- Associated Press - Thursday, June 15, 2017

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - A scaled-back version of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s plan to provide free college tuition to Rhode Island students has survived intense budget negotiations with legislative leaders, but it’s far from the more expansive version the Democrat originally proposed.

Lawmakers late Thursday night unveiled a $9.2 billion spending plan for the upcoming budget year that attempts to close a shortfall through $25 million cuts to general government spending.

Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello announced the details after 10:30 p.m. Thursday as the revised plan was being sent to the House Finance Committee for late-night deliberations and an expected vote. If the committee approves the plan, it will be sent to the full House of Representatives a week later.

Raimondo’s office counted it as a success that a $3 million pilot program for tuition-free community college was included in the budget.

The scaled-back plan promises to cover two years of free tuition for in-state students at the Community College of Rhode Island, as long as they do some community service and stay in the state for at least two years after graduation, Mattiello said.

Raimondo’s original plan was more expansive and would have provided free tuition for students in the third and fourth years at the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College. That plan was dropped in a compromise with Mattiello and other legislators, who had been concerned about the cost of starting a new program.

“I do think it’s one of the most important things that we can do for the people of Rhode Island to provide opportunity,” Raimondo said Monday as budget negotiations were ongoing. “It is clear that as the economy changes and as we try to reinvent our economy, the states that most quickly figure out a way to equip people with job training and education will be the best economies.”

Also making it into the budget was Mattiello’s top priority: phasing out Rhode Island’s despised car taxes. The first year of his plan would cost the state $26 million to reimburse cities and towns that levy the vehicle taxes. Other legislators’ priorities that made the cut were restoring free bus rides for low-income elderly or disabled riders, and preserving funding for nursing homes.

Budget negotiations between the state’s top Democrats were complicated last month when a new analysis showed a $134 million budget shortfall caused by lower-than-expected revenue in recent months and higher-than-expected spending.

Mattiello said budget-writers were able to find savings to close the shortfall without any “broad-based” tax increases, though there will be an increase to cigarette taxes. Mattiello said the governor has agreed to find $25 million to cut from general government spending.

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