- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 14, 2017

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Negotiations between Rhode Island state leaders came close to a resolution Wednesday as legislators prepared to unveil a new state budget proposal.

A revised budget plan is scheduled to be introduced Thursday in the House Finance Committee. It could face a Thursday night committee vote that would move it to the full House of Representatives next week.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has been negotiating with Gov. Gina Raimondo and state Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, all Democrats, over their competing priorities and how to balance a higher-than-expected budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The trio met Monday, and on Wednesday, Raimondo canceled events she had scheduled in West Warwick to meet again with Mattiello. Talks were expected to continue Thursday.

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CAR TAXES

Details haven’t yet been released but the revised budget is expected to include Mattiello’s top priority and a campaign promise made to his Cranston constituents last year: cutting municipal car taxes. His plan, as proposed, would cost the state $26 million in the first year of a six-year phase-out, and $221 million to fully eliminate the taxes by 2023. Raimondo has proposed more modest cuts to the vehicle taxes, which are levied by cities and towns.

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SHORTFALL

Hanging over the budget deliberations has been the challenge of balancing a $134 million shortfall caused by weaker-than-expected state revenue and higher-than-expected spending. Filling that gap will require concessions. Raimondo had earlier this year proposed millions in savings from Medicaid services for low-income patients, but Democratic lawmakers have opposed cuts they said could hurt hospitals and nursing homes.

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FREE TUITION

It’s not known if the House’s budget proposal will also include Raimondo’s signature plan to provide two years of free tuition at state colleges. When she proposed the idea in January, Raimondo’s proposed $9.25 billion spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year included $10 million to launch the first phase of free tuition for students at the Community College of Rhode Island. Her proposal would later expand free tuition to students in their third and fourth years at Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island, at an estimated cost of $30 million a year. Mattiello has been vocal in his opposition to creating what he has characterized as a costly new program, though it remains unclear if some compromise will be made.

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BUS FARES

The president of the state Senate has also added a new priority to the budget mix. Ruggerio and fellow Democratic state Sen. Harold Metts said this week they’re working to identify funds to reinstate no-fare bus passes for low-income riders who are elderly or disabled. The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority stopped giving free rides to those passengers earlier this year and began charging them a discounted fare. The senators said that’s caused a drop in food pantry visits and isolated people who could benefit from more socialization, recreation and other activities.

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GOP PRIORITIES

Republicans, who hold about 14 percent of seats in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, outlined four priorities this week they said would need to be included for them to support the budget. They called for disability pension reform, freezing and eliminating the tangible personal property tax, creating a new independent inspector general’s office to investigate waste and fraud, and exempting school repair projects from union prevailing wage requirements.

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This story has been changed to show that the governor’s canceled events are in West Warwick, not Warwick.

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