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Lawmakers approve $13.1B budget, other bills to end session

July 2, 2021 GMT

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island lawmakers approved a $13.1 billion state budget and a host of other bills as they recessed for the summer late Thursday.

The spending plan, which cleared the state Senate on a 30-7 vote, boosts support for affordable housing, social services and education — and without any broad-based tax increases.

“This is a responsible budget that cares for Rhode Islanders today while investing in our collective future,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ryan Pearson, a Cumberland Democrat, said in a statement. “The actions we are taking will reduce our structural deficit, invest in our infrastructure, repay the money we used from our rainy day fund, and use the federal funding appropriately for investments like technology throughout government.”

The budget for the fiscal year that started July 1 represents $3.7 billion more in total spending than the prior year. It includes $15 million for a statewide police body camera program, adds $5.9 million beyond the governor’s proposal to help Rhode Island College address its financial difficulties, and allocates $7.7 million for the Rhode Island Promise program, which provides two years of free tuition at the Community College of Rhode Island for qualified high school graduates.

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The Democrat-controlled General Assembly said their budget also creates a permanent funding stream for affordable housing creation by increasing the conveyance tax on high-end real estate. And it continues the phase-out of the car tax, which is on pace to be fully eliminated after the 2023 fiscal year.

House Republicans panned the spending plan for failing to address the state’s structural budget deficits and doing “nothing to alleviate or reduce the future tax burden” on Rhode Islanders.

Some progressive Democrats in the Senate also voted against the budget, complaining that it did not increase taxes on wealthy residents and cut two state aid programs benefitting Providence, the state’s capital and largest city.

The budget, which cleared the state House of Representatives last week, now heads to Democratic Gov. Dan McKee for his approval.

A raft of other bills passed by lawmakers during their annual flurry of late night votes are also heading to McKee. Among them:

— Banning guns on school grounds and preventing the “straw purchase” of guns by intermediaries on behalf of people banned from buying firearms.

— Prohibiting employers from reporting or threatening to report an employee’s immigration status for whistle-blowing.

— Banning the intentional, simultaneous releases of 10 or more balloons into the air.

— Prohibiting food service establishments from providing single-use plastic straws unless requested.

— Allowing commercial fishermen to be licensed to sell certain catch dockside from their vessel.

— Allowing restaurants and bars to take advantage of pandemic modifications, such as outdoor seating, without running afoul of local zoning laws, at least through next spring.