Crunching the budget numbers and what they mean for working families

An interview with Rachel Flum, executive director of The Economic Progress Institute

by Richard Asinof
Convergence RI

PROVIDENCE – The countdown to the state budget has begun, as we await the final product for FY 2018, crafted by the leadership of the House in the R.I. General Assembly.

Each year, there is a promise that the budget process will become more transparent, with more time for better input from the general public and legislators.

Yet, if past experience is prologue for what will happen next, many of the details and bargains struck in negotiating sessions behind closed doors will remain hidden beneath the final number crunching.

Instead, one budget bill will likely emerge from the House Finance Committee, which will then be sent quickly to the entire House for a vote, and then move on to the Senate, in a rush to enact a budget and conclude the legislative session, with summer vacation beckoning, awaiting the signature of the Governor to become law.

What gets lost in translation on the cutting room floor may or may not get addressed in a special session later in the fall.

Show me the car tax
The most noise this legislative session has been generated by the plans by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to keep his campaign pledge to eliminate the car tax, followed by plans by Gov. Gina Raimondo to offer two free years of college tuition to high school graduates who attend public colleges and universities in the state.

The recent revelation that actual state income revenues were running about $100 million behind previous projections has cast a chill on what new programs may be possible under the FY 2018 budget.

That, along with the continuing problems as a result of the botched rollout of the $364 million Unified Health Infrastructure Project, or UHIP, and with it, a cascading wave of troubled delivery of benefits to the state’s most vulnerable residents – and the failure to achieve projected savings, has the legislative leadership sharpening its pencils.

Also looming are the turbulent storm clouds from the proposed federal budget and the latest version of Trumpcare, which promise massive cuts to Medicaid and the health care industry, the state’s largest private employer.

Plans to reduce the flow the existing stream of tax revenues – or funding increased spending on innovative programs, whatever the long-term return on investment – may have to be postponed.

The social contract
What is often missing from the debate around taxes is a vision of the “good” that taxes achieve, as part of a social contract between government and its citizenry, the bargain struck by the founders in devising a Constitutional form of government.

As the preamble to its fact sheets, the Economic Progress Institute has reframed that social contract. saying: “Most Rhode Islanders share a vision of what the Ocean State should strive for: great schools for our children, safe roads and bridges, vibrant communities, prosperous families, and access to quality and affordable health care, housing and child care. The primary way we pay for these things is through our taxes.”

Formerly known as The Poverty Institute, the Economic Progress Institute bills itself as a nonpartisan research and policy organization, “dedicated to improving the economic well-being of low- and modest-income Rhode Islanders.”

Since the organization was founded by Linda Katz and the late Nancy Gewirtz in 1999, it has become a respected authority on “issues impacting the economic vitality of our residents and our state,” according to the Institute’s website.

Or, as Rachel Flum, the Institute’s executive director, framed the conversation during an interview at Olga’s Cup + Saucer with ConvergenceRI: “Our legislative agenda is always around working families.”