Federal judge considering court-ordered action on budget impasse

THE U.S. DISTRICT COURT for Rhode Island is next to Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence. /COURTESY CAROL M. HIGHSMITH
THE U.S. DISTRICT COURT for Rhode Island is next to Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence. /COURTESY CAROL M. HIGHSMITH

PROVIDENCE – With uncertainty surrounding the state budget impasse, a U.S. District Court judge on Friday said he’d consider ordering Rhode Island to maintain certain social-service contracts.

John J. “Jack” McConnell Jr., a U.S. District Court judge, made his comments in response to state officials telling him there could be future issues related to state contracts with social-service providers should state lawmakers fail to implement fiscal 2018 funding levels.

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“We have a difficult situation,” said Rebecca Boss, director of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals. “We are fairly certain that this is not going to have an immediate impact on providers … but that all depends on how long it lasts. I’m not sure [for how much longer] we could make that statement.”

Boss expressed the concern during a conference hearing at U.S. District Court in Providence, related to an ongoing consent decree between the state and the U.S. Department of Justice. The state in 2014 entered into the agreement, after it was found in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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The state is legally required to improve its efforts to connect Rhode Islanders with intellectual and developmental disabilities with integrated employment opportunities.

A DOJ representative told the state and O’Connell it was important certain contracts with social-service providers continued should the state maintain compliance with the consent decree.

The directive caught the attention of O’Connell, who made clear he would not take a passive approach.

“I would not be unreceptive to entertaining court orders to make sure this would be properly implemented,” he told the group, characterizing the budget impasse as a “kerfuffle.”

“I’m not going to let that get in the way of this court’s order,” he added. “I’m assuming and hoping that this gets resolved quickly, but we’ve got human beings involved here.”

The state budget for fiscal 2018 has remained in limbo since July 1, as state lawmakers failed to come to a consensus over the $9.2 billion tax-and-spending plan. The impasse triggered a state law reverting all budgetary funding to fiscal 2017 levels.

The state earlier this month advised departments and municipalities to prepare for reduced funding, and the long-term effects could result in contract disputes and potential layoffs.

Eli Sherman is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Sherman@PBN.com, or follow him on Twitter @Eli_Sherman

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