This Is the Way the Budget Grows, Not with a Bang but a Revision


As uncomfortable as it may be to cede any ground to the big-government insiders who run our state, I have to admit that the knocks that Cranston Democrat and Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello has been getting for not knowing that the General Assembly is seeking a 17% increase in its budget are unfair.

The issue arose on WPRI’s Newsmakers show, with a question from Ted Nesi (see item 5 of his weekend column):

State lawmakers are seeking $44 million to fund themselves in 2017-18, which would be an increase of $6.6 million over just last year, for a 17% spike. The majority of that money is for the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, controlled by Speaker Mattiello and led by former Rep. Frank Montanaro; JCLS is seeking a nearly $3 million bump. On Newsmakers, Mattiello said he wasn’t aware of the double-digit growth in the legislature’s budget.

Naturally, Brandon Bell, of the RIGOP has had some things to say about that, and Twitter buzzed a little over the weekend.

Here’s the “to be fair”:  Most of the increase — about 13 percentage points — happened between last year and this year, whereas in expressing his lack of awareness, the speaker clearly meant from this year to next.  And to be fairer, most of that increase derived from the fact that last year’s spending (that is, fiscal year 2016, ending June 2017) turned out to be lower than what the General Assembly and governor had budgeted.  The General Assembly’s revised budget for 2016, passed last June, was 17% bigger than what the actual audited spending turned out to be.

Although this should get the speaker out of some of the immediate hot water, it arguably makes things worse.  Something similar happened the prior year, which means the General Assembly’s budget is on autopilot.  Despite ostensibly representing the people of Rhode Island, the legislature is growing its budget with ease as Rhode Islanders struggle.  That’s where Bell’s complaint is absolutely deserved.

And it’s not just the legislature.  News that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo wants to add another $60 million dollars to this year’s midyear revision drives home the point that the entire state government places budget growth as its main priority.  That $60 million brings the requested midyear increase to $322 million.  That’s a 3.6% increase in the middle of the year, on top of the 3.2% increase that the originally enacted budget represented from the prior year’s enacted budget.

This revised budget will be a 7% increase over last year’s enacted budget and a 9% increase over the actual spending last year.  Last year, the 2016 revision represented a 7% increase over the 2015 actual spending.  Little wonder the budget builders want to present the increases in two steps.

Instead, when expenditures come in higher than budgeted, the state government should re-prioritize the existing budget, and when expenditures come in lower, taxpayers should start seeing refunds.