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The reams of paper pouring from industrial-strength copying machines at the State House were still warm to the touch as they were distributed to a packed hearing room.
Last Friday afternoon, the document pile grows 2-1/2 inches deep — about 5 pounds of legal-speak — unfathomable to mortals unschooled in accounting, bureaucracy, and the law. The papers comprise the state budget as proposed by the influential House Finance Committee, revising the budget outlined months earlier by Governor Donald L. Carcieri.
Hard to understand or not, the House committee’s version is likely not the final word on the new state budget. The House and Senate have yet to act. And even before the committee’s budget was announced, Carcieri attacked it, dramatically threatening to lay off 1000 state workers.
So, there are more rounds to play out — including the possibility of a veto of the budget by Carcieri, with a General Assembly override attempt dependent on whether majority Democrats will stay unified.
And whatever budget becomes law, it probably won’t solve a larger problem: that Rhode Island, unlike most states, is gasping for cash, meaning similar shortfalls and similar budget battles for years to come.
Who cares? Many Rhode Islanders are under the misimpression that politics don’t matter in their day-to-day lives. But however, dull and inscrutable, budgets do change many people’s fortunes.
Here are some impacts the House panel is proposing:
Hundreds more families than Carcieri wanted will continue to receive state child-care subsidies. This means they’ll continue paying only a fraction of the full day-care costs that could eat half their modest salaries.
But lots of others aren’t so lucky. The House Finance Committee has decided to compromise. Carcieri had proposed eliminating subsidies to households with incomes above 150 percent of poverty levels, or $25,800 for a family of three. The limit is now 225 percent, or $38,600. The House panel has proposed 180 percent, or an income of $32,000.
Meanwhile, hundreds of young “adults” will benefit from another of the House committee’s compromise decisions. The panel turned back Carcieri’s proposal to cut off children from state care when they reach 18, instead of 21.
This means that those young people who have been removed from their families by the state, because of abuse and the other ways parents betray their children, will get a chance to continue college and job training, while still getting health-care and a roof over their heads.
But the House has put back only about half the money the governor proposed saving. House Finance Chair Steven M. Costantino (D-Providence) suggests the Department of Children, Youth and Families find ways to deliver services more efficiently.
On the tax front, more taxes may be paid by corporations, and by people who have long-term investments.
The House panel closes some business “loopholes.” It also halts the phase-out of the state capital gains tax, although it doesn’t restore all of the original tax.
Public school children may be scared by the House committee’s plan — very scared. So might their parents; people who own houses and pay property taxes; citizens insane enough to run for local school committees, and otherwise smart people who go into teaching.
The House panel zeros out the governor’s meager three percent hike in state aid to local schools.
Representative Paul W. Crowley, deputy chair of the finance panel, says local school boards need to have serious “conversations” with teachers about trimming pay and benefits, which, he says, produce out-of-control costs.
But if talk therapy doesn’t do the trick, local officials will be left with these options: a) cut more programs like art and music, which are life-changing, but often undervalued; b) raise local property taxes; or c) both.
State workers may be able to rest easier (but probably not).
The House panel ignored the governor’s dramatic vow, made one day earlier, to lay off 1000 of the state’s 15,700 “full-time equivalent employees.” But the House committee has included some of Carcieri’s “personnel” cost-cutting. Costantino says it will be up to the administration, after negotiating with unions, to work out the details.
Along those lines, George H. Nee, state AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, says unions and the administration had been coming close to agreement in closed-door talks. But Nee says the administration stopped the talks and that Carcieri then delivered what Nee calls “a tantrum,” proposing large-scale layoffs.
Assuming that talks resume, or that Carcieri institutes layoffs, or both, state workers are likely to lose something when the dust settles, at least in the short term.
(In a win for labor, House Finance is proposing a system making it harder for the administration to hire contract workers to replace regular state employees, by requiring hearings to air hiring plans.)
Overall, the House committee budget restores some of Carcieri’s proposed changes. It also takes away some of his spending increases. It collects more taxes, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re the one paying them.
Progressive forces — like Rhode Island Kids Count, and the coalition encompassing Ocean State Action, the Poverty Institute at the Rhode Island College, and the Rhode Island Foster Parents Association — have had more impact than they expected.
But when Carcieri and the legislature settle up, this much will be clear: most Rhode Island¬ers will be affected. And most won’t be quite as well off under the new budget than they are with the present one that expires June 30.
  Topics: This Just In , George Nee , Business , Economic Indicators ,  More more >
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