It sounds too good to be true – more money for education and cities and towns; a cut in the corporate tax; and, best of all, no tax increases. Still, lawmakers want to believe it possible. Furthermore, if Governor Lincoln Chafee can pull it off, they think he’ll be a force to contend with in 2014.
“This is a great starting point,” said Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed post-speech. She noted that this is the first time in years that a governor has not included a supplemental budget, which would make revisions to the prior year’s budget.
“Like so many things, the devil is in the details,” Rep. Joseph McNamara said following Chafee’s State of The State address last Wednesday night. “But it sounds terrific,” McNamara added. For him the “biggies” are Chafee’s plan for additional funding for education and local property tax relief.
McNamara said Chafee’s speech shows the independent governor “is leaning toward the Democratic majority in the General Assembly.
“I’ve listened to a lot of speeches and he sounds like a Democrat.” McNamara called the speech the best he’s heard from Chafee in 20 years.
He wasn’t alone in that assessment.
Janet Coit, director of the Department of Environmental Management, said Chafee was “relaxed and focused.” She said she also heard people questioning how the plan is going to work.
Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building Construction Trades Department, said Chafee appeared familiar with the material of his speech and at ease in his delivery.
“He was confident, proud of his accomplishments and believed in what he was saying,” said Sabitoni. He sees the governor’s plan as what Rhode Island needs “to get out of the doldrums.”
Might it also be a ticket to re-election in 2014?
Richard Godfrey, executive director of Rhode Island Housing, likewise thought it was one of Chafee’s best speeches and a signal to those who might consider running for governor in 2014 that “he’s not going to roll over.”
McNamara thought the same.
“I think this is the beginning of his re-election. He started it off on the right foot.”
But Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who has been rumored as a potential gubernatorial candidate come 2014, was not so sure.
“I can’t think of what’s in his mind for 2014,” said Fung. “There’s a lot of assumption … I don’t know.”
Chafee’s plan to extend the sales tax as a means of balancing the budget in the past two years crashed in flames. So this year, how does he aim to pull it off?
His answer is in the economy, which he says is improving. He said revenues are exceeding projections and pointed to lower unemployment, although Rhode Island remains one of the states with the highest unemployment.
“We have avoided tax increases and are lowering the corporate rate [over three years from 9 to 7 percent] through both good fiscal management and a strengthening economy. As we move forward, it is important to keep investing in the building blocks of this progress – that is, investing in education, infrastructure and workforce development,” he said in his opening remarks.
A bewildered silence fell over the lawmakers when Chafee identified local property taxes as a deterrent to business growth and that he aims to provide relief within his $8.2 billion budget.
There was a smattering of applause. Chafee paused, and then departing from his script, which was projected no teleprompters for the first time, said it was all right to applaud. There were laughs followed by resounding applause.
Congressman Jim Langevin was in attendance, and said he thinks the governor is choosing his priorities wisely; investing in education and workforce development are the way to go in his eyes.
But Langevin, unlike some others who were wholeheartedly satisfied with Chafee’s rose-colored outlook, said he did have some concerns with his plan.
“I’m concerned about the stress on social services,” he said. “I would have liked to [have] heard how it will impact the community of people who rely on [those services.]”
Despite the idealistic ring to Chafee’s speech, and his concerns about the numbers, Langevin said the governor’s plan did sound attainable and “realistic.”
Freshman Representative K. Joseph Shekarchi, who spent time chatting with Gen. Treasurer Gina Raimondo at Wednesday’s speech – Shekarchi worked as her campaign manager in 2010, said he hopes the General Assembly will slash the corporate income tax rate even further than Gov. Chafee proposed. He also said he’d like to see the change happen faster.
“That would create high-paying jobs for everyone,” he said.
As far as his plans for municipalities, Chafee is recommending $30 million for property tax relief in addition to the $41 million in local aid contained in his previous two budgets. The $30 million is divided between $20 million in additional aid to cities and towns – with particular attention to distressed communities – and $10 million in RICAP funds for local roads and streetscapes.
“There were a lot of good things for us,” said Mayor Scott Avedisian, who sat in back of the chambers with other mayors.
He, too, called it Chafee’s “best ever” speech.
“I walked away feeling like I had not been kicked again,” he said. Avedisian noted that Chafee named the Warwick Station District as a priority for business and job development.
“I think we all appreciate that effort,” said Mayor Fung of Chafee’s proposed municipal aid. He believes it’s a sign that the governor has taken note of the hard work Rhode Island’s cities and towns have been doing.
Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena was impressed by the additional aid the governor intends to deliver to cities and towns. He believes it is essential that the state invest in its communities or the state is going to continue losing population.
Looking ahead to this session of the General Assembly, Polisena is especially concerned over legislation requiring binding arbitration when teacher contract negotiations reach an impasse as well as legislation that would recognize the existing contract until a new one is negotiated.
“It would cut our hands off. How would we negotiate?” he said of such legislation.
To help municipalities further, Chafee is proposing to modify the historic tax credit program by providing access to abandoned tax credits.
“We want to have a state where there are jobs and opportunities for our children and their children,” he said.