2017-01-26 / Front Page

Abney Heads Up Work on State Budget

By Tom Walsh

With Gov. Gina Raimondo’s $9.2 billion 2017-2018 state budget proposal now in the hands of the Rhode Island General Assembly, it will be up to the House Finance Committee, chaired by Newport Democratic Rep. Marvin L. Abney, to launch the spending plan’s legislative journey.

While it remains far too early to determine what changes the House Finance Committee will recommend to the 75-member House of Representatives, Abney was clear on one aspect of the new budget – that some form of legislation eliminating or reducing the long-unpopular car tax will be enacted during the upcoming session.

“We will find a way to give people some relief on the car tax,” said Abney. “We do listen to people. We really do.”

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has proposed fully phasing out car taxes over five years, at a cost of about $215 million. Raimondo has offered a less-ambitious car tax reduction plan, cutting the rate by 30 percent next year at a cost of $55 million that the state would not actually have to pay until 2019.

“My staff is looking closely at both proposals. We listen to every side of these issues,” Abney said. “The question always is how to pay for it. That’s where all the back and forth comes in. That’s the part that the public doesn’t see.”

He said that lawmakers and the governor are hoping that updated revenue figures exceed current estimates before a final spending plan must be hammered out, most likely in June.

Budget officials are also hoping that the announcement by Amazon that the company will start collecting sales tax revenue as soon as next month on items bought online will spark other online businesses to do the same. The governor’s new state budget plan would also push online buyers to pay the 7 percent sales tax by notifying them of their duty to do that.

Raimondo is so certain that these efforts will succeed that she has added $35 million to her 2017- 2018 state spending blueprint from sales taxes collected from online sources.

In addition to examining a method of cutting or eventually eliminating the car tax, Abney’s House Finance panel will also consider a plan for revamping tuition that is charged to Rhode Island students who attend state colleges. The Raimondo budget would eliminate tuition at the Community College of Rhode Island, as well as charges to Rhode Island students who are juniors or seniors at the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College.

“I’m all for helping with college tuition,” Abney said. “But what does that really mean?”

Abney said juniors or seniors who are from Rhode Island should still apply for whatever financial aid they have been receiving from other sources. Then, he said, the newly proposed tuition program could pay for the balance of tuition due.

The 2017-2018 budget plan submitted by Raimondo includes $10 million for this program, but the cost is projected to climb to $30 million in four years.

URI officials have said that the tuition proposal could increase the university’s in-state enrollment by 20 percent by 2021. They added that such an influx of students could require new dormitories and other facilities.

The governor’s recommended 2017-2018 budget represents an approximate 3.5 percent increase over the current year’s spending.

Besides the car tax and state college tuition issues, Raimondo’s 2017-2018 state budget would also:

Earmark about $12 million to help smaller manufacturers expand, hire new workers, and buy new equipment.

Raise the state cigarette tax from the current $3.75 per pack to $4.25. Budget officials estimate that this increase would produce about $8.7 million in new revenue. Of that, some $2.5 million would be used to fund various outdoor recreation initiatives.

Increase public school spending in Rhode Island by $45.8 million over 2016-2017.

For the House Finance Committee chairman, the arrival of a new budget season means the advent of numerous 12- to 14-hour days at the Statehouse examining the details of the Raimondo spending plan.

Abney was asked how Newport could benefit with a local legislator at the helm of the House Finance Committee.

“The city doesn’t get anything that it doesn’t deserve,” Abney said. “But I do make sure that we get what we do deserve. Being House Finance Committee chairman helps with that. From my committee perspective, we just have to deal with as many facts as possible.”

Rep. Deborah L. Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, a veteran House Finance Committee member like Abney, praised the chairman’s stewardship.

“Marvin is a terrific leader,” she said. “He’s very even-tempered. And that’s very important in that position. We have moral compasses that guide us. That’s important because the budget is the conscience of the state.”

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