By JOHN HOWELL What legislation didn't pass is as important as what was enacted, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi told members of the Warwick Rotary Club Thursday. Legislators did not approve the so-called "tax the rich" plan or a sugar tax on drinks
What legislation didn’t pass is as important as what was enacted, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi told members of the Warwick Rotary Club Thursday.
Legislators did not approve the so-called “tax the rich” plan or a sugar tax on drinks despite intensive lobbying and support from progressive Democrats.
“A lot of people ask, well, what did you do? I like to say what we didn’t do. We didn’t do a lot of taxes. And there was a lot of pressure from many, many members of the caucus who wanted to raise taxes on the rich. But when you dig into that and find out what it is, it’s really raising taxes on small business,” he said.
Shekarchi said federal funds enabled the passage of budgets – last year and this year – without raising any taxes. The tax on beverages containing sugar, Shekarchi said, would have hurt small businesses.
But as the infusion of federal funds related to the pandemic enabled no tax increase budgets and the next steps in elimination of the car tax, the speaker was asked, doesn’t it create a situation where the state will be faced with having to raise taxes in years when federal COVID funding dries up?
Shekarcki said the state is waiting for guidance from the U.S. Treasury on how it can use $2 billion in COVID-related funding.
“Because if you don’t follow the guidance, you lose the opportunity to surrender it, or even actually, God forbid, have to give it back. So, we’re gonna wait for guidance and make sure we do it right,” he said.
“I like to say, I don’t want to spend that money, I want to invest that money. We don’t have a plan for that. I know the governor has some ideas of where he wants to, as he calls them buckets of money where he wants to put it in there. In the budget we passed three weeks ago … we made it very clear, the governor can’t spend that money unless he goes through the legislative process. And that’s not some kind of a power grab … I just want that we go through the legislative process.”
He said he doesn’t want to see the federal funding just go to fixing potholes, but to sustainable programs to help people. He said he is aware many non-profits are interested in sharing in the funding.
He noted that the Rhode Island Foundation is soliciting ideas on how the money should be spent and that Brown University has conducted a research poll on the best areas to spend it.
“We’re all open, can you contact your state representative, state senator, if you have any great ideas, what should be done with it,” he said.
Shekarchi termed the session – which eventually had lawmakers returning to the State House and the removal of plexiglass enclosures around desks – highly productive. Legislation he highlighted relative to the pandemic included Zoom and online municipal and state meetings, the sale by restaurants and bars of cocktails to go and a work share program that enables people to go back to work yet collect unemployment benefits until September.
He said he inherited the IGT Twin River deal, but couldn’t go along with it.
“We got a much better deal for the state, significantly better in terms of higher wages, more front money, more penalties,” he said.
Other highlights of the session were the Rhode Island Promise Program guaranteeing two years of free CCRI tuition, the funding of body cameras for law enforcement officers and limitations to the Pathways Program to prevent abuse of the program enabling high school students to attend schools outside their home district. He said some parents use the program so their children can play on the athletic teams of other schools, while the home districts are faced with paying tuition to the other districts.
Shekarchi is uncertain whether the House would reconvene in September as has been speculated. If it does, he said it would be an “open session.” He foresees the legalization of recreational marijuana and the law enforcement bill of rights as major issues. He said lawmakers can close to striking down the bill of rights.
The speaker said he is opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana for the sake of legalization. He said legalization raises questions over who is going to control marijuana – who is going to sell it and who’s going to license it.
“There are many different proposals surrounding marijuana,” he said. “The issue is doing it right.”
He said he wants to ensure the state gets its fair share of marijuana revenue while addressing concerns voiced by medical professionals and the insurance industry.
As for the law enforcement bill of rights, Shekarchi said lawmakers came close to abolishing it.