PROVIDENCE — How far are Rhode Island’s legislators willing to go?
Are they desperate enough to raise taxes to plug a revenue shortfall of at least $400 million — and potentially a lot more than that?
How about reversing past tax cuts, such as the car-tax phaseout championed by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello? How about extending R.I.’s trucks-only highway tolls to passenger cars? Or laying off workers, as the City of Warwick did last week?
How about legalizing marijuana for a fast-shot of new revenue?
From interviews with Rhode Island’s legislative leaders — and a survey of the rank and file — these answers emerge:
◘Those lawmakers who wanted to raise taxes-on-the-rich before the pandemic are even keener on the idea now. Same for those previously pushing legalization and sale of recreational-use marijuana.
◘A majority of those who responded to the survey hope they are not forced to raise taxes, lay off state employees or take any other drastic actions. They hope — and pray — Congress bails the states out.
◘Speaker Mattiello says his advisers are looking for “creative ways” to use the $1.7 billion the state has already received from Washington for COVID-related expenses. For example: finding out if the federal relief dollars can be used — in lieu of state aid — to pay teacher salaries and other expenses entailed in distance-learning.
◘With so many unknowns heading into the final two-month stretch, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio says lawmakers may need to pass a rough-draft and return in late-summer or fall to approve a supplemental-budget bill.
“Uncharted waters,’’ Mattiello told Political Scene.
Here’s a sampling of the lawmakers’ responses:
Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey: “All levels of government, including our cities and towns, will face tough decisions in the coming months. You cannot fix a half a billion dollar problem through budget cuts or revenue enhancements alone.”
“That said, those most impacted by the pandemic should not bear the costs of rebuilding Rhode Island, so I am vehemently opposed to tolling cars and raising taxes on our working families and small businesses.”
Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin: “I do not believe we should further tax Rhode Island residents, especially at this time when so many people are so burdened financially… Tolls should not be extended to more vehicles.
“As a Senator who represents a district in Providence where the car tax is the highest in the state, I would like to see the car tax phase out continue if it is at all possible (though) I’m mindful that this is a big budget item and it may have to be changed in some way.”
“Yes, I would be open to legalizing marijuana… No, I would be opposed to furlough/layoffs of state employees. This [must] be a last resort.“
Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere issued this statement on behalf of his 5-member caucus:
“It is difficult to provide a response to these questions without fully understanding what our revenue shortfalls are and without knowing what, if any, federal monies are available to assist states, cities and towns during these difficult times.”
Republican Sen. Elaine Morgan, on her own, said ’“ABSOLUTELY NOT’’ to any sales or income tax hikes or toll expansion and a simple ”No“ to legalizing marijuana.
As to the furlough/layoff of “non-essential’’ state workers, she said: “YES … Reduce first high level, high paid administrative positions. Those that our governor has been consistently adding to the payroll across all departments.”
House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi: “This is not the time to be raising taxes on any RIers, when so many people are out of work or struggling to make ends meet.” Toll expansion? “Not even an option.” Car-tax phaseout? “We don’t want to put further burdens on the taxpayers and on the municipalities, so I hope we can continue this phase-out.”
Marijuana? “We shouldn’t legalize marijuana just to raise revenue. We need more input from law enforcement and the business community, particularly the insurance and defense industries.”
But others are open to “targeted” tax hikes.
Sen. Ryan Pearson: “Broad tax actions like increasing the gas or sales tax will not help the recovery. However, we must consider targeted actions where Rhode Island has an opportunity to increase revenue while not putting our state at a competitive disadvantage to other states.
For example, “I remain supportive of the proposal from Rep. (Gregg) Amore and myself to increase the income tax rate by 1% on income earned over $500,000 per year and dedicating that revenue to education.
“By investing [more] in education we can continue to upskill our workforce and make Rhode Island better prepared for these downturns.”
Car tax phaseout? “We will be forced to consider freezing the program … Under current law an additional year of phase out would cost nearly $28M … The additional year would come at the cost of other critical services or economic relief to get our economy moving again.”
Rep. Rebecca Kislak: “I already supported legislation (and introduced one bill and co-sponsored others) that would generate revenue by increasing income taxes for … the top 1% or so of people fortunate enough to have high incomes.”
“I also support legalizing and taxing marijuana. At this point, failing to do so just sends RI dollars to Massachusetts.”
Rep. Mary Messier: “The legalization of marijuana is long overdue in RI. Handled [responsibly] and with proper regulations the legalizing of marijuana can provide the state with significant and much needed revenue.”
Furloughs/layoffs? The state should instead consider “offering an incentive to employees who are able to retire and either not refilling that position or hiring a replacement at a lower salary.
Rep. Christopher Millea: “With COVID-19 causing unprecedented shutdowns across the board in RI, revenue will continue to plummet. I believe now is the time to renew our conversation about the legalization of marijuana … with extreme safeguards.”
“A discussion about the potential expansion of online gambling would (also) be prudent … Online betting, not just sports gambling but virtual poker rooms and wagering of all sorts, could very well be the manner in which gambling will be conducted in the future, and RI could be a nationwide leader on this front.“
Sen. Sam Bell: “Rhode Island desperately needs to repeal the 2006 tax cuts for the rich, raising the top marginal income tax rate back to 9.9% … We should also look at opening a higher top bracket for the corporate income tax to fund small business tax relief.”
“Furloughs, layoffs, hiring freezes, or even keeping the hiring surge small would be incredibly reckless. Rhode Island is facing an enormous jobs crisis, and to stabilize our jobs market, a surge of state hiring is desperately needed.”
That said, “there are many bad spending projects that should be eliminated,’’ he wrote. His list included: ”the Governor’s corporate welfare programs, the excessively high salaries at Commerce … the proposed $15.7 million handout to insurance companies.“
House Minority Leader Blake Filippi, reiterating long-standing GOP policy objectives, on behalf of his 9-member caucus, said: “Tax reform, not tax increases, is far overdue in RI. Republicans have been advocating for this over the past several decades.”
Car tax phaseout? “This program may have to be frozen for a year until we know what our budget numbers are.”
More broadly: ”The car tax reform … merely shifted the burden from local taxpayers to the state taxpayers [which] compounded deficits in a state budget that even before Coronavirus was spending at a higher per capita rate then our comparable neighbors.”
Marijuana? “We feel that the state dealing in vice in order to balance its budget is perhaps one of the most immoral and irresponsible ways to fund the operation of the state.”
Layoffs/furloughs? “Unquestionably … I think the very first place to start is by reducing the governor’s and administration’s PR and communications staff to 1/10th of its current number.”
Sen. Louis DiPalma: “While the reports indicate a potential worst case scenario of $735M … [the numbers} were based on unemployment data from prior to 14 April. Recent unemployment filings show approximately … [more than 199,000] RI’ers have applied for unemployment, equating to greater than a 30% RI unemployment rate.”
“We certainly have our work cut out for ourselves,’’ but ”the solutions we develop cannot come at the expense of RI’s most vulnerable… individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities, individuals in child welfare and those in nursing homes.“
“We need to lean on Congress to include aid to cities/towns as well as states.”
On Twitter: @kathyprojo