RI Republicans give cautious support to sweeping tax bill; Dems united against

Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell
Republican leaders discuss the tax bill in September. (AP photo)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island Republicans are giving cautious support to the sweeping tax bill Congress is set to approve this week, as top local Democrats unite in opposition to the measure.

The GOP bill would cut taxes by an estimated $1.65 trillion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It makes a host of changes, from reducing most income-tax rates and increasing the standard deduction to repealing the Obamacare insurance mandate.

The four members of Rhode Island’s all-Democratic congressional delegation – U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, and Congressmen Jim Langevin and David Cicilline – have all indicated they will join the rest of their party in voting against the bill.

“TrumpTax is a scam,” Whitehouse said when a previous version of the bill passed the Senate. “This so-called ‘tax reform’ moves our nation in the wrong direction by every measure: it will send more American jobs overseas, increase health insurance premiums, explode our national debt, and pollute an already-complicated tax code with new loopholes and gifts for the very wealthy.”

Whitehouse is up for re-election in 2018, and has drawn two GOP challengers, former R.I. Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders and state Rep. Bobby Nardolillo. Both Senate hopefuls suggested they would vote for the bill if they were in Congress despite some remaining reservations.

“The tax reform bill is a good first step to lowering the tax burden on most hardworking Americans; however, I would have liked a more bipartisan approach to obtaining even greater middle class and small business tax relief,” Flanders said in a statement.

Nardolillo said that while he had not been able to read the entire bill yet, “there seems to be much to commend it and only a few things I would have worked harder to change.” He cited reductions in federal tax rates as a plus, and the cap on deducting property taxes as “a concern.”

“On balance I would have voted for it in its present form,” Nardolillo said. “I might also have been successful in making it an even better bill.” He added that it was “unconscionable” that Whitehouse had not participated more in the process of drafting the bill to improve it; Democrats have argued Republicans did not give them an opportunity to do so since there were no hearings on the final bill.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo has also repeatedly criticized the tax bill, which has undergone significant changes since an initial version cleared the U.S. House last month. “Hardworking families from Cranston, Woonsocket, Warwick and every other city and town in Rhode Island cannot afford to bear the burden of a tax cut for Donald Trump and the wealthiest Americans,” Raimondo said at the time.

Raimondo’s two announced Republican challengers, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, both offered nuanced takes on the tax bill, which has drawn opposition from the Republican governor of neighboring Massachusetts, Charlie Baker.

“Overall, I support tax reform,” Fung said in a statement. “Tax reform will cut the corporate and individual tax rates, which will benefit Rhode Islanders and grow the national economy.”

“I am concerned about the changes to the deduction for state and local taxes since Rhode Island suffers from one of the highest tax burdens in the nation under Governor Raimondo,” he continued. “As governor, my focus will be on dramatically lowering the state and local tax burden so that Rhode Islanders can benefit more from federal tax reform as well as to grow our state economy.”

Morgan said in an email she is “not an expert on the current federal legislation and, of course, no bill is perfect.” But she said she was pleased that the bill doubles the standard deduction, increases the child-care tax credit and will continue to allow some deductions for mortgage payments and property taxes.

“As for economic growth, our small businesses will get tax relief, too,” Morgan said. “Collectively, small business is the Ocean State’s largest employer. This should allow them to buy more machinery, hire more folks, give much needed raises and start stimulating our stagnant economy. Clearly, the coming months will clarify who benefits or not.”

“For those that are hurt, we, as state leaders, must work to correct the adverse effects of our high tax rates on those who will be hurt by the federal tax reform,” Morgan added.

Former state Rep. Joe Trillo, who announced earlier this month he will exit the Republican primary to run for governor as an independent, did not respond to an email seeking comment on the tax bill Monday. But he has previously been a strong supporter of President Trump’s initiatives as his former state campaign chairman.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

An earlier version of this story said the bill would cut taxes by $1.65 billion, rather than $1.65 trillion.