Nicholas Mattiello describes his tenure as speaker of the state’s House of Representatives as a “sprint.”
Elected to what is widely considered the state’s most powerful position just days after March law enforcement raids on the home and office of former speaker Gordon Fox, the Cranston Democrat faced major challenges in his first months on the job and a short window of time in which to address them.
A budget for fiscal year 2015, a slew of high-profile legislative proposals, the self-imposed directive to place an extreme emphasis on boosting the state’s economy and job market – all were riding, in large part, on his leadership.
Now, with a budget in place that reflects his priorities and a new team of aides and committee chairs at work in the State House, Mattiello said he hopes to build upon the most recent session’s positive momentum.
“I leave that for others to do,” he said of grading his performance thus far. “But I am very pleased with the session…In 90 days, we were bold. We took decisive action.”
The speaker – who is running without opposition for a new term representing District 15 – recently visited the offices of Beacon Communications, joined by his Chief of Staff Leo Skenyon, spokesman Larry Berman and Warwick state Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-23).
The $8.7 billion budget passed under Mattiello’s leadership includes two key priorities the speaker had identified early in the process – a reduction of the corporate tax rate from 9 percent to 7 percent, and a raising of the estate tax exemption from just more than $900,000 to $1.5 million. Both are designed to spur economic activity, the speaker said.
The budget also includes gas tax and vehicle fee increases to create an infrastructure improvement fund while eliminating the Sakonnet River Bridge tools, and allocates $12.3 million toward the payment of state-backed 38 Studios bonds. Other investments include roughly $34 million in additional funding for the K-12 public education system.
Outside the budget, perhaps the most notable accomplishment of the last three months was the General Assembly’s vote to eliminate straight-party voting – the so-called “master lever.” The House was unanimous is support of the proposal, while the Senate’s vote was 34-3.
“The Senate doesn’t take the bill up without the speaker,” said Shekarchi, who brought the legislation forward in the House.
While Mattiello has been applauded in many corners for his approach and agenda since taking the speaker’s gavel (“The proof is in the pudding,” Berman said in pointing to the fact that most of the House leadership is running without opposition in the fall) he took issue with the characterization of his tenure thus far as a “honeymoon” period.
“We didn’t have a honeymoon. We sprinted from March 25 to when we adjourned,” he said, characterizing the session as “very productive” and “great for the business community.”
“We are sending a message that Rhode Island is going in a different direction…I tried to be the leader that the speaker should be,” he added, describing his leadership style as “positive, bold and aggressive.”
Mattiello said his approach has centered on bringing various constituencies together – economists, businesspeople, other community members – to formulate policy solutions aimed at Rhode Island’s economic woes. Going forward, he said he intends to continue that focus on outreach and consensus.
“My number one goal is to promote jobs and the economy,” he said.
Mattiello did acknowledge the large-scale structural deficits facing the state in the years ahead, and that the initial steps taken during the recent budget process represent the foundation of an evolving economic policy. He said he and other leaders will “see what fruit [the tax policy changes] bear,” and will “constantly look at our revenues and expenses, look for efficiencies.”
“This puts us on a trajectory that will hopefully address the structural deficits,” he said, adding that the “easiest, best way [to do so] is through increased economic activity.”
Regarding the 38 Studios bond payments, Mattiello cited his recent visit to New York City to meet with representatives of top credit ratings agencies as having strongly reinforced his belief that the state must meet its obligations. Any skepticism he harbored toward the payments, he said, was tempered by the reality that the consequences of non-payment would likely be significant and negative.
“We got an insight into their though process…[the trip was] a fact-finding mission in which we learned how Rhode Island would be viewed [if the payments are not made],” he said. “The reality was very profound.”
The issue of public pension reform also looms, as union challenges to the landmark 2011 law and other legislation head to court following the failure of a proposed settlement.
Mattiello, who supported the 2011 reform, said he continues to believe the law will stand up to legal scrutiny, even if – as seems highly possible – it ultimately ends up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
He did, however, point to the uncertainty the current situation has created among retirees, public employees and ratings agencies, and said any settlement is “ultimately something we would consider” in the General Assembly.
“We’ll ultimately do what’s in the state’s best interest,” he said.
Mattiello touched on several additional issues during his visit to the Beacon office.
Regarding the race for governor: “They all have their talents,” he said of Democratic hopefuls General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Clay Pell. “I’m going to leave that to the voters.”
Regarding the need to invest in infrastructure improvements: “I’m frustrated by it. I know our constituencies are frustrated by it…We are committed to addressing our infrastructure.”
Regarding Fox, who is not seeking a new term in the House: “I’ve never had a substantive conversation with him past March 25.”
Regarding the possibility of a constitutional convention: “I think Rhode Island gets too excited about ideas that don’t serve its best interest…You should let your foundational document evolve through court interpretation and not tinker with it so much.”
Regarding term limits: “A terrible idea…Term limits are a wonderful idea if you’re a lobbyist.”
Regarding serving as speaker: “It’s very rewarding. It’s truly a labor of love. It’s a position in which you can do great things for the state of Rhode Island.”
Regarding the current House leadership: “We have a great team. We all share the same vision…I don’t come close to doing it by myself.”
Regarding the constituents of District 15: “I love serving them. I’m honored to serve them.”