PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The two announced Democratic candidates vying to succeed Gov. Lincoln Chafee expressed initial support for the governor’s final budget proposal Wednesday night, while a leading Republican hopeful called on state leaders to consider lowering taxes this year.
General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, both Democrats, said they still want to dig in to Chafee’s $8.5 billion budget proposal, but agreed that the governor’s plans to spend an additional $38 million on public schools, freeze tuition at state colleges and invest in infrastructure are all good starting points in an election year.
“What I heard that I like was investments in education, investments in infrastructure and trying to get people back to work and moving the state forward,” Raimondo said following Chafee’s State of the State address Wednesday. “That’s what we need to do. We need to come together to solve these problems and get people back to work.”
Chafee, a former Republican U.S. Senator who was elected governor as an independent in 2010 before joining the Democratic Party last year, is not seeking re-election after facing three years of dismal approval ratings. Both Raimondo and Taveras were expected to challenge the governor even if he did decide to run for a second term.
Chafee’s fourth and final budget proposal featured many of the same themes he has included in his previous State of the State addresses. The governor’s plan fully funds the state’s education funding formula and adds $10 million in aid for the three public colleges, while holding the line on tax rates increasing spending by about 4%.
Taveras, who like Raimondo entered office with Chafee in 2011, praised the governor for his commitment to cities and towns throughout a term that has seen the state’s unemployment rate remain far higher than the national average. In November, Rhode Island’s jobless rate stood at 9%.
“I think he was absolutely right that he has really reversed the trend of putting the burden on cities and town,” Taveras said. “The governor is a former councilman and mayor and I think his budgets reflect that. He’s been very supportive of cities and towns.”
Both Democrats praised the governor for continuing to pour additional funding into education. If Chafee’s plan is approved by state lawmakers, his four budgets will have added $189 million in education aid to the state’s public schools and colleges.
“I’m very pleased with the focus on education,” Taveras said. “I think that’s something we must do in our state. I think that’s a big a step forward.”
Taveras entered the governor’s race in October and Raimondo formally kicked off her campaign this week. A third Democrat, Herbert Claiborne “Clay” Pell IV, has said he will make a decision about whether to run for governor by the end of the month. The 32-year-old is the grandson of the late U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell.
Both Taveras and Raimondo said they want to take a closer a look at Chafee’s plan to ask voters to approve $275 million in borrowing when they go to the polls in November, but the treasurer said she generally supports placing bond questions on the ballot.
One of those proposals would allocate $125 million to University of Rhode Island’s College of Engineering and would be the largest bond question in state history. In addition, $75 million would go to environmental projects, $40 million would go to mass-transit hubs such as Providence’s Kennedy Plaza, and $35 million would go to arts and cultural organizations.
“Certainly I think we should put bonds on the ballot and let the voters decide,” Raimondo said. “I do think it’s appropriate to invest. We need to invest. The state’s stuck. What we are doing needs to be changed. We need a new way of thinking, we need to invest in our future and we need to move forward.”
On the Republican side, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung offered a harsh critique of the governor’s budget, skewering Chafee for failing to “make us more competitive from a job front and a business climate front.”
“I think it has to go a little bit further as far as making our state more competitive from a tax reduction standpoint,” Fung said. “One of the things that was pleasant to hear was the governor talked about reducing the corporate rate or the sales; however, it was on a big if.”
Chafee called on U.S. House Republicans to pass the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would require online retailers such as Amazon.com to collect sales tax from purchases made on the Web. If approved in Congress, Chafee proposed changing state law so that passage of the sales-tax measure at the federal level would reduce Rhode Island’s corporate tax rate from 9% to 6%; under current law, passage of the measure would reduce the state’s sales tax from 7% to 6.5%.
“While in theory it sounds good, who knows what’s going to happen in Congress?” Fung said.
Businessman Ken Block, who is challenging Fung in the Republican primary, was unable to watch Chafee’s State of the State speech because he was traveling to Washington D.C. Wednesday night with Taco Inc. CEO John Hazen White Jr. for an event at the Brookings Institution, according to campaign manager Jeff Britt.
Britt said Block would issue a statement on the budget Thursday.
Chafee maintains he is leaving the state better than he found it for the next governor.
“There is no question that this has been a difficult period for Rhode Island, but we are poised to emerge from it more resilient than before,” Chafee said. “Rhode Island is getting stronger with each day, each week, and each year – that is the state of our state.”
Ted Nesi contributed to this report.