May 14, 2023 District Letter

Dear Neighbors:

I hope you can share Mother’s Day with your family, be it together, on the telephone or virtually. This week’s letter will discuss alternative voting systems and last week’s estimate of budget revenues.

1.     Maine’s Voting System

On Wednesday, the Senate commission studying non-plurality voting systems heard a presentation by Sara Gideon. She served as Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives when that state adopted a ranked-choice system for State primaries for State and federal offices, and elections for federal office. (Maine’s Constitution requires plurality elections for State offices.)

Maine’s program brought voting administration changes including a more extensive ballot, a tabulation process that required more than one night to complete, and the possibility that a candidate whose plurality (which was less than a majority) led after the first round only to lose the race to someone with fewer first-place votes after the second-place and third-place votes were counted. The Secretary of State and the candidates engaged in extensive voter education. Maine voters adjusted to all of these changes, even in one race where a local candidate who won only 5% of the first-choice votes ultimately won a majority after the second, third and fourth-place votes were counted. In that case, even the losing candidates accepted the legitimacy of a result that would have been impossible in a strict plurality system.

The Commission will hold one more meeting, on May 31 at 2:00 p.m.  At that time, the Commissioners will welcome public comment, and will discuss their own initial thoughts concerning the alternatives to Rhode Island’s current voting system. We also welcome public comments in writing, which you can send via email to the Commission’s legal counsel, Patricia Breslin, at . 

2.     Determination of Next Year’s Budget Revenue

Last week, the Department of Revenue completed its final estimate of State revenues for the upcoming fiscal year. The estimate projects a general fund surplus of $540 million, slightly less than the $600 million projected in the Governor’s budget, but still significant, particularly given the impact of inflation and the Federal Reserve Bank’s measures to address it. 

A major contributor to the surplus it the more than 1,000 vacancies in the State’s workforce as I noted in last week’s letter. While these vacancies reduce the cost of government, they also cause serious deficits in critical State programs including public safety (State Police, courtroom sheriffs, Department of Corrections guards, etc.) and social services for the most vulnerable Rhode Islanders. Also, the vacancies reduce the State’s contribution to the pension fund, which is based on the overall State payroll. I asked the Treasurer to explain the impact the vacancies have on the pension. He responded in a letter that informed me that the State pays interest into the fund for these unpaid contributions, and the overall State contribution is rebalanced each year based on staffing levels and anticipated pension costs. As a result, the State’s future pension contributions will increase due to this year’s understaffing. Also, to the extent that the vacancies result from inadequate pay (which appears to be the case for several agencies), it may become necessary to increase agency budgets to hire essential staff.

To conclude, the revenue projections indicate signficant funds that can be spent on one-time projects next year, but also long-term headwinds that support caution regarding multiyear revenue commitments, either in the form of tax reductions or permanent new programs.