- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - As he takes the helm of the Rhode Island House, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said this week that his top legislative priority will be the state’s chronically ailing economy and that he plans to review the tax system and roll back “overbearing” regulations.

In his first speech after being sworn in this week, the self-described pro-business Democrat said Tuesday he wants to see “how we can help reduce the tax burden on every class.”

“That especially includes taxes that impede our businesses and hold them back from achieving success and prosperity,” Mattiello said, adding that unemployment and disability insurance rates will be scrutinized.

Significant tax changes would likely pose a challenge for lawmakers, who would have to find corresponding cuts in an already tight budget. But several proposals have been offered so far this year, including a reduction in the corporate income tax and lower sales taxes.

Mattiello, who represents Cranston, also said he would like to see reform or repeal this session of what he calls burdensome regulations.

“I’m a pro-business, pro-economy speaker,” he said after the House session Wednesday.

Mattiello was elected speaker in an overwhelming vote Tuesday after the abrupt resignation of Gordon Fox, whose Statehouse office and home were raided by federal and state authorities last week. Neither Fox nor his attorney has addressed the raids. Authorities have declined to say whether Fox, a Providence Democrat, is a target of the probe.

The change in leadership comes at a critical time for the General Assembly, as legislators work to craft a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and grapple with a proposed settlement in the legal challenge to the state’s 2011 pension overhaul. They will also shepherd hundreds of other bills toward an adjournment that has been expected in June - ahead of elections in the fall.

During his bid for speaker, Mattiello said in an interview he is “as frustrated with the slow-moving economy as anyone else” in Rhode Island, whose unemployment rate has been among the nation’s highest for years. Last month, speaking at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce’s legislative luncheon, he was more generous about the General Assembly’s efforts to improve it.

He said he would give the body “pretty solid marks,” adding that “we do really great things for the economy but for some reason the perception is we haven’t done enough.”

Republican Rep. Mike Chippendale of Foster said that, under Mattiello’s leadership, the House might be able to better focus on economic issues.

“Mattiello will allow us to continue to pursue the issues that are important to the business community and have some assurance that we won’t constantly be dealing with social issues,” he said earlier this week, referring to last year’s successful push to pass gay marriage legislation and debates over gun control.

Chippendale said those debates have “been a tremendous distraction” and that under Fox, “it’s always been ‘social issues first, then let’s try to save Rhode Island second.’”

Mattiello will probably be mired down much less in social issues and focused more on the economy, he said.

Rep. Patricia Serpa, D-Coventry, said Mattiello realizes that time is of the essence.

“Like all of us in this chamber, he is tired of Rhode Island’s negative perception,” she said in nominating him on the House floor. “He knows that the entire state is watching us. The clock is ticking. The pages of the calendar are turning. We must create an environment where jobs and the economy can flourish before we recess for the summer.”

Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-South Kingstown, said she worries Mattiello and his top supporters will find it difficult to craft a budget and pass business-friendly legislation without slashing spending on state programs and services, including for some of the most vulnerable populations.

“I don’t want to say rude awakening, but I think it’s going to be a realization for those who have just gotten into power about how difficult it is to do the things that they consider to be pro-business,” said Tanzi, who abstained in the vote for speaker. “Even in the best of times, it’s difficult to pay for tax cuts. It’s nice to say ‘Oh, it’s only $25 million.’ But after years of cuts, there is just no more fat to cut.”

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