Programming Note: Nesi’s Notes is going to take a break for Thanksgiving, so the next edition after this will be on Dec. 5. Enjoy the holiday, and stay safe.
1. When it comes to the state budget, the focus has generally been on the fact Rhode Island leaders have yet to pass one for the current 2020-21 fiscal year, which began back on July 1. Believe it or not, though, even the ledger for the last fiscal year (2019-20) may not be totally final yet — because it’s still possible some of the coronavirus-related costs the state had last spring could be retrospectively paid for with federal money. That in turn would free up more state revenue to carry forward and help with this year’s deficit. While all this may sound like arcane accounting, it gives you a flavor of just how fluid and unusual the entire budget picture is right now. The State House’s most influential fiscal expert, Sharon Reynolds Ferland, now pegs the current-year deficit at $275 million — a number she acknowledged could further improve by potentially tens of millions of dollars. “A lot of these numbers in some sense are moving targets,” House Finance Chairman Marvin Abney said at this week’s hearing. “Who knows what will happen in the next week or the next two weeks or the next three weeks?” That $275 million shortfall is the one the General Assembly will need to tackle when they return, likely early next month, to pass what’s expected to be a “skinny” budget for 2020-21. (Skinny means, according to leadership, one “that contains no new policy initiatives.”) But as Abney emphasized at the hearing, bigger problems loom just over the horizon when lawmakers receive the governor’s proposed 2021-22 budget in January; while Ferland declined to forecast next year’s deficit due to the present uncertainty, she did offer a warning. “If you’re using a lot of one-time money to balance one problem and sustain current spending — surplus money, the expiring CRF [Coronavirus Relief Fund] funds — it’s all one-time money,” she said. “That’s great to get you over a hump. But you will be facing some steep budget deficits and budget gaps in the coming years.”
2. Meanwhile, Senate President Ruggerio and his leadership team have settled on a location to hold floor sessions for the duration of the pandemic: Rhode Island College’s Sapinsley Hall, per a Zoom briefing he gave his committee chairs Friday and a follow-up email sent to the rest of the Senate. “There is ample room to socially distance, it can be set up with a separate dedicated entrance and exit, and there is a quality ventilation and air filtration system,” Ruggerio explained. (Sapinsley Hall was also the site of some memorable debates Tim White and I have moderated over the…
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