The Hummel Report: Budget Decisions for RI

GA pic docHeading into the homestretch of this year’s session, the general assembly has some particularly tough budget decisions to make after tax revenues came in under expectation. While some other areas of state government are holding the line, Rhode Island’s part-time legislature is seeking $44.5 million to spend on itself next year, up 3% from what was budgeted this year and more than 20% from what the assembly actually spent four years ago.

GA pic 2 shot“And the trend is that it’s becoming more and more full-time as time goes on,” House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said in a wide-ranging interview with The Hummel Report. “We’re very, very connected with our constituents and we have to provide them services, and I believe that the public’s expectation of government services, especially from their legislation, has increased considerably in the past few years.”

So what do you get for $44 million?

The legislators themselves account for just shy of $4 million in salary and benefits. And the auditor general’s office also accounts for just under $4 million. Capitol TV, which now televises many hearings in addition to house and senate sessions, has a budget of more than $1.6 million. And the legislative council — the research and legal arm of the assembly — accounts for about $5.1 million.

But it is the cost of those who work in these divisions and the rest of the assembly’s 278 employees that accounts for $17.5 million in salary and benefits alone. The workforce includes 219 full-time employees and 59 part-timers.

GA pic NHHow does Rhode Island compare to other states?

We went to Concord last month to take a closer look at New Hampshire’s General Court, as it’s called. While not an apples-to-apples comparison, the states are similar in population, and New Hampshire has two-thirds of Rhode Island’s overall budget: $6 billion a year in New Hampshire compared to $9 billion annually in Rhode Island.

But spending on the legislature differs greatly. At $18 million a year, the New Hampshire General Court’s entire annual budget is about 40% of what Rhode Island’s General Assembly spends on itself.

We found that the Rhode Island General Assembly has 13 full-time and 38 part-time attorneys. Part-time legal counsel work primarily during the session, and many got their jobs through political connections. New Hampshire has eight full-time attorneys and no part-timers, even during its six-month session.

GA pic SenateBut here’s what you might not know: Every one of those part-time attorneys receives the same medical benefits as a full-time employee. Of the 38 lawyers, 27 are taking full family plans at an average cost of more than $20,000 a year with varying co-pays; 8 have individual plans at a cost of more than $7,000/year and three take a waiver, meaning the state gives them $1,000 for not taking medical benefits.

That means some part-time legal counsel are receiving almost as much in medical benefits as they are in salary. But Mattiello points out that state law allows them to do it, as it does all state employees: full-time benefits for a 20-hour-or-more work week.

House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan says the legislature needs to reel in its spending. “What we do in this building is serious work, and we need staff to support it. We can’t do it all ourselves; it’s a part-time legislature,” she said. “On the other hand, when we spend money wastefully, it’s not there to repair schools, it’s not there to maybe do some technology upgrade in another department. It’s not there to stop tolls.”

And while the next couple of weeks will be a busy time for everyone working at the state house, what about the off-season, where part-time employees are supposed to be working at least 20 hours a week to be entitled to those medical benefits?

GA pic House“Clearly there’s a lot more work going on while we’re in session, that’s just the reality of the situation,” Mattiello said. “But a lot of those employees are really called upon and they end up doing a lot more work during our busy season than their 21 hours per week, so they accumulate comp time. So in the summers they lay foundations for January, they do a lot of the prep work, they do whatever else is asked for them, and there’s always projects going on here and they take their comp and vacation time.”

Morgan countered: “Once you have somebody on board you like them, they’re nice people, you don’t want to get rid of them. And yet, that’s not our job to bring our friends in here, right? It really is to make sure every person in this building is fulfilling their job. That’s important to the people of Rhode Island. That they do something that adds value to our job here, that they’re not just here because of who they know.”

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