Talking Politics

We’re approaching peak time for state budget debates

By Ian Donnis
Posted 5/21/24

In a sure sign that the end of the General Assembly session is approaching, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi has slated a budget caucus for Wednesday afternoon at the Statehouse. A …

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Talking Politics

We’re approaching peak time for state budget debates


STORY OF THE WEEK: In a sure sign that the end of the General Assembly session is approaching, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi has slated a budget caucus for Wednesday afternoon at the Statehouse. A memo this week by state Budget Officer Joseph Codega Jr. said that a net of $78.9 million is available in new resources, out of a year-end general revenue balance of $243.3 million, since the second-quarter surplus was already largely incorporated into Gov. Dan McKee’s revised budget plan. The good news is that Rhode Island has not yet returned to its nearly perpetual exercise of wiping out an annual deficit. But after years of federal COVID aid fueled a multi-year holiday from such concerns, Codega’s memo underscores how far less revenue is available for the fiscal year starting July 1.

This is a legislative election year, so lawmakers will likely exit the Statehouse by mid-June. The drama now comes in watching what gets included — or doesn’t — in the House of Representatives’ version of the budget. The questions include McKee’s late-in-the-session proposed purchase of an East Providence building owned by Citizens Bank and lower tax liabilities for local financial institutions.

VULNERABLE: While Gov. Dan McKee traveled to the White House this week for a summit on chronic student absenteeism, there was another alarming indicator about the state of vulnerable children in Rhode Island. U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha is accusing the state of keeping children with mental health or developmental disabilities at Bradley Hospital, an acute-care psychiatric facility, for overly long periods and not providing other necessary services. “It is nothing short of appalling that the state has chosen to warehouse children in a psychiatric institution, rather than stepping up to provide the community care, support, and services that these kids need, and that the law requires,” Cunha said in a news release. This follows years of warnings from child care advocates. And while there is some good news about declining childhood poverty in Rhode Island, disparities remain and the number of deaths and near-deaths of young people remains alarming.

AT THE CLASSROOM: According to the McKee administration, about “93 percent of schools are currently reporting fewer students chronically absent or on track to be chronically absent compared to the same time last year. As of April, Rhode Island schools reported more than 250,000 fewer absences this school year compared to the same time last year.”

STATE GOVERNMENT: The Rhode Island Department of Health has been without a permanent leader for more than two years, but that vacancy will likely be filled soon, after Dr. Jerome Larkin of Tiverton received enthusiastic praise during a Senate Health and Human Services Committee meeting Thursday. Supporters said Larkin, 61, has the temperament and wide-ranging experience (as someone with expertise in pediatrics, adult medicine and infectious diseases) to ably lead DOH. When it comes to the administrative side of the job, Larkin pointed to his dozen years on the Tiverton School Committee, noting that he is the veteran of 12 hard-fought budget battles. “Some have been scorched earth, some have been merely trench warfare,” he said. “I believe if you can understand the budget of a small-to-medium-sized school district, you have a better than even chance of understanding the budget of the Pentagon.”

While the Senate appeared poised to confirm Larkin on Tuesday, the McKee administration has moved slowly in filling vacant director positions in state government, and now the correctional officers’ union is upset about the absence of a permanent director at the Department of Corrections. On Friday, McKee announced that he has nominated interim DOC Director Wayne Salisbury Jr. as the permanent director.

PARTISAN GROUND ZERO: Exeter is among the most prosperous towns in Rhode Island – and one of the most evenly divided ones in terms of partisan politics. Back in 2020, Donald Trump edged Joe Biden in the town by less than one percentage point. Two years later, Democrat Megan Cotter ousted GOP Rep. Justin Price, who had been in Washington for the events of Jan. 6. Now, with Biden-Trump 2.0 bearing down on the nation, Price hopes to make his own comeback, telling Raymond Baccari Jr. that his decision was based on Cotter’s narrow 32-vote margin in ’22 and “what she’s doing while she’s up there [at the Statehouse] and who she’s aligned with up there.” Cotter this week announced her re-election run, touting her record on open space, forest management, constituent services and other issues.

LOOKING AHEAD: Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera is keeping the door open to a possible statewide run in 2026. Rivera made history when she became the state’s first Latina mayor in 2020, and she was among the top vote-getters to be Biden delegates at the Democratic National Convention this year. On her watch, Central Falls has made progress in building more than 200 new units of housing, ground was broken for a new high school last month, and she’s talked up improving CF schools with the help of Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropy.

Asked during a Political Roundtable interview about her political future, Rivera said in part, “I’m not closing the door and saying, you know, I’m not going to run for another position in the future. But right now my focus is in Central Falls and making sure that I finish what I started.”

TRANSPARENCY: The New England First Amendment Coalition and affiliated groups sounded a warning this week that the LEOBOR bill recently passed by the House will be a setback for the public’s right to know. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio rejected the concern, saying that body cam footage involving minor departmental violations by police would remain subject to public-records requests. Meanwhile, although body cams are widely credited with exposing the reality of police brutality in many instances, they are also subject to shortcomings in terms of what gets released and who controls that process.

LIFE SCIENCES: The Rhode Island Life Science Hub is set to host an inaugural summit at the RI Convention Center. Via news release: “The event will encourage collaboration among public and private sector industry leaders, including non-profits and higher education. The Summit will feature a keynote address from Robert Coughlin, Managing Director, JLL, and former CEO of MassBIO, as well as Travis McCready, Head of Life Sciences, Americas Markets, JLL and former President & CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. Interactive panel discussions will cover topics including Enhancing Tech Transfer, Increasing Access to Capital, Expanding Life Science Infrastructure and Growing the Workforce and the Impact of AI. Leaders in state government including Governor Dan McKee, Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate Finance Chair Lou DiPalma will speak, as well as RI Life Science Hub Board Chair Neil Steinberg.”

HEALTHCARE: Spending on healthcare in Rhode Island did not exceed the rate of economic growth. My colleague, Lynn Arditi, talks about related findings with Cory King, the state’s health insurance commissioner.

MEDIA I: Mike Raia, a former comms director for Gina Raimondo who also spent some time working for WGBH, has an interesting piece in the Providence Eye on the current mediascape in Rhode Island (thanks for the shout-out). As Raia notes, this is a fast-changing time for all kinds of media, and Rhode Island boasts a mix of news organizations and reporters. He diagnoses challenges while also finding reason to be bullish about the merger between The Public’s Radio and Rhode Island PBS. Except: “The folks leading the transformation in public media must build a growth strategy that understands how people consume media in 2024, and from the public statements they’ve made, it appears that they do.”

MEDIA II: Best wishes to Amy Russo as she prepares to leave The Providence Journal for an unspecified job with the federal government. Amy has done a lot of excellent reporting during her time in Rhode Island, and her adorable pup Buddy has attracted fans on social media, so they will be missed.

MEDIA III: Fortress Investment Group, a private equity firm that used to be involved in the ProJo’s post-Belo ownership, was involved in building Donald Trump’s Chicago tower on the former site of the Sun-Times newspaper, reports media critic Dan Kennedy. Fortress, Kennedy writes, “is the firm that launched the era of private equity firms’ owning newspapers.” He quotes this excerpt from Margot Susca, author of a book about how private equity firms affected newspapers: “At a time when government accountability and truth itself are at a crucial nexus, news organizations in the private investment era have failed citizens as these organizations have boosted private investment funds’ bottom lines.”

NEW BEDFORD: Can the Southeastern Massachusetts city strike the right balance in transforming part of the city’s working waterfront that maintains active use while also attracting tourists? This has been part of tense, behind-the-scenes fights for years, as my colleague Ben Berke reports. Now, a series of new proposals are up for debate.

KICKER: As small brewers try to gain their place amid industry giants, lawmakers sometimes offer a helping hand. The Senate this week approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Walter Felag (D-Warren) that would allow breweries to sell 1/6th kegs to the public. “With our state’s local breweries flourishing, it is important to give these small businesses every opportunity to succeed while also giving the consumer more options to support these businesses,” Felag said in a news release. “Allowing the sale of these smaller kegs of beer to the public will expand consumer choice while also giving our breweries new revenue streams to continue operating within the state.” A companion bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. Carol McEntee (D-Narragansett), remains pending.

Ian Donnis can be reached at

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.