More than $750 million: That was the projected deficit of Rhode Island’s budget in May. Even for a state that regularly runs into the red, the fiscal pain caused by the pandemic cannot be overstated.
Monthly revenue for the state in the early goings of the pandemic was 22 percent lower than in 2019. House Minority Leader Blake Filippi warned that nothing would “escape the hatchet” of budget cuts.
While the state got a $331 million boost to its budget earlier this month from lower-than-expected spending on programs like Medicaid and social services, Rhode Island still has a large hill to climb to claw its way back to a balanced budget.
"Our state and citizens continue to face great hardships and while the fiscal picture is somewhat brighter, the task ahead is daunting,” House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin Abney said in a statement to the Providence Journal.
The light at the end of the tunnel — the vaccine to COVID-19 — is still months away, and mass distribution of that vaccine farther away still. Many businesses and households could take years to recover from the financial impacts of this pandemic, limiting revenue for the state and further entrenching its budget woes.
In this environment, there is one clear solution: The legalization of marijuana.
For a state as blue as Rhode Island, it’s shocking that weed has yet to be legalized. Since 2011, marijuana legalization bills have been introduced in the State House regularly, but the entrenched opposition of the state’s old political guard has stopped those efforts in their tracks.
Last December, governor Gina Raimondo said she would likely propose legalizing marijuana in the 2020 budget. But Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey — both Democrats — expressed opposition to the move.
In July, Raimondo repeated her support for legalizing marijuana, specifically to cover the deficits brought on by the pandemic, but the budget that could have sealed the deal was kicked until after the election.
Perhaps the currents of marijuana legalization are changing. Senate Majority Leader McCaffrey expressed support for legalization after this month’s election, although Senate President Ruggerio stayed quiet on the issue.
Regardless, it is necessary that Rhode Island legalizes marijuana. The short-term investment for state-run marijuana dispensaries will increase the deficit faced by the state, and that is an unavoidable cost of entering the business.
But the financial problems facing the state are likely to persist for years. While this pandemic may soon be in the rear view mirror, the financial damage it has done to Rhode Island’s revenue streams is not.
Legalizing and investing in the marijuana market now will mean the state can reap the financial benefits and cover its deficit in the years to come. When the State House finally passes its budget — after all, it was supposed to pass its budget for the 2021 fiscal year in June but never did — it must legalize marijuana.
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