Devil in the details

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As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. We have yet to see the devil in plans being advanced by Gov. Gina Raimondo and House Speaker Nicholas Matteillo, but the ideas have captured the public’s imagination, whether practical or not, and have Rhode Islanders thinking about what government can do for them rather than what government can take from their wallets.

Two years of free college education, as Raimondo proposes, sounds like a winner all the way around. It offers relief from college debt to young people; discourages the “brain drain” of students heading out of state to attend college and start their careers; and enhances opportunities for young people who otherwise would be unable to afford college and at risk of being trapped in low-paying jobs. This could help build a stronger Rhode Island workforce, which hopefully will attract new companies and jobs to the state. The plan offered some details, but there still appear to be plenty of questions, least of which is how the state would pay for it. The projected cost is $30 million annually. We don’t know where the number comes from, but even so, where does the state get an added $30 million?

Raimondo says the amount can be generated by sales tax on online sales, which, coincidentally, she expects to garner $30 million in added tax revenues. That’s all nice, but somehow a bit squishy.

Where Speaker Mattiello plans to come up with about $45 million for the first year of a five-year plan to phase out the car tax is even more like Jell-O. Mattiello hasn’t unveiled his proposal and so far, without any new sources of revenue being proposed, we’re assuming the money would come from cuts. That sounds good, but we have to ask if the speaker can find $45 million in cuts the first year and eventually $215 million by year five, why couldn’t he come up with $45 million to avoid truck tolls?

Also, as the details (those little devils] haven’t been worked out, we wonder how this can be fairly implemented when municipalities have differing tax rates and auto exemptions. Most municipalities apply senior citizen and veteran exemptions to motor vehicles first. So, if the state were to eliminate the tax and reimburse municipalities, would those exemptions apply to property, meaning a reduction in municipal tax revenues?

Both the governor and the speaker have political capital riding on their proposals, and for the moment they’re both saying these are laudable goals. We wonder if there’s the revenue to accomplish a single objective, let alone both.

While it’s refreshing to hear our leaders talking of giving back, in ways that could benefit broad segments of the population, we look forward to hearing the details.

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