House Finance Committee approves 2023 state budget bill

 

STATE HOUSE – The House Finance Committee has approved a $13.6 billion state budget for the 2023 fiscal year that provides targeted taxpayer relief and directs spending of the remainder of the state’s American Rescue Act Plan (ARPA) funds on strengthening existing commitments.

The budget now goes to the full House of Representatives, which is slated to take it up June 16.

“Rhode Island has been making a very strong economic comeback since the worst days of the pandemic, and with a boost from the federal resources we’ve received over the last couple of years, we’re going to be able to help Rhode Islanders from all walks of life through this budget. A budget is really much more than hundreds of pages of revenue and expenditures; it’s how we act on our priorities and values. With this budget, we’re saying we hear Rhode Islanders when they say they can’t find housing they can afford and they are feeling the pinch of inflation. We know that for a healthy, strong community, we need more funding for health care, mental health and social services. We understand that good education is the key to a strong future, and that kids need safe, healthy places to learn. I’m proud of what we’re able to do today with our resources, and I especially want to thank the House Finance Committee, led by Chairman Marvin Abney, for the months of work they put into crafting this plan, along with our colleagues in the Senate and Governor McKee for working in partnership with us on the ideas included in it. This is a responsible budget that will have positive impacts for all Rhode Islanders,” said House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick).

Said Finance Committee Chairman Abney (D-Dist. 73, Newport, Middletown), “This budget is a product of true collaboration between the House, the Senate and the Administration which will continue to drive Rhode Island’s recovery and assist the taxpayers and residents with the challenges we still currently face. It was designed to help the good of the whole with a responsible focus on protecting the taxpayers from possible future deficits while also supporting the vital services our residents rely upon and need. I commend all who had a hand in this important piece of legislation and I look forward to seeing the investments made within the budget benefit all Rhode Islanders into the future.”

The budget  (2022-H 7123A) approved by the committee today accelerates the six-year phase-out of Rhode Island’s motor vehicle excise tax, which was previously the highest in the nation, eliminating what would have been the final year of the tax next year and providing $64 million in relief. That means almost all Rhode Islanders will not see another automobile excise bill. (East Providence, which operates on a different fiscal year than most municipalities, is one year behind other cities and towns on the phase-out.)

For families with children, the committee added a one-time child tax credit of $250 per child, for up to three children per family. The credit will be automatically sent in the fall by the Division of Taxation to those who filed taxes indicating they had children under 18 in the 2021 calendar year and made less than $100,000 for single filers, or $200,000 for joint filers. The credit is expected to go to about 190,000 filers, providing $43.8 million in relief.

Drivers will also benefit from the elimination of an $8 fee that was originally slated to be charged upon registration renewal to every car owner over the next two years for the cost of replacing license plates with new ones. The amended budget will instead provide the plates for free.

The committee added $4 million to increase the “circuit breaker” tax credit available to qualifying elderly and disabled residents, raising the maximum credit from about $400 to $600 beginning in tax year 2023 and indexing that amount to inflation. The committee also made the credit available to more Rhode Islanders by increasing the income threshold for eligibility from $30,000 to $35,000.

For veterans, the committee supported the governor’s proposal to eliminate income taxes on military pensions, but eliminated it entirely in the 2023 tax year instead of phasing it over five years, as the governor had proposed. 

For other retirees, the committee raised from $15,000 to $20,000 the amount of annual pension income that is exempt from state taxation.

To address a major concern for business, the committee added a provision to dedicate $100 million to the unemployment trust fund to reduce businesses’ unemployment tax rates for 2023. The trust fund took a significant hit during the pandemic from people being out of work as well as from fraud, and adding to the fund will reduce what must be paid into it by employers.

Continuing legislative leaders’ efforts to address housing, the committee kept in the $250 million total from the American Rescue Plan Act federal funds proposed by the governor for affordable housing and addressing homelessness, although it made some changes to funding levels and initiatives. Among the initiatives included in that funding is $30 million for down payment assistance for homebuyers and $10 million toward a new shelter for the homeless services agency Crossroads Rhode Island.

The plan fully funds the state’s education formula, and includes a commitment to nearly double the number of voluntary, free high-quality pre-kindergarten seats to 5,000 statewide over five years.

The budget includes three bond questions on November’s ballot. The first seeks voter approval for another school construction bond for $250 million, and allocates an additional $50 million from the capital funds toward school construction. More than three-quarters of voters approved a similar school construction bond in 2018.

A second ballot question will seek voter approval for $100 million in borrowing for new construction and repairs at the University of Rhode Island Narragansett Bay campus, doubling the amount proposed by the governor. While the governor initially included $12 million for construction at the Community College of Rhode Island, the committee funded that project from the capital fund instead of borrowing.

A third ballot question will be a “green bond,” asking voters to approve $50 million — $38 million for conservation and recreation, and another $12 million for the education center at Roger Williams Park Zoo.

In addition to seeking a study by the Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner on appropriate reimbursement rate levels into the future, the plan addresses immediate needs by including numerous increases to providers of health care and home and community services for children, elderly, developmentally disabled individuals and low-income Rhode Islanders, including pediatric care, labor and delivery care, hospitals, adult dental services, children’s therapeutic and respite services, Early Intervention,  children’s behavioral health care, home health services and personal care aides.

The plan includes $30 million from ARPA to support community behavioral health care clinics to help them serve Rhode Island’s surging mental and behavioral health needs, and permanently establishes a mental health treatment court, paid for through general revenues.

In addition to continuing ARPA support first authorized in January for a total of $42 million, the committee approved provisions to increase rates the state pays for child care services and expand eligibility for those services. Those earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level would quality, and participants could earn up 300 percent before losing eligibility.

The committee allocated $190 million in ARPA funds for future COVID response costs.

Addressing concerns raised by lawmakers and advocates about the lack of any in-state psychiatric facility for girls, the committee included $12 million to expand existing in-state capacity at private facilities and initial design of a new facility. The committee committed $45 million over three years from Capital Plan funds for construction of that facility.

The committee kept the governor’s plan to invest $168 million in upgrades to Eleanor Slater Hospital, including $108 million to construct a new long-term acute care hospital at the Zambarano campus in Burrillville.

The committee included a yearlong pilot program to provide free service on the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s busiest route, the R line that runs from Pawtucket to Cranston.

The budget doubles to $20 million an initiative to use ARPA funds on a grant program for nonprofit organizations, giving the Rhode Island Foundation responsibility for distribution.

The committee approved a pilot program that would grant SNAP recipients a 50-cent credit to their EBT cards for every dollar used to purchase fruits and vegetables. $1.5 million would be appropriated for administrative and technology costs and $10 million would be appropriated to cover the cost of the benefits.

The committee appropriated $1 million to study the feasibility of erecting suicide barriers on the three bridges that connect Aquidneck Island and Jamestown to the Rhode Island mainland.

Broadband infrastructure planning work, including a needs assessment, statewide mapping of broadband access and cost, and one new Broadband Director position at the Commerce Corporation was also approved by the committee. A broadband advisory committee is also created within the amended budget.

The plan expands the Wavemaker fellowship program, currently used to strengthen the workforce in STEM fields, to health and mental health professionals.

The committee approved a cottage food program to allow individuals to sell food items such as baked goods prepared from their own homes, with certain health and safety requirements and permits.

Since no formal budget request has been provided to the committee, no state funding was included for the Tidewater soccer stadium project in Pawtucket.

 

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