Rhode Island House unanimously approves $8.67 billion budget plan designed to help businesses



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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — The Rhode Island House on Tuesday unanimously approved an $8.67 billion state budget proposal designed to help existing businesses and attract new industry.

The House approved the spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and adjourned before 7:30 p.m., by far the quickest budget vote in nearly 30 years, at least. The plan now heads to the Senate.

"We put out a pro-jobs, pro-economy budget," Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said. "The members rallied around it."

House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican, voted for a budget for the first time since being elected in 2008. He praised the tax cuts, changes to the Medicaid system and other initiatives to help businesses.

"This budget is as good as you're going to get in a Democratic state," he said.

The budget plan eliminates the sales tax on energy for commercial users, lowers the annual minimum corporate tax and gives Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo the tools she requested to encourage job creation, with some controls.

It includes the bulk of Raimondo's plan to restructure the Medicaid system to lower costs. Some cuts to hospitals and nursing homes were reduced.

The House plan would exempt Social Security from the state income tax for seniors who make $80,000 or less a year and couples who make $100,000 or less, starting Jan. 1. That would cost the state $9.3 million for half the year and affect more than 33,000 tax filers.

A proposed settlement in the legal fight over the state's landmark public pension system overhaul was approved with no debate.

Some lawmakers opposed the idea of funding the state's health insurance exchange by adding an assessment to individual and small group health insurance premiums and allocating $2.6 million in general revenues.

"We'll be stuck with this from here until eternity if we pass this tonight," said Republican Rep. Antonio Giarrusso, of East Greenwich.

Deputy Majority Leader Deborah Ruggiero, a Jamestown Democrat, said the state exchange is serving many residents.

"This is something we really got right," she said before the House approved the funding.

Giarrusso also tried unsuccessfully to delay a proposed new tax on vacation rentals from July 1 to Jan. 1.

Deputy Minority Leader Patricia Morgan called for an independent prosecutor to probe how video game startup 38 Studios got a $75 million state-backed loan. Mattiello quickly ruled that her amendment wasn't germane to the budget. Morgan, a Coventry Republican, also had planned to introduce an amendment to pay for bridge repairs but said she changed her mind because there wasn't enough support for it.

Finance Committee Chairman Raymond E. Gallison Jr., a Democrat from Bristol, added a proposal to generate more revenue for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority by charging low-income elderly and disabled riders half the regular fare instead of letting them ride for free. It passed comfortably.

The House plan also raises the earned income tax credit to help households with low or moderate incomes and provides new education funding to rebuild and modernize schools, fund the fifth year of the education funding formula adopted by the General Assembly and offer full-day kindergarten in every community. It increases the tax on cigarettes by 25 cents.

Raimondo faced a more severe $190 million deficit when she submitted her budget proposal in March. State revenues are now expected to be up by $106.8 million this year and $36.6 million next year.

The House rejected a contentious luxury tax for pricey second homes dubbed the Taylor Swift tax. Grammy winner Swift has a beachfront mansion in Westerly. The House also didn't include public funding for a proposed new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox in Providence.

Lawmakers will start to wrap up the legislative session soon.

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