Speaker Shekarchi: Rhode Islanders need to speak up

House leader talks about proposals to tax the rich, raise the minimum wage and balance the state budget

By Scott Pickering
Posted 2/26/21

Rhode Island Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi has a message for Rhode Islanders: If you have something to say, say it.

Mr. Shekarchi met with a group from the East Bay Chamber of Commerce …

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Speaker Shekarchi: Rhode Islanders need to speak up

House leader talks about proposals to tax the rich, raise the minimum wage and balance the state budget

Posted

Rhode Island Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi has a message for Rhode Islanders: If you have something to say, say it.

Mr. Shekarchi met with a group from the East Bay Chamber of Commerce Friday morning in a “Coffee and Commerce” Zoom session. Three East Bay state representatives (Democrats Jason Knight, June Speakman and Susan Donovan) attended the meeting, along with more than a dozen East Bay business leaders.

The speaker talked about the state budget, the Covid crisis and bills coming before the General Assembly, and throughout his comments he challenged those who are critical of state government, or who have opinions on the issues of the day, to speak out and be heard.

“It is so important that you advocate, not only at the state level, but locally as well,” Mr. Shekarchi said. Later, he added, “You need to be involved in the legislative process. You need to contact your state representative, your state senator … We need you to step up and tell us why something is a good bill, or why it’s a bad bill.”

Throughout the hour-long session, the speaker also …

  • Spoke skeptically about a drive to increase taxes on the wealthiest Rhode Islanders;
  • Endorsed all of the state bond questions before voters next week, urging Rhode Islanders to support them and consider them engines for economic development;
  • Made it clear there are no discussions about changing the state’s formula for education aid;
  • Supported raising Rhode Island’s minimum wage to $15 per hour in a staged approach;
  • Said his goal for the state budget is to not raise taxes, or cut social services.

Taxes on the rich

Cap Willey, an accountant who works with many small businesses, urged the speaker to oppose bills or initiatives that would make it more difficult for the many small businesses that “are struggling to survive” in Rhode Island.

“In the middle of the pandemic, it’s not right to raise the taxes and raise the burdens on the small businesses,” Mr. Willey said.

Mr. Shekarchi responded by talking about a contingent of legislators who are pushing tax increases on “the rich.”

“It’s extremely popular, in my caucus, to raise taxes on ‘the rich,’ ” Mr. Shekarchi said while making air quotes with his hands. “There’s a strong push from a lot of advocacy groups to collect more money from wealthy Rhode Islanders to fund social programs.”

He went on to say that there are many people looking for “justice” right now, whether through wage equality, racial programs or otherwise. “I’m concerned about it,” he said.

Though he officially said he is withholding his opinion for now, the speaker went on to add, “I don’t want Rhode Island to be the highest tax state in New England. That’s not a good formula to attract business.”

Mr. Shekarchi also said he’s worried about new advances in developing a mobile workforce, in response to Covid. He said people are learning they can move to Florida, live there for six months a year, officially change their residency, shift their tax burden to the more favorable Sunshine State, all while continuing to run their “Rhode Island” business. “We risk getting rid of the high net worth people in Rhode Island,” he said.

Mr. Willey responded by saying that the “what-if” scenario is actually happening. “I can tell you people are leaving. You just lost one,” Mr. Willey said, “and I’m telling you, you’ve lost $200,000 of revenue from that one person.”

The speaker responded that Mr. Willey and the business community need to do more than complain to him. They need to be more vocal and more visible.

“Have you distributed a mailer? Have you written an op-end? Have you contacted your legislators?” Mr. Shekarchi asked. “I’ve received at least 1,000 emails about guns, but I’ve heard very little from the business community.”

Money for schools

Andy Tyska, a former chairman of the Bristol Warren Joint Finance Committee, mentioned a current budget crisis facing the regional school district and asked if state leaders are having any conversations about changing the education aid formula, to reverse a trend that has taken away robust funding from regional districts.

The answer was a pretty clear ‘no.’

Mr. Shekarchi said that state’s formula for education aid is student-driven, so it goes toward distressed communities, and it goes to where the students are (funding is based on enrollment). “It’s an equalization of money for the student … the money follows the child,” Mr. Shekarchi said.

The speaker also defended the state’s funding for education. The legislator who is now serving his fifth term in office said, “Every year I’ve been in the General Assembly, we as a state have put more money into education. Every single year. There has never been a year when we’ve put in less. There’s never been a year when we’ve level-funded. We’ve always put in more money,” he said.

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