PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s Democratic legislative leaders pledged to focus on improving the state’s economy Tuesday as they kicked off the 2017 General Assembly session.
All 113 state legislators – 97 Democrats and 16 Republicans – took their oaths of office during a ceremonial first-day session at the State House. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, were once again chosen to lead their chambers; they’ve held the jobs since 2014 and 2008, respectively.
While all 38 senators backed Paiva Weed for Senate president in a unanimous vote, the balloting for House speaker fell on party lines, with every Democrat in attendance supporting Mattiello but the 11 Republicans choosing Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick. That was a change from two years ago, when Mattiello was chosen unanimously by the two parties.
Mattiello and Paiva Weed each addressed their chambers after being sworn in, praising recent jobs announcements by companies such as Johnson & Johnson and General Electric as a sign that the economic-development and tax policies they’ve crafted with Gov. Gina Raimondo are working. But they also highlighted some divergent priorities.
Mattiello, 53, again reiterated his commitment to start phasing out Rhode Island’s municipal car tax this year, repeating his promise to eliminate the roughly $215 million levy over the next five years. He did not address questions posed by Raimondo and Paiva Weed about where to find the money as the state faces growing budget deficits.
“Make no mistake, this year’s budget will provide significant relief from this regressive tax,” Mattiello said in his prepared remarks. “Cutting the car tax will also improve our tax competitiveness nationally, advance quality of life in community, and increase spending in our local economy.”
Along with the car tax, Mattiello said this year he wants to look at raising the minimum wage; eliminating what he called a “double tax” on leased vehicles; increasing the tax exemptions for retirement income and estates; and “doubling down” on support for public education.
Mattiello insisted he will not allow the final hours of the legislative session to last until dawn, as has happened frequently in the past, saying voters are tired of it. “I’m going to have a totally different process,” he said. “We’re not going to stay through the night and negotiate – that will guarantee a late night.”
Morgan, the new GOP leader in the House, said Republicans plan to present a clear contrast with the Democrats on the issues in the coming months, though she also said she likes some of Mattiello’s stated priorities. “I think anything we can do to help average Rhode Islanders live better lives is important to do,” she said.
Paiva Weed, 57, made no mention of the car tax in her prepared remarks, leading off her list of priorities with a defense of “effective” government spending in areas “from education and work force development, to preventative health care, to rehabilitation services for prisoners.”
Paiva Weed also emphasized the Senate’s plans to look this year at improving mental health services in Rhode Island, as well as to making a second bid for a package of criminal-justice reforms that died at the end of last year’s session due to a lack of support in the House. In addition, she suggested wages should be increased for workers who care for disabled and home-bound individuals.
“The elections are behind us,” Paiva Weed said. “Regardless of party affiliation or ideology, I believe that each of us in the Senate shares many common goals.”
Two topics that are also expected to be on the agenda this year weren’t mentioned by either legislative leader – the potential legalization of recreational marijuana to mirror Massachusetts’ new policy, and what actions if any Rhode Island should take to counter new federal policies under Republican President-elect Donald Trump and his colleagues.
Raimondo was on hand for both swearing-in ceremonies, but she only took the rostrum and delivered remarks in the Senate, thanking members there for their collaboration and praising Paiva Weed as “an amazing leader.”
The Assembly’s biggest task of the year – crafting a new state budget – is expected to begin on Jan. 19, when Raimondo is due to deliver them her tax-and-spending proposal for 2017-18. A final budget is usually adopted in June.