PROVIDENCE â€” In a shocking, tearful reversal of a stand she took two days before, Woonsocket Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt torpedoed the bill that would have allowed Woonsocket to impose a 13 percent supplemental tax, legislation city leaders say was vital in order to avoid the need for a state budget commission.
The end came suddenly, with a sharp bang of Speaker Gordon Foxâ€™s gavel cutting off discussion with resounding finality on a parliamentary maneuver by Baldelli-Hunt to send the bill back to committee. There was applause from members on the floor and from some Woonsocket residents in the gallery who opposed the tax bill when Fox ordered the measure â€śrecommitted.â€ť Any representative could have challenged Foxâ€™s ruling immediately to force a vote, but none did.
Fox made it clear after the session that the onus for the bill not passing was on Baldelli-Hunt.
â€śYou defer to the locals,â€ť Fox said after the session ended. â€śIf the locals are saying there are issues, we are going to defer to them, and they are saying there are issues. They know their communities better than we do. You have to have an element of trust in this thing.â€ť
Although the bill is technically not dead, but headed back to the House Finance Committee, that may be moot because the City Council has scheduled a meeting on Sunday to request the state to appoint a budget commission.
Director of Revenue Rosemary Booth Gallogly, who would appoint a budget commission, said, â€śI will have to consider it,â€ť when asked if such intervention is now inevitable.
Baldelli-Hunt and fellow Woonsocket Rep. Jon Brien told the finance committee on Tuesday that they would vote in favor of the bill when it came to the House floor. Instead, she rose Thursday and said the city would be stuck with a $5.7 million shortfall even after the tax was imposed.
â€śWith that $5.7 million that would still remain, we at this point have no clear vision or plan to solve Woonsocketâ€™s economic malaise,â€ť Baldelli-Hunt said, adding that the City Council has failed to pass a resolution in favor of her bill to establish a study commission to investigate â€śhow did this happen?â€ť and â€śwho is responsible?â€ť
Baldelli-Hunt told her colleagues that, after she and Brien testified at House Finance, â€śthe delegation met with the governorâ€™s staff, who informed us that, even with the supplemental tax of 13 percent, we would be getting a budget commission in Woonsocket, either by request or by implementation and that the supplemental tax would not prevent a budget commission and that our administration was fully aware of that all along.â€ť
Gallogly told reporters afterward that â€śthere is no guarantee that if the supplemental tax passed there wouldnâ€™t be a budget commission,â€ť but she did not say it was a foregone conclusion.
â€śIn addition, the staff also informed us that there may be budgetary problems on our municipal side,â€ť she added. â€śThat is not what this delegation was told, that is not what Senate Finance was toldâ€ť and that is not what the House Finance Committee was told.
â€śImposing a 13 percent tax at this time,â€ť Baldelli-Hunt said, â€śwould be disastrous for our struggling community, our struggling constituents and a clear indication that this chamber has lost its way.â€ť
Starting to tear up, she continued: â€śIf my actions today result in my eventual political demise, at least I know that, in the end, I had the best interests of my city, and my constituents at heart.â€ť
Interviewed after the session, Baldelli-Hunt said, â€śWe said we were going to vote for it (in the finance committee), but we wanted a hard copy plan in place and we wanted a resolution in support of House Bill 8040 answering the questions we have asked all along: how did this happen and who is responsible? To this day we still do not have the resolution in support of that and our constituents deserve the answers to those two questions.â€ť
Asked if she is happy with the outcome, Baldelli-Hunt responded, â€śWho could be happy at this time about anything that is happening in our city. It is not a matter of winning or losing.â€ť
Jon Brien, usually a political ally of Baldelli-Hunt, appeared to want no part of what happened on the House floor, â€śLisa made the motion to recommit, it was her motion, it went down. Talk to Lisa, I donâ€™t have any comment.â€ť
East Greenwich Republican Rep. Robert Watson, who earlier in the day released a letter he wrote to Fox criticizing the manner in which the tax bill was handled and warning that it would cause more communities to queue up seeking permission to tax their residents as a â€śquick fixâ€ť for budget problems, praised Baldelli-Huntâ€™s action as â€śa brave thing to do and the right thing to doâ€ť and encouraged the chamber to support it.
Rep. Joseph Trillo, a Warwick Republican, blasted the proposed tax as â€śinsanity in these economic times.â€ť
Rep. Rene Menard, a Lincoln Democrat who is a retired Woonsocket firefighter on a disability pension, got involved in the parliamentary wrangling that sent the bill back to committee.
Menard had recused himself on the bill as advised by the Ethics Commission because it could have affected his pension.
But when Baldelli-Hunt moved to recommit the bill, Menard objected, which would force a vote on that motion. Otherwise, the Speaker could simply grant the motion under House rules. It wasnâ€™t until debate on the motion to recommit had begun that Democratic Whip Patrick Oâ€™Neill pointed out that the objection had come from Menard, who had abstained. It was at that point that Fox banged his gavel and the bill was sent back to committee.
Menard told The Call that a Woonsocket representative had told him a week and a half ago that the city would get a budget commission regardless of the supplemental tax. â€śSo for that to be the objection today, I think is false.
â€śThere is a ton of politics being played here,â€ť Menard said. â€śYou have the finance chairman stand up and say everyone is on board, so what changed? Jon (Brien) knew a week and a half ago that the (state) oversight was coming regardless of this.â€ť
Menard said his recusal was on the supplemental tax bill, not the motion to recommit. I firmly believe the Speaker was definitely wrong on this motion. They didnâ€™t want a vote on this bill, and thatâ€™s sad. If thatâ€™s what you really want, then vote for it, or vote against it. Donâ€™t go to committee and say youâ€™re for it then all of a sudden say youâ€™re against it.
â€śEveryone says it is the best thing for the city and all of a sudden on the flip of a dime, you have two people or three people say itâ€™s not, what did they miss? We donâ€™t know where the city is going now and I think it sends a bad message to the state.â€ť
City Councilman Roger Jalette and several other Woonsocket residents were outside the chamber before the session, holding up signs calling for the supplemental tax bill to be killed and buttonholing legislators to ask them to vote against it.
â€śThe people of Woonsocket can not afford a 17 percent tax increase,â€ť Jalette said, adding the 4 percent tax hike (the state maximum) on the 2013 budget to the 13 percent supplemental tax, which will be added to the tax rate for property owners (but not vehicle owners) next year.
Jalette favors the appointment of a receiver who can go into bankruptcy court and get permission to alter employee contracts to require higher health care co-pays and to seek pension givebacks from retirees.
â€śIt will make this burden spread out equally with everyone connected to Woonsocket, not just the taxpayers,â€ť he said.
Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine did not return a call placed late on Thursday seeking comment.