Live Blog: R.I. House Budget Session

3:39 a.m.: The amended budget passes, 57-15. We are done here – off to the sunrise. Get ready to pay higher bridge tolls, and hug your school bus monitor.

3:37 a.m.: Newberry: “This was a missed opportunity. This budget doesn’t do it. Thirteen things were laid on the table tonight. That’s not right.”

3:33 a.m.: Trillo takes on efforts to raise taxes on the wealthy: “Those rich people have lawyers. They have accountants. And they pay about 40 percent of our state’s taxes. When I hear this kind of talk, it drives me crazy. You don’t understand basic economics.”

3:30 a.m.: EDC stays alive, 56-16.

3:29 a.m.: Lima: “The car’s totalled. Junk it.”

3:28 a.m.: Melo opposes the dissolution, saying the governor’s office is studying reforms in consultation with RIPEC.

3:25 a.m.: Gordon wants to keep the EDC, although with removal of loan guarantees.

3:22 a.m.: Watson, who had proposed his own amendment to ban EDC, agreed with Lima but wasn’t certain the economic development portfolio belonged in the lieutenant governor’s office (which would inherit $2.5 million of its $4.6 million budget, with the remainder to go back into the general fund.

3:20 a.m.: Lima submits an amendment to dismantle EDC, less than 24 hours after the apparent demise of 38 Studios. “EDC has lost the trust and the confidence of the state of Rhode Island, and for good reason. ” Her measure would move the responsibility of economic development to the lieutenant governor’s office, and she feels it should be handled by an elected official.

3:12 a.m.: A Costa amendment would eliminate $2.3 million in legislative grants, redirecting the funds to programs for those with developmental disabilities. Rejected, 54-18.

3:09 a.m.: Newberry offers an amendment making a 20 percent health insurance co-pay mandatory for state legislators, an act he termed symbolic. Fox rules it out of order, Newberry challenges, and the body upholds the speaker 57-16.

3:04 a.m.: We’re out of new amendments. Melo offers an amendment cleaning up typos in the final appropriations document, and the changes are approved 70-4.

3 a.m.: DaSilva’s amendment is tabled, 51-16.

2:55 a.m.: DaSilva proposes a bill increasing income tax by 0.5 percent for those making $125,000 or more, and 1.5 percent on those making $250,000, with the new funding going to cities and towns. “We’ve just raised taxes on taxis, dog grooming, and things that are going to hurt the common person. This would given them a little bit of relief.”

2:50 a.m.: Fox rules because a similar bill was held in committee, the amendment is out of order. Baldelli-Hunt is not taking this lying down, sniping back at Fox, who calls for a vote upholding the chair, which passes 52-16.

2:45 a.m.: Baldelli-Hunt proposes consolidation of state advertising, which was passed in the House session but later repealed.

2:40 a.m.: Baldelli-Hunt offers an amendment to limit fees charged by check-cashing services and payday lenders, running up against an industry represented by former House Speaker Bill Murphy. “It takes hold of an industry that has existed since 2005, when special interest legislation was passed,” she says, noting that companies are allowed to charge rates as high as 262 percent under current legislation. The bill is tabled, 49-19.

2:35 a.m.: Lima amendment would force businesses applying for tax credits to sign sworn affadavits on financial records. It dies, 42-28.

Last year, I was in a Providence Newspaper Guild Follies number lampooning the zombification of state legislators at the end of the session (The Rocky Horror Show’s “Time Warp” with a chorus of “Let’s rush adjournment again!”). Tonight, I don’t need stage makeup to feel zombified.

2:20 a.m.:  John Savage (I-East Providence) offers an amendment proposing a 0.25 percent state tax hike on incomes over $55.000 and 0.5 percent on incomes over $125,000. It’s tabled, 48-20.

2 a.m.: Jared Nunes (D-Coventry) offers an amendent banning Department of Health employees being coverted from private contractors to state employees from pension and state health care eligibility. Amendment fails, 56-18.

1:57 a.m. Cimini’s amendment is tabled, 53-20, effectively killing it.

1:56 a.m.: Ajello: “In January, if the numbers don’t add up, I’m going to be poking everybody.” Met with a move to table.

1:53 a.m.: Cimini steps up with her amendment to repeal the tax cut for the wealthy.

“We have an obligation to more than offer a balanced budget every year,” she says, adding that workforce development and education must be priorities. Melo rises in opposition, claiming the amendment is retroactive.

Edith Ajello (D-Providence) compares Cimini’s amendment to the Buffett Rule. “I’m saying raise income taxes on highest income, not highest earners.”

1:49 a.m. Budget revision passes, 50-17. Melo asks for new articles.

 

1:48 a.m.: In response to a motion to table, Guthrie says, “It just seems like we do things to hurt people in this state.” He then raises the fighting phrase “flight of the earls.” Nonetheless, the vote to table carries, 50-22.

1:40 a.m.: Scott Guthrie (D-Coventry) offers an amendment to the revised budget that would restore revenue sharing for cities and towns. Here it is: the attack on the 2006 2 percent tax rate cut for those making more than $250,000, which he says reprsents half of a similar bill to be proposed by Maria Cimini (D-Providence). “If you want to consider the people that put you here, you should at least consider it.”

 

1:30 a.m.: Is there a General Assembly rule that reps must remain GQ on the floor? After nine hours, there should be a few loosened ties out there. I hardly see any.

1:20 a.m.: On to Central Falls, with a $2.6 million appropriation to fund payments to police and fire retirees who had their pensions reduced by up to 55 percent from fiscal 2012 to FY 2016 under city bankruptcy provisions. They would not receive more than 75 percent of their former pension payouts. It passes, 64-6.

1:17 a.m.: The taxes and revenues amendment, cut up for easy digestion, passes.

1:13 a.m.: This is where things get crazy, when an amendment is broken in sections for a final vote. Because Fox is a member of the PPAC board, which may be affected by the measure, he yields the gavel to Coderre for the first section, which is approved.

1:10 a.m.: Trillo on the main amendment: “This was a pretty good budget, but we loused it up with $10 million in tax increases. We gave something back to people we hurt, than slammed a bunch of new people.”

1:05 a.m.: Grace Diaz (D-Providence) is finally heard from, with an amendment to the definition of “little cigars” designed to keep them out of the hands of children. Backing her is another new voice this evening, David Bennett (D-Warwick). For seemingly the hundredth time tonight, Melo says, “I rise in opposition to this amendment.” It fails, 40-18.

1 a.m.: Baron, via Twitter: “I will give a dollar to any rep who has an amendment and doesn’t introduce it.” With WPRI’s Ted Nesi occupado with Studio 38 today, however, the aggregate tweet count from press row tonight is taking a hit.

12:57 a.m.: Peter Palumbo proposes an amendment to remove sales tax from cigarette rolling papers (or cigarette tubes, which he says are not sold in Rhode Island). The bid to remove tax from your E-Z Widers fails, 49-20.

12:47 a.m.: It’s not just stamina wearing down here; it’s also cell phone batteries. Brien just visited press row to borrow a phone charger from WRNI’s Ian Donnis, whose tweet total by the end of night will be as unbeatable at Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game.

We are debating yet another MacBeth amendment, this one limiting the use of tax credits to the party they were granted to. It fails, 48-15.

12:40 a.m.: To answer a question a composing room foreman at The Woonsocket Call used to ask me around this time of night, we’re not gonna make last call.

The Baldelli-Hunt amendment goes down, 42-27.

12:32 a.m.: Amendment from Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Woonsocket) would eliminate pet grooming tax and eliminate annual $10 fee for retail permits. Also, the $42 right-to-know fee for businesses that maintain hazardous chemicals would be removed. To pay for it, $14 million would be raised from a revision of property tax relief for renters.

 

 

12:28 a.m.: From Laurence Ehrhardt (R-North Kingstown), a 14-page amendment revising state business tax credits. “It’s less than the million we came up with for the car wash folks,” he admits. Fails, 48-19.

12:20 a.m.: MacBeth amendment would push back implementation of new taxes from Oct. 1, 2012 to Jan. 1, 2013. It fails, 49-18.

12:15 a.m.: Finally, someone actually proposes a tax: Menard’s amendment would tax school housing facilities rented for purposes other than housing students, families of students, faculty members or school staff.

Menard to Fox: “For someone who believes in transparency, you’re allowing this to run amuck. This is a fairness issue. To lay it on the table like this is a cowardly vote.”

Amendment tabled, 45-23. We’re all up past our bedtime.

12:10 a.m.: Chippendale’s amendment is tabled, 49-20.

12:06 a.m.: Michael Chippendale (R-Foster) is going “there.” His amendment would exempt pet care and pay for it by cutting $1.3 million in legislative grants. In this chamber, cutting legislative grants = fighting words.

12:03 a.m.: The hacks stay under the proposed sales tax, 41-27.

Midnight: Trillo: “Taxi drivers are the working poor. They don’t get pensions or the things other people do. We’re cutting into their tips. What the governor has done is try to expand the sales tax into the service industry. It’s a slippery slope. If we were going to tax a group, the first on the list should be the lawyers, but we’ve got enough of them working in here right now!”

That is how you ring in the new day, the kind of late-night oration budget session buffs crave.

 

11:55 p.m.: Newberry offers an amendment to remove the taxi sales tax, which would generate $960,000. He points out the average meter fare from downtown to T.F. Green Airport is $26.50, with the average passenger giving the cabbie $30 (which also includes the $1.50 Public Utilities Commission fuel surcharge).

11:50 p.m.: Dickinson: “How many people have ever filled out a sales tax form? How many people have gone out of business because they decided it wasn’t worth the trouble?”

Amendment is defeated nonetheless, 47-23.

 

11:40 p.m.: Menard: “We’re supporting this (original) amendment in a year when we have a $100 million surplus?”

 

11:32 p.m.: A MacBeth amendment would remove all other services from the proposed tax hikes (charter buses, taxis, limos, pet grooming, etc.). Disclosure: as the proud owner of a Maltese-Shih Tzu that requires more grooming than the average dog, and also a former taxi driver, I’m not quite objective on this issue.

 

11:29 p.m.: Mic check! From the west gallery (behind me), OP lets loose with a brief vocal demonstration. Speaker Pro Tem Elaine Coderre (D-Pawtucket) gavels them down, and Fox orders their removal.

Meanwhile, the car wash lobby wins unanimous exemption from the proposed sales tax.

11:25 p.m.: Melo offers an amendment removing car washes from the additional items being taxed, saying people who wash their cars at home use 80 percent more water than a wash.

 

11:18 p.m. Big one: Removal of state education mandates finally passes, 49-23. Tomorrow will be a happier day for mayors, town managers and school departments. That, along with the earlier passage of the combined Board of Education, concludes the educational portion of our program.

 

11:12 p.m.: MacBeth: Woonsocket is considering cutting busing because they can’t afford the monitors. “They’re having to put students in harm’s way because of what we’re doing here.”

Menard: “We have been discussing this amendment for four years. This is a cement shoe, not a sledgehammer.”

Occupy has left the gallery. Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) disagreed with the banner confiscation, since it did not block other spectators’ view.

 

11:01 p.m: Rene Menard (D-Lincoln) offers an amendment repealing unfunded state educational mandates…one of the issues at the heart of the municipalities’ demand for help from the state. Jon Brien (D-Woonsocket) backs him up.

Meanwhile, upstairs, Capital Police have confiscated the OP banner. The delegation of about a dozen has remained orderly, however.

 

10:55 p.m.: Judging from the, well, casual dress of the folks filing into the East Gallery, some elements of Occupy have arrived.

 

10:45 p.m.: You can almost see the sweat rolling off Melo as he’s working his arguments. Given the bipartisan arguments against the one-board plan, though, we might finally see a leadership amendment defeated (or at least a close vote). Fox is actually enforcing time limits now.

 

10:33 p.m.: In one of the evening’s most rousing speeches, Spencer Dickinson (D-South Kingstown), whose district includes URI,  argues against the combined board: “You’ve got people advocating for kindergarten on the same board with (URI President) David Dooley, who is running an economic engine for this state. He needs his own board.”

10:25 p.m.: While Melo and DaSilva debate boards of education, almost half the reps are out of their seats chatting…at least until Fox’s patience with DaSilva ends and he hands Frank Ferri (D-Warwick) the floor. The late-night punchiness is setting in.

 

10:11 p.m.: Melo has spent the past 15 minutes or so defending the amendment creating one state Board of Education (and ending the Board of Higher Education and boards of regents for elementary and secondary education) from accusations that it’s not germane to the budget. This is exactly why the budget session causes you to miss David Letterman AND Jimmy Fallon (this debate is turning into a slow jam).

9:51 p.m.: Cut into three pieces, the East Bay Bridge System amendment finally passes. Adjust your E-Z pass budget accordingly.

9:46 p.m.: The Speaker has laid down the law: he’s ready to use parliamentary procedure. Bob Plain’s warning that I might see dawn when I leave here looks a little more realistic.

 

9:42 p.m.: The Pawtucket Times’ Jim Baron: “Bridge toll discussion going on for so long, I’m looking for one to jump off of.” https://twitter.com/#!/search/jim%20baron

 

9:30 p.m.: An amendment from Karen MacBeth (D-Cumberland) to reimburse residents and business owners in towns at either end of a toll bridge for debits from their E-Z pass accounts, money which Roberto DaSilva (D-East Providence) called “a $700-$800 tax hike,”  was defeated 48-24.

    

9:06 p.m.: Gordon, pleading on behalf of an elderly constituent who will have to pay to cross Sakonnet River Bridge for medical appointments, waxes biblical: “Let my people go!”

Fox: “If you can channel Moses, we don’t need that bridge.”

 

8:58 p.m.: Two failed amendments to the Finance Committee amendment on bridge tolls: One by John Edwards (D-Tiverton) to change the composition of the Bridge & Turnpike Authority for more local representation (currently gubernatorial appointments) and exempt Newport County from collecting gas tax, and one by Daniel Reilly (R-Portsmouth) to allow toll money to be used only in Newport County. The original amendment would also distribute money to Bristol County.

The car wash delegation, prominent in an upstairs gallery earlier, has departed. Meanwhile, according to its Facebook page, Occupy Providence has planned a march to the Statehouse if a floor amendment repealing for wealthy residents is heard tonight.

 

8:41 p.m.: Revised health fees pass 48-21 as we finally get some juices flowing in here. Citing rises in chiropractic license fees from $120 to $210, manicurist licenses from $130 to $170 and physicians’ licenses from $570 to $1,090, Doreen Costa (R-North Kingstown) calls it “a job killer. This is the worst amendment to the worst budget I’ve seen here in some time.”

 

8:30 p.m.: We’re back in session. Before we get to tolls, we review language in state Department of Health fees.

 

7:15 p.m.: But before we cross that toll bridge, Speaker Fox calls recess for dinner. Back at 8.

 

7:08 p.m.: We’re on the 19th amendment, involcing Medicaid global waivers. Coming up next: an amendment which would put the Jamestown-Verrazano and Sakonnet River bridges under the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority. The tolls themselves would not be created until at least FY 2004, and would require federal approval.

The jocularity and bonhomie of two hours ago has faded. We’re battening in for a long night, folks. I sure hope the press row passer-by here who hoped to get home for the second half of Celts-Heat set up his VCR.

 

6:20 p.m.: We’ve just had a lengthy debate over the leadership-sponsored school aid amendment, which passed easily after discussion of maintenance of (local budget) effort provisions and maintenance of state school building assistance at 35 percent of construction cost.

With this, we have gone through 12 of the 23 amendments recommended by the House Finance Committee.  Many involve minor changes in wording or typos.

 

5:35 p.m.: We’re back…on a largely party-line vote, all referenda are approved for the November ballot. The breakdown just brought the pages handing out chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches to the floor a little early.

 

5:05 p.m.: In the midst of the bond debate, the voting machines crash. The proceedings take a break while the tech staff tries to fix the glitch – otherwise, we return to the thrilling days of yesteryear: voice votes.

The referenda slated for the November 2012 ballot include $94 million for a new veterans home/assisted living facility and renovations to the existing home, $50 million for building renovation/modernization at Rhode Island College, $25 million for affordable housing projects, and $20 million each for DEM watershed protection and Clean Water Finance Agency infrastructure loans.

 

4:55 p.m.: First good rejoinder of the day, from Joseph Trillo (R-Warwick) during the debate on $209 million in bond referenda. As Finance Committee Chairman Helio Melo (D-East Providence) was researching figures on state debt, Fox joked about “having someone entertain us.” Dan Gordon (R-Tiverton) angrily replied, “We don’t need an entertainer.” Trillo turned around and said, “You’re gonna have to sit down, then, because you’re the best entertainer in the room.”

 

4:28 p.m.: Fox gavels the House to order.

 

4 p.m.:  The bell! Speaker is in the House! We may actually be under way shortly, although anybody who took the under on the estimated start (mostly during the 3 o’clock hour) has lost.

Former Minority Leader Bob Watson (R-East Greenwich) may keep his 70-page amendment to abolish the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) sheathed, however, He indicated he may yield to a similar amendment proposed by Charlene Lima (D-Providence).

 

3:25 p.m.: The buzz in the building increases, but still no sign of House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence) – we’ll be here awhile.

The lobbying activity continues out in the hall, with the car wash trade very well represented. Dean Perdikakis, owner of Freeway Car Wash, closed all four of his locations today to bring 15 employees, complete with blue uniform shirts and posters, out to the Statehouse Rotunda to lobby against the addition of a 7 percent sales tax to his business.

Freeway Car Wash employees outside the House chamber lobby for the removal of a new 7 percent sales tax from their trade from the proposed fiscal 2013 state budget.

“Three of our locations are right on the state border,” he said, adding that representatives from eight other car washes were represented outside the chamber.

2:05 p.m.: Looks like we’re running a bit late. Pages and various Assembly functionaries buzzing around the chamber doing their business in good spirits, a few legislators seated or on cell phones, and some idle chatter out in the hallway. (But really, you thought this would actually start on time? This is Rhode Island!)
 

Noon: Hello, regular RIF viewers, our Netroots Nation visitors, and anyone else interested in Rhode Island finances. Welcome to our live blog of today’s R.I. House of Representatives budget session, where the reps will debate nearly 150 amendments to the proposed $8.1 million budget for fiscal 2013. While not all will make it to the House floor, those expected to receive some lively debate include a proposal to roll back a tax cut given to the state’s wealthiest residents six years ago, an extension of the state’s 7 percent sales tax to include clothing items exceeding $250 and services including car washes, pet grooming, taxis and limousines, and increased aid to municipalities.

The session should start at approximately 2 p.m. and is expected to run late into the night, when the debate really gets lively and unpredictable. Stay tuned and/or check in with us throughout the afternoon and evening, whether you’re out at an NN function or home watching Game 6 of Celtics-Heat. Enjoy Rhode Island’s edition of the MDA telethon (alas, without Jerry Lewis, but with more entertainment value).

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David Pepin is a lifelong Rhode Islander who has served as a news and sports reporter and editor at the Warwick Beacon, Cranston Herald, The (Woonsocket) Call, Worcester Telegram & Gazette and, most recently, East Greenwich Pendulum. He is a graduate of Boston University and Bishop Hendricken High School, and lives in North Providence. He is also a former member of the Providence Newspaper Guild (Woonsocket and Worcester chapters), and an annual participant in the guild's Follies as a performer and writer.

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