PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - The two top leaders of Rhode Island’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly are beginning the year with competing priorities that could balance out by the time the six-month session ends.
Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello plans to fulfill a campaign promise of phasing out municipal car taxes over the next five years. Democratic Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed wants to pass reforms to the criminal justice and mental health care systems.
The two Democratic leaders and Republican House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan talked about their 2017 priorities in December interviews with The Associated Press. The new session begins Tuesday, which is also when lawmakers are expected to re-elect Mattiello and Paiva Weed as leaders of each chamber.
Paiva Weed said it’s not unusual for her and Mattiello to advocate different approaches that aim for the same goal of improving the economy. She said the two chambers and Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo have been able to work together in recent years. Paiva Weed said her focus has been on education and job training investments.
“His focus is more on tax cuts,” she said of Mattiello. “There’s room for both of our approaches. We’ve invested additional money in education and workforce training. And there have been tax cuts.”
Morgan said her Republican caucus will be raising its voice to shine a light on “waste, fraud and abuse” and proposing its own solutions to improve the state’s economy.
Mattiello narrowly won re-election to his House seat by 85 votes in November over a Republican challenger after making one big promise: eliminating the widely unpopular car taxes levied by cities and towns.
“I said we’re going to do it in five years and I plan on keeping that commitment,” he said. That means finding about $215 million - more than $40 million each year - that can be used to reimburse cities and towns to make up for the lost tax revenue, he said.
Cutting car taxes is less of a priority for Paiva Weed. Car taxes are already far lower in Newport, which Paiva Weed represents, than they are in bigger cities such as Cranston, which Mattiello represents.
“I would want to ensure that we were not rewarding cities and towns that have not been fiscally accountable,” Paiva Weed said. “There would need to be some mechanism to ensure fiscal accountability.”
Morgan said Republicans support cutting car taxes but they want to do more than just shift the burden to state taxpayers.
A package of criminal justice bills that passed easily in the Senate was defeated in June when the House didn’t vote on it before adjourning for the year. Paiva Weed, who was visibly upset when the House blocked the legislation in the final hours of a marathon overnight session, said her plan this time is to push for passage earlier in the year.
She is also planning to complement that package with reforms to the behavioral health care system that could include a mental health court and additional training for prison workers.
Morgan said Republicans also might be willing to support reforms to scale back an “over-criminalized” system.
She said it’s a problem when “every year we make something else a felony.”
Both top Democratic leaders are expressing support this year for raising the state’s minimum wage after declining to do so in the last session to give businesses a break. The state’s minimum wage last went up a year ago to $9.60, but is now behind Connecticut and further behind Massachusetts after increases took effect in the neighboring states Sunday.
“If Connecticut is up to $10.10 and Massachusetts is going up to $11, that puts our employees at a disadvantage,” Mattiello said. “This year we’ll probably see an increase.”
Paiva Weed also proposes wage increases for state home care workers.
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