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Legislative leaders say: Nice ideas, but how will governor pay for them?

During Globe panel, House and Senate leaders weigh in on the budget, impeachment, the women’s caucus, and climate change

Boston Globe reporter Dan McGowan, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, and Boston Globe reporter Amanda Milkovits at a Globe panel Wednesday in Providence
Boston Globe reporter Dan McGowan, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, and Boston Globe reporter Amanda Milkovits at a Globe panel Wednesday in ProvidenceEd Fitzpatrick for the Boston Globe (custom credit)

PROVIDENCE — House and Senate leaders on Wednesday said they liked lots of the ideas Governor Gina M. Raimondo outlined in her State of the State address Tuesday but they wonder how she’ll ever pay for them in the budget plan she will unveil Thursday.

House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio took part in a Globe panel discussion sandwiched between Raimondo’s soaring rhetoric the day before and the nitty-gritty details of Thursday’s budget proposal.

Mattiello, who wields enormous influence over the budget, said he might not have applauded at points during Raimondo’s speech because he was adding up how much her proposals would cost.

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“I’m doing math in my head while people are clapping, and the math got scary,” he said. “The devil is in the details.”

More than 200 people came to the Wexford Innovation Center for “Rhode Map Live: The Priorities Of Rhode Island’s Most Powerful Leaders” — the second event held by the Globe, which has expanded coverage of Rhode Island.

Globe reporters Dan McGowan and Amanda Milkovits asked the questions, concluding with a lightning round that included national politics.

When the two Democratic leaders were asked if they think President Trump should have been impeached, Mattiello said, “Not my lane.” Ruggerio said, “I’m not sure about that.”

When asked who they support in the 2020 presidential election, Mattiello said he backs former Vice President Joe Biden. Ruggerio said, “I’m undecided right now — not Trump.”

Both leaders said they’re in favor of raising the minimum wage — by an amount to be determined. And both said they’re against giving the governor line-item veto power.

Many Globe readers submitted questions asking where Mattiello and Ruggerio stand on issues related to climate change.

Both oppose raising gasoline prices to curb greenhouse gas emissions as part of the Transportation & Climate Initiative, a partnership that includes Rhode Island and other Northeast states.

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Ruggerio said Rhode Island already has one of the highest gas taxes in the country. “Climate change is real — I know it’s real,” he said. “I just don’t think that putting the heavy burden on drivers of automobiles at this point in time would be very effective.”

When McGowan asked about a state climate-change plan called “Resilient Rhody,” Mattiello said, “Let’s be realistic about climate change. It’s real. It’s been happening for long a time. I’m aware of that, and I think it has to be addressed.”

But, he said, “There is nothing Rhode Island can do to address climate change in a way that is real or impactful. That has to be done at the national level and an international level.”

Rhode Island is heavily invested in green energy and has good recycling programs, Mattiello said. “However, when you are talking about changing our climate, I realistically believe all you can do is harm your economy and not improve your climate unless the entire nation joins in," he said.

Milkovits noted the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus recently split from the state Democratic Party amid a dispute over whether the women’s caucus can endorse candidates, and caucus chair Liz Gledhill called the party organization “a boys’ club.”

Mattiello disagreed with that characterization, saying women make up half of the party committee. “Within the party, women are very supportive and very happy,” he said. “Everybody is getting along very, very collaboratively.”

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He said some Democrats wanted to make their own endorsements and formed their own group, he said. “So it works out best for everybody,” he said. “There is a group that disagrees, but I’d say it’s more of an ideological divide than a gender divide.”

Ruggerio said the Senate includes female committee chairs. “I think the party is a very inclusive party,” he said. “It’s a big tent.”

Milkovits also asked about a bill that would allow candidates to use campaign funds for child care while they’re participating in elections activities. The bill passed the Senate last year but not the House.

Mattiello said the House would consider the bill if it’s introduced this year. But, he said, “You start opening up the scope of what people can use campaign money on, and it could be a slippery slope and subject to abuse. We’ve already had too many elected officials get in trouble with misappropriating campaign funds. So I’m just leery to do it for that reason alone.”

The legislative leaders were asked if this is the year action is taken to revive the state’s tallest building — the former Industrial Trust tower or so-called Superman building, which has been vacant since 2013.

“I am hopeful," Ruggerio said. “I’m not sure it is going to happen this year, but I believe something could happen in the very near future... If we could get a state agency in there, that would be helpful, but that remains to be seen.”

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Both leaders expressed unqualified support for faster train service between Providence and Boston.

“Absolutely,” Mattiello said. “It’s great for the economy. I think it’s good to be able to connect our capital cities very quickly. I would love to see it.”

But he said he doesn’t know exactly what it will take to make that happen. “You are going to have to bring together people with the expertise and get it done,” he said. “I would love to be part of that collaborative process.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.