Islanders yearn for leadership, but they don’t want hubris.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at  5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org

Scott MacKay Commentary: Raimondo's Budget Challenges And Secrecy
Scott MacKay Commentary: Raimondo's Budget Challenges And Secrecy