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Foulkes sidesteps questions about taxing the rich, constitutional right to education during candidate forum

The forum, hosted by the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus on Sunday, also featured Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, former secretary of state Matt Brown, and Dr. Daniel Luis Muñoz. Governor Dan McKee was not able to attend.

The Rhode Island State House.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — A Sunday night online forum revealed differences among four of the five Democratic candidates for governor on several issues, with former CVS executive Helena Foulkes avoiding directly answering questions about taxing the rich or creating a state constitutional right to an education.

The “Meet the 2022 Gubernatorial Candidates” Zoom event was hosted by the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus, which split from the state Democratic Party in 2019 amid a bitter dispute over whether the women’s caucus could endorse candidates and raise its own money.

The group has not endorsed a candidate yet, but it invited the five Democratic candidates to participate. Governor Daniel J. McKee, who returned Sunday from a Democratic Governors Association meeting, did not take part, but the event included Foulkes, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, former secretary of state Matt Brown, and Dr. Daniel Luis Muñoz.

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During the forum, the candidates were asked if they support increased taxes on the wealthy.

Brown said: “Yes. The wealthiest people in this state pay the lowest portion of their income in state and local taxes. That’s wrong.”

Foulkes said: “I want to be looking at making sure that Rhode Island is as competitive as we can – attracting more businesses, more people and making sure this is an affordable state for everyone to live in.”

Gorbea said: “I think we need to reexamine our tax structure, and those who are in a position to pay more should pay more.”

Muñoz said: “Those who make $450,000 or more a year should definitely pay more. There is a pass-through company loophole that is taken advantage of and needs to be acknowledged, and microbusinesses need to get a break on tangible property taxes.”

Legislation introduced in the House and Senate would raise the top marginal income tax rate from 5.99 percent to 8.99 percent on income of more than $475,000. But Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, has opposed that idea, saying he fears the rich will move elsewhere.

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The candidates were also asked if they support education being a Rhode Island constitutional right.

Brown said: “Yes. I called for it in the 2020 cycle, and we also need to raise taxes on the rich and fund our schools to make it real.”

Foulkes said: “I am most focused on making sure that we are investing a lot more in our kids, especially with COVID learning loss, and my particular focus will be on using a good chunk of this ARPA money to invest in our kids and make sure we are lifting them up.”

Gorbea said: “A right to a quality education as a constitutional right is absolutely part of my platform.”

Muñoz said: “Yes, and if we are going to talk about it being a right, we need to talk about the education funding formula and how radically it needs to change.”

On Monday, Foulkes issued a statement, saying she does support making education a state constitutional right.

“I am the only candidate to propose dedicating a significant portion of our $1.1B in ARPA funds to help our kids make up COVID learning loss,” she wrote. “I support a constitutional amendment, but that commitment has to be matched with action – and our kids cannot wait.”

Lawyers representing Rhode Island students are vowing to take their legal fight to the US Supreme Court as they argue for a constitutional right to an adequate civics education. In January, the Boston-based US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld US District Court Judge William E. Smith, who had dismissed the students’ case while calling the lawsuit “a cry for help from a generation of young people” who recognize “that American democracy is in peril.”

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The candidates agreed on some issues. All four said that as governor, their state budget proposals would include abortion coverage for Medicaid recipients and state employees.

The candidates also field some light-hearted questions, such as one about their “favorite quintessential Rhode Island food.”

Brown said: Johnny cakes

Foulkes said: Clam cakes

Gorbea said: Calamari

Muñoz said: Mozzarella burrata


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