Lawmakers agree: Work to be done

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State House and Senate leaders praised recent economic developments but acknowledged more work remains to be done as lawmakers convened Tuesday for the opening of the General Assembly.

The leaders appeared to be in harmony over cutting taxes and raising wages although they didn’t get into the specifics, which could become the sticking points of the upcoming session.

“Rhode Island has finally regained the jobs it lost during the Great Recession. Yet, much work remains if we are to turn our recovery into a resurgence,” said Rep. Nicholas Mattiello after being reelected to his post as Speaker. “Now is the time to be bold. Now is the time for decisive actions that will improve the lives of all Rhode Islanders,” he said.

Mattiello said that since March 2014, Rhode Island leaders worked together on a series of reforms to improve the business climate including “reducing the corporate tax rate from the highest in the Northeast to the lowest in the region, raising the exemption on the estate tax to $1.5 million, while eliminating the cliff provision, cutting the minimum corporate tax by 20 percent, eliminating the state income tax on Social Security and other retirement benefits for many recipients, removing the sales tax on utility costs for all businesses, and expanding the earned income tax credit to help working families.”

Mattiello also addressed the car tax, promising that this year’s budget “will provide significant relief from this regressive tax.” He had announced his intentions to eliminate the car tax at a press conference a few weeks before Election Day and maintained his “number one priority” is phasing it out and eliminating it over the next five years. Doing so, he said, will improve tax competitiveness nationally, advance quality of life in communities, and increase spending in local economies.

Representatives Robert Lancia and Robert Quattrocchi, both Republicans, said they support Speaker Mattiello in the eliminating the car tax. However, Quattrocchi noted that it would “mean nothing” if it was simply a “game of moving money around.”

“Obviously if [the car tax is] eliminated and it’s not put somewhere else, then sure. I’m all for eliminating taxes,” he said.

Mattiello proposes to reimburse municipalities for the $215 million they would collectively lose when the tax is fully eliminated.

In her remarks to the Senate, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed said Rhode Island is “gaining momentum” economically and cited companies Virgin Pulse, Wexford and the Cambridge Innovation Center, Johnson & Johnson, and GE, all of which announced expansions or moves to Rhode Island in 2016. Mattiello had acknowledged these companies as well, saying Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi’s jobs bill played a role in the companies’ decisions.

“We know that challenges remain, and the urgency with which we must continue to address our economy has not diminished,” Paiva Weed said. “But as we build upon the progress we have made to put Rhode Islanders back to work, there is good reason to embrace the ‘Hope’ proclaimed in our state motto.”

Besides continuing to push for economic growth and the elimination of the car tax, leaders took the opportunity to praise each other and lay out other aspects of their legislative agendas. Paiva Weed was nominated as Senate President by Senators Hanna Gallo and Senator Michael McCaffrey, and was subsequently reelected to her position. Gallo pointed out that Paiva Weed is both the first female Majority Leader and first female Senate President. Paiva Weed has “positioned the Senate as a leader” on issues such as education, economic development, mental health, addiction and overdose challenges, the environment, justice reform, social services, and regulatory reform, Gallo said. She detailed how she has seen Paiva Weed’s leadership “make a difference on countless education initiatives, from establishing a funding formula to universal full-day kindergarten.”

“I know of no other leader – in this chamber or throughout government – who is as dedicated or has done as much to improve our state,” Gallo said. “She doesn’t seek accolades, but we in this room know that Teresa is always working tirelessly to nurture our ideas and pass initiatives that make our state a better place.”

Paiva Weed added that it is “imperative” to invest in mental health and that compensation for direct care workers, including those who serve the developmentally disabled and those who work in home care, needs to be improved.

“These essential workers should earn more than minimum wage, and the Senate will be working with Governor Raimondo and our colleagues in the House to increase their compensation,” she said.

Mattiello remarked that raising minimum wage “to assist every member of our workforce” was a priority of his as well, in addition to eliminating the ‘double tax’ on leased cars, increasing the level of income that would be exempted for retirees on their state income tax, expanding the estate tax exemption to be regionally competitive, and “doubling down” providing a “first-rate public education to every child in Rhode Island.”

On a lighter note, Mattiello looked back on his first inauguration, urging the leaders to reach out to colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and to work with humility and hope.

I was filled with humility, hope and optimism [at my first inauguration],” he said. “Take that humility and hope with you as you work to build a brighter future for your constituents and every Rhode Islander.”

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