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by Herb Weiss, contributing writer on aging issues
Photo: Pamela Bhatia, Artistic Images
Can We Call the Recently Passed House Budget Proposal “Age-Friendly”
After a 47:10 minute meeting on Friday night, the House Finance Committee approved a $14 billion budget for the 2024 fiscal year that commits funding toward addressing the housing crisis (top priority), supports business development and makes education funding more equitable while limiting the use of one-time revenue to one-time expenditures.
The passed budget reflects the May revenue estimate that was $61.2 million lower than projected last November.
On June 2, 2023, the budget passed on a partisan vote of 13-3, sending the budget bill (2023-H 5200A) to the full House of Representatives, which is slated to take it up June 9 at 2:30 p.m. Changes could be made.
Hammering Out a Compromised Budget
At a news conference held on Friday at 3:30 p.m. before the vote, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick) compared the politics of hammering out the state budget proposal to Democratic and GOP leadership making a deal to avoid a national default earlier this week. “Nobody, including me and everyone else here, got everything they wanted,” he said, noting that the state budget required “compromise.”
“Our goal with this budget is to support Rhode Islanders’ needs while responsibly preparing for our future. Our top priority, of course, is addressing our housing crisis, and we have worked hard, in collaboration with Governor McKee and our colleagues in the Senate, to identify the most effective ways we can direct the funding we have toward solutions that will help create more affordable housing access. This budget also strengthens our efforts to provide educational opportunities in K-12 and higher education and supports businesses, working Rhode Islanders, retirees and those struggling to meet their families’ basic needs,” said Shekarchi, in a statement announcing the House Finance Committee’s passage of the budget.
“At the same time, we are being realistic. Given the end of the federal funding related to the pandemic, we need to plan not only for next year, but for the following years, when we are not going to have the level of revenue we’ve been fortunate enough to have for the past few years. We are spending our remaining federal COVID funding and our available revenue on one-time investments rather than creating long-term commitments that we can’t sustain,” he said.
Adds Marvin L. Abney (D-Dist. 73, Newport, Middletown), chairman of the House Finance Committee: “This budget was carefully crafted so that our residents, particularly our most vulnerable, retain the supports and assistance that they and their families need, so that our businesses have the ability and opportunity to grow, and so that Rhode Island is situated to withstand a very possible financial downtown that will affect both our state and national economies. Responsible, compassionate and thoughtful decisions were made to create a budget that will benefit all Rhode Islanders and this budget positions the state to be as competitive as possible into the future.”
Taking a Look at Aging Programs and Services
“I am extremely pleased the budget passed by the House Finance Committee contains important funding that will benefit seniors as well as older adults with disabilities,” says Maureen Maigret, chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of Rhode Island’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council and policy consultant and board member of the Senior Agenda Coalition of RI. “The Office of Healthy Aging (OHA) will receive an additional $250,000 in general revenue for the Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC). The ADRC provides counseling about services and benefits and assistance with the application process. Advocating to strengthen the ADRC (called the POINT) was a high priority for the Senior Agenda Coalition of RI and the Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council,” says Maigret.
According to Maigret, this is the first time that ADRC will receive state funds. To date, it has operated with limited federal dollars and too many persons are not aware of the program. The state funding can be matched by federal Medicaid funds. “ADRC services are critically important for older adults, persons with disabilities and family caregivers, as they attempt to find appropriate services and navigate a sometimes-fragmented system of care, says Maigret.
Maigret says that the budget also adds funds to support two new staff positions for OHA’s protective services unit to deal with increasing reports of elder abuse and exploitation. OHA’s Adult Protective Services received over 6,000 calls last year. The additional funding for these positions will ensure that reports are investigated in a timely manner and protect older adults at risk of abuse and neglect.
Other notable additions to the budget include an increase in the Personal Needs Allowance (PNA) for nursing home residents on Medicaid to $75/month (from $50.) This amount had not been adjusted since 1999, says Maigret noting that the additional funding will help thousands of nursing home residents pay for such items as haircuts, clothing and, telephone service.
“The House Finance Committee also added $250,000 to increase funding for the Livable Home Modification grant program to $0.8 million,” says Maigret, noting that the program helps pay for costs of support home modifications and accessibility enhancements to allow individuals to remain in community settings. And of course, the funds dedicated to addressing housing affordability although not specific to the older population will benefit them,” adds Maigret. “Overall, these budget additions and the additional funds for community senior services and Meals on Wheels proposed by the Governor demonstrate a continued commitment on the part of our state leaders to address the needs of our growing older population,” she says.
The budget didn’t reinstate the retiree Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) eliminated in 2011. “Once again, retired state workers, teachers, and municipal retirees who are part of the state retirement system have been shown how little they are valued by state legislators”, comments Susan Sweet, a former state associate director of elderly affairs and an advocate for low-income elders. “Although there were many bills in to restore the COLA or at least provide a token payment to these retirees, it appears that no funds at all are being directed towards that purpose. This is a great disappointment to so many folks who faithfully performed their duties and were stripped of their promised pensions. No wonder that teachers and government workers are reluctant to spend their career lives in the public sector” she states.
Is Proposed House Budget “Age Friendly” ?
Maigret believes that the state has taken some positive steps toward becoming “age friendly” especially if we think of age-friendly with an intergenerational lens. Items that address children and youth such as expanded tuition assistance of Rhode Island colleges are important. “However, we still have a long way to go in many of the domains for age friendliness,” she notes, “especially in the area of economic security for older adults as many live with income less than $25,000 relying mostly on fixed incomes.”
Maigret calls on the Rhode Island General Assembly to fund mini-grants to communities to incentivize them to “look at their comprehensive plans with age-friendly lens.”
Here is the link to the bill to establish the budget:
Here is the link to the entire budget and every article (as well as how it compares to the budget as submitted by the Governor in January): https://www.rilegislature.gov/Budget/SitePages/FY24.aspx.
Here is a link to a press release which contains a summary of the highlights of the budget:
To watch the House Finance Committee meeting, go to https://ritv.devosvideo.com/show?video=defebab838c1&apg=52ab780b.
Herb Weiss, LRI -12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who has covered aging, health care and medical issues for over 43 years. To purchase his books, Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly and a sequel, compiling weekly published articles, go to herbweiss.com.
An Open Letter To The RI General Assembly:
Some have said they regret having voted for RIRSA 2011 and the 2015 Settlement Agreement.
You have an opportunity to right those errors on June 9, 2023.
Stand as one and in support of the members of the ERSRI.
Do not vote in favor of the 2024 budget unless and until it is amended to restore our colas.
Stand as one. The entire House membership cannot be sanctioned if you stand in solidarity.
You have said you support cola restoration.
Actions speak louder than words.
June 9, 2023 – vote “No” to the budget until cola restoration is included.
History has repeated itself. In 2011 the General Assembly did not do its due diligence. It voted to terminate the cost-of-living adjustments for 60,000 members of the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island without first conducting an independent actuarial audit of the state pension system. It voted on legislation that continues to have a devastating financial impact on 60,000 individuals. It voted based on information presented by the Office of the General Treasurer. The General Assembly did not verify that information prior to approving that legislation. In 2023 a number of bills regarding cost-of-living adjustments were introduced at the beginning of the legislative session. None of the bills were scheduled for hearings and testimony until May. The legislative session ends in June. After and only after those tasks were completed did the General Assembly request fiscal notes on all of the legislation. Once again the General Assembly did not do its due diligence. The members of the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island are not unintelligent people. We saw the handwriting on the wall simply by the actions of the General Assembly. The entire House of Representatives will be voting on the 2024 budget on June 9, 2024. Show that you care. You have said you do. Prove it. Actions speak louder than words. Stand as one in support of the members of the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island. Reject the 2024 budget unless it is amended to restore our cost-of-living adjustments. November 2024 is only seventeen months away.
Once again, the pension COLA that was eliminated (in response to a bogus “emergency”) in 2011 has not been restored. While everyone else found a present under their “Christmas tree,” public employee retirees are trapped in a downward spiral that has already reduced the value of their pensions by over 30% in the last ten years.