Echoing the top officials in their respective chambers, House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick) and Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey (D-Dist. 29, Warwick) say fiscal issues are set to lead the General Assembly’s agenda for the coming year – and tax increases are not under consideration, even with difficult choices ahead.
“Tax increases are not on the agenda. We’ll have to see what happens in the governor’s budget as we move forward … Whatever situation we’re in, we don’t think tax increases are the solution,” Shekarchi said during a joint interview with McCaffrey at the Beacon Communications offices in Warwick.
He added: “We need to continue to grow the economy. That’s the biggest thing.”
“Jobs and the economy, keep it going the way it’s going, and hopefully we can continue to keep younger people in Rhode Island,” McCaffrey said of the assembly’s top priorities.
Despite a looming state budget deficit of as much as $200 million, Shekarchi and McCaffrey said the legislature’s leadership does not view tax increases as a part of the solution. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-Dist. 15, Cranston) recently told the Providence Journal that any tax increase included in Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget plan for the coming year will be viewed “very skeptically.”
Shekarchi echoed Mattiello’s view that spending more effectively – rather than raising additional revenue – is the appropriate path forward.
“[We are focused on] making sure that the money that we do spend gets allocated fairly, correctly, properly … Practically speaking, this is an election year. I don’t see there’s a lot of support in either chamber to raise taxes,” Shekarchi said.
He added: “The key word there is also accountability – where [money] gets allocated, how it gets allocated.”
McCaffrey said senators would weigh the merits of an increase in the state’s top income tax rate, which has been proposed by the progressive Rhode Island Political Cooperative and its affiliated candidates. But he fears such a hike would drive wealthy residents – and their businesses and investments – out of the state.
“We’ll listen to it and see what the pros and cons of it are. But we’ve been trending the other way in taxes,” he said. “We’ve been reducing taxes in all different area to try and keep people in the state of Rhode Island.”
Shekarchi was more blunt in his assessment of the upper-tier tax increase, calling it a “non-starter.”
“We’re moving to make our state more tax-friendly, and we need to continue that,” he said.
Indeed, the legislative leaders said their agenda includes cutting, rather than increasing, taxes – starting with a continuation of the car-tax phase-out championed by Mattiello.
The phase-out plan, which would enter the fourth of six years if approved, relies on making municipalities whole for the revenue lost by the elimination of the car tax. Larry Berman, communications director for the House of Representatives, said the cost of continuing the phase-out in the coming fiscal year would be approximately $115 million, roughly $21 million more than the current fiscal year.
Shekarchi and McCaffrey are also both cool to the idea of legalizing recreational marijuana, echoing the opposition of both Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. Raimondo unsuccessfully proposed legalization last year and has said she intends to do so again.
McCaffrey said he remains concerned with unresolved issues related to legalization, including the current lack of a roadside test for marijuana-impaired drivers.
“I don’t think we’re quite there to legalize it,” he said.
Shekarchi said Colorado, which legalized marijuana several years ago, has needed to continually update its laws to adapt to the effects of the move.
“They still haven’t gotten it right … We need to make sure that we get it right,” he said.
Shekarchi said he favors a “wait and see” approach, and does not believe “revenue should be a factor in whether we’re going to legalize it or not.”
One area in which the assembly’s leadership and progressives appear set to find common ground is on an increase in the minimum wage. It is currently set at $10.50 an hour in Rhode Island, compared with $11 in Connecticut and $12 in Massachusetts.
“We need to be competitive with our neighbors, and we’re at the low end of that … I think you’ll see an increase in the minimum wage this year,” Shekarchi said.
The following are highlights of other subjects raised during the interview:
VAPING: Shekarchi said he favors an increase in the age requirement to purchase vaping products from 18 to 21. He said he is “not necessarily opposed” to a similar discussion for traditional tobacco products, but feels particularly motivated to raise the vaping age because of the appeal of the products to children and the lack of evidence regarding their medical effects.
“I don’t think anybody who’s a teenager should be vaping … Vaping is too brand new. It’s too much in vogue with young children,” he said.
McCaffrey agreed, citing this year’s outbreak of lung injury cases linked to vaping products. In the wake of that epidemic, Raimondo instituted a temporary ban on the sale of flavored vaping products.
BAG BAN: McCaffrey and Shekarchi both said they expect legislation regarding a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags for retail checkout purposes to be introduced again in the coming session. In the last year, nearby communities such as Warwick and Providence have joined a growing list of cities and towns to adopt bag bans of their own, and the lawmakers say they believe a uniform approach makes sense for the state.
“[The assembly] came close to an agreement last year … We should get together and pass one plastic bag ban,” Shekarchi said.
WARWICK SCHOOLS: Shekarchi said he is concerned that Warwick’s educational costs continue to rise even as its student population declines – and he suggested the city should act quickly to take advantage of state funding for the construction of any new school facilities being considered.
“They’re very late to the game. With the state bond issue, there’s a lot of communities looking to build new schools. Warwick’s studying the issue. There are people with applications already in the pipeline for that,” he said, suggesting the City Council and School Committee approve a joint resolution expressing interest and then start the application process.
He added: “I’m afraid if they study it too long, that program, that funding, will be gone … It’s not time to study, it’s time to act. That should have been in the pipeline two years ago if they were thinking about that.”
Regarding the possibility of a new high school for Warwick, McCaffrey said: “Obviously if there’s the want and desire in Warwick and the ability to pay for it, I think it’s something we should look at.” He said the state is currently reviewing its educational funding formula, and he hopes that recent school consolidation at the middle and high school levels in Warwick will yield benefits for the city.
SCHOOL SAFETY: Shekarchi called school safety a “broad issue” that will be on the radar of lawmakers in the coming session. He echoed Mattiello in referencing Warwick’s use of a mobile phone app to more directly connect students, teachers and first-responders in emergency situations as a potential model for the state, and said the incorporation of security features in the design of new school buildings is another area warranting further discussion.
“I think [school safety is] a big, broad-based discussion where you need to bring all the stakeholders in,” he said.
IGT/TWIN RIVER: Shekarchi said the House expects to receive back a study on the governor’s proposed 20-year gaming services contract with IGT in mid to late January. He said the process has been conducted in a “bipartisan way,” and the decision over whether to pursue a competitive bidding process will be “driven by [the chamber’s] members.”
“We don’t want to lock ourselves into a contract for 20 years unless it’s a good contract,” he said.
McCaffrey said both IGT and Twin River are “big economic generators” and “important to the state of Rhode Island.” He expressed hope that negotiations involving the state and the two companies could produced a favorable resolution for all involved.
“If the parties can sit down and work something out that’s acceptable to everyone, I think we’d want to move forward with that … That’s the hope, that they’d be able to sit together,” he said.
AMTRAK SERVICE AT GREEN? Shekarchi discussed the prospect of an Amtrak stop being added at T.F. Green Airport – something said would be a “big benefit” to the facility – but acknowledged that action to that effect will need to come from the federal level. He said existing requirements regarding the time and number of stops for trains traveling between New York City and Boston would necessitate adjustments in train service to Providence or Kingston.
“It’s really a federal issue whether Amtrak will stop in Warwick or not,” he said, noting that he has spoken with U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse about the potential airport stop.
WORKING WITH PROGRESSIVES: Shekarchi and McCaffrey acknowledged the energy surrounding the progressive wing of the Democratic Party – and the likelihood that they will face primary challengers.
McCaffrey said the legislature has addressed progressive priorities such as pay equity and sexual assault, and he sees affordable housing as another issue that will spur discussion on Smith Hill.
Shekarchi said: “We get along well with the progressives. They’re part of our leadership team … We have 75 people. We’re never going to get to unanimity, together, on everything, but the good majority of the people recognize that … It’s a balance. Personally, I get along with every member of the General Assembly.”
He added: “We need to work together for the good of Rhode Island, all factions of the political spectrum. That’s why we got elected … The only way you really get significant pieces of change is when you get a buy-in from a good majority of people.”