By Gina Macris
During recent deliberations on the state budget that emerged from the Rhode Island House Finance Committee last week, legislators considered very carefully testimony about the plight of the state’s most vulnerable citizens and those who care for them, particularly with respect to nursing homes, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said in a briefing June 20.
The Finance Committee’s budget prevents any further reductions to Medicaid reimbursement rates to hospitals and nursing homes and commits $11 million in federal and state Medicaid funds to raise the pay of home health care aides and those providing direct support to adults with developmental disabilities.
“Thank you for the viewpoint,” he said of those who testified for the direct care raises, and we’re glad that in these difficult fiscal times we were able to accommodate that,” he said.
Mattiello’s remarks signaled a growing awareness over the last year about poverty-level wages and high turnover which has destabilized the direct care field and, many say, affected the quality of care.
Along the same vein, the proposed $9.2 billion spending package approved by the House Finance Committee promises to restore free bus passes for the elderly and disabled, at a cost of $3.4 million a year for the next two fiscal years.
The compromise budget that will go before the full House June 22 also puts $26 million into Mattiello’s signature car tax phase-out, enabling 150,00 vehicles to fall off the property tax rolls in the fiscal year that begins July 1. And it partially funds Governor Gina Raimondo’s free tuition plan, allowing two years of free attendance at the Community College of Rhode Island for students who maintain a 2.5 grade average and meet other conditions.
Mattiello said he was proud of the budget, which uses a variety of approaches to close a $134-million revenue gap and still manages to deliver on promises made to Rhode Islanders.
“I didn’t say I was happy with this budget. I said I was very proud of this budget,” Mattiello said.
“You work with what you have and you maximize the benefit to the taxpayers. That’s exactly what we did,” Mattiello said.
State Rep. Joseph N. McNarmara-D-Warwick, echoed Mattiello’s remarks, saying he was particularly proud of the “core values we have represented as the majority of Democrats” and "have defended in a tough budget,” including free tuition, raises for direct care workers and the prevention of erosion of reimbursements to hospitals and nursing homes.
But Mattiello interjected, “I’m going to stop you, Joe. This is not a Democratic caucus. These are the values of the House of Representatives.” McNamara, the chairman of the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare, also chairs the state Democratic Party.
As for the cost-cutting that must be done to balance the budget – including $25 million in unspecified reductions – Mattiello said: “We conferred with the Governor and the Senate. The Governor believes that although this will be difficult, it’s attainable and we agreed it can be done. “
While the budget uses one-time revenue to close some gaps, it will be paired with one-time expenses and will not add to the state’s structural deficit, Mattiello said.
Even though revenues are lower than expected this year, the economy seems to be going in the right direction, with unemployment down to a level not seen since before the recession of 2008, Mattiello said.
“This is our year to continue our momentum,” he said. “We’re not going to tax our way” out of the revenue shortfall, “we’re not going to cut our way out of it,” but “we hope to grow our way out of it” as the economy continues to improve.