PROVIDENCE — One legislator was happy to hear a reference to litter. Another was disappointed to not hear a word about the Department of Human Services.
Democratic Governor Daniel J. McKee’s State of the State address received a wide range of responses from state legislators across the political spectrum.
House Minority Leader Michael W. Chippendale, a Foster Republican, said he had never heard a governor mention litter in a State of the State speech — until McKee went there on Tuesday night.
“To hear him so passionately speak about that, which is something I am equally passionate about, was music to my ears,” Chippendale said. “The litter is everywhere, and it is frustrating because I love this state so much and it’s such a beautiful state.”
In the State of the State, McKee said the state now requires businesses to pay “a so-called litter tax,” but the fees collected don’t go into cleaning up litter. “We need to improve our small business climate by doing away with fees like this,” he said. “Let’s not only eliminate this tax, but let’s also fund an initiative to tackle the litter on our streets, beaches and recreational areas.”
McKee, who is set to unveil his state budget proposal Thursday, said the spending plan will include a line item “to keep Rhody litter free.” He said, “This is a priority for our First Lady, Susan McKee, and I encourage Rhode Islanders to join our effort to get rid of litter by visiting LitterFree.RI.Gov and take the pledge.”
Chippendale said he was not as pleased to hear McKee propose increasing education funding at a time when public school enrollment is dropping.
“All that is doing is increasing the per pupil cost of education, which among our sister states in the US we are at a high level,” he said. “I’m not so sure that is the quickest path to excellence.”
Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat who describes himself as a Democratic Socialist, said he was disappointed that McKee did not mention a word about improving or investing in the Department of Human Services and its staffing levels.
“I continue to hear from neighbors on a daily basis about the difficulty of getting in contact with front-line staff members at DHS to access their SNAP (food stamp) benefits or Medicaid,” he said. “On average, they are waiting 2 hours and 11 minutes to talk to a DHS representative. We should have a well-functioning Human Services department where people can rely on accessing their benefits as needed.”
Morales said he did appreciate McKee’s reference to Cover All Kids, legislation that he championed last year to ensure lower-income children have access to medical and dental care regardless of immigration status.
But he took issue with some of McKee’s tax-cutting proposals, saying it’s time to raise taxes on the rich.
“As much as I appreciate the efforts to provide some form of tax relief to working people, we also need to be cognizant of how we are going to make up for any lost revenue in future years,” he said. “This has to be the legislative year in which we re-explore what it looks like to ensure that those making over $500,000 a year pay an income tax rate of 8.99 percent vs. the 5.99 percent that a regular working person pays.”
Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, said, “I share Governor McKee’s view that Rhode Island has tremendous momentum upon which to build for the future. He focused on many of the urgent challenges facing our state.”
He said the Senate is “laser focused” on education, but also will be focusing on housing, health care, workforce development, economic development, and the need to provide relief to Rhode Island residents and businesses.
“I look forward to reviewing the specifics of the proposals the governor highlighted in his address and also the introduction of the budget this week,” Ruggerio said.
House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, said he sees widespread support for a sales tax cut of some kind.
McKee called for cutting the state’s 7 percent sales tax to 6.85 percent, which he said would save residents about $35 million a year, and he said Rhode Island could lower the rate to match the 6.25 percent rate in Massachusetts “if we continue to have discipline in our budgets.”
Shekarchi said McKee’s announcement probably did not receive a rousing response during the speech because most people were expecting a bigger reduction.
Shekarchi said the proposal comes as no surprise since McKee has been talking about it for awhile. “I think the sales tax is a tax that brings in a lot of revenue to the state,” he cautioned, “and it costs a lot of money when you start doing reductions.”
Everyone wants to lower taxes, Shekarchi said. “The question is what can we afford?” he said. “Today, we can afford it because we have a so-called surplus, at least a projected one. Can we afford it in May? I don’t know. It depends on what the revenue numbers look like in May.”
Shekarchi said “the overwhelming majority” of General Assembly members on both sides of the aisle support some reduction in the sales tax rate. “How much of a reduction, you can ask the individual representatives or senators,” he said.
Senator Bridget Valverde, an East Greenwich Democrat, is the lead Senate sponsor of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would ensure that those on Medicaid and state health insurance plans have coverage that includes abortion procedures, and she said she was surprised that McKee did not mention that proposal during his State of the State address. But she noted that he has said he plans to include funding for that measure in his state budget proposal Thursday.
Valverde said this marks the fourth year she has introduced the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, and she thinks this will be the year it becomes law because she said it has support from the governor and the majority of both the House and Senate.
“The conversation around not only abortion rights but access to abortion has come front and center in the last year, obviously, with the Dobbs decision,” Valverde said, referring to the US Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade. “We are the only state in our area that does not offer Medicaid coverage for abortion.”
Also, Valverde said she was happy to hear the governor’s “enthusiastic commitment” to passing a ban on assault-style weapons. “It is important for us to show a commitment to reducing gun violence in Rhode Island and nationwide,” she said.