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Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Progressive lawmakers lay out 2024 agenda: Tax the rich. Do right for everyone else.

Focus on child care, early education, roads and bridges, affordable housing and public transportation

By Nancy Lavin, Rhode Island Current

Rep. Megan Cotter, a South County Democrat, outlines of the legislative priorities of progressive lawmakers under the Working Families Agenda at a State House event on Jan. 30, 2024. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

The perennial push to raise taxes on Rhode Island’s richest residents has returned to the State House this year – but with a tuneup.

Rather than a new tax bracket for the top 1% of earners, progressive lawmakers are instead calling for a proposal that would raise taxes on those with more than $1 million in annual income – about 2,134 tax filers in Rhode Island, compared with 5,000 people who would see their income taxes rise if the top 1% of earners were subjected to a higher tax rate, as has been proposed in years past.

Speaking alongside two dozen progressive lawmakers about their “Working Families Agenda” at a State House event Tuesday, Rep. Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat, and bill sponsor, explained how the estimated $126 million in revenue from a 3% income surtax on millionaires will fund other priorities.

“Remember when I said, ‘How are we going to pay for all of this’” Alzate said. “This money would be appropriated for child care, early education, roads and bridges — remember that — and most importantly, public transportation which is crucial for districts like mine.”

Not to be forgotten from the list that is getting top billing by progressive lawmakers: extending paid family leave, universal free meals for public school students, stronger protections for tenants and reforming the protections granted to police officers facing misconduct charges.

Like the millionaire tax, many of these proposals have been scaled back from versions introduced in prior years. That’s a reflection, in part, of the need to win support from the less progressive Democrats in the majority of the Rhode Island General Assembly.

“The process for picking was really about what is achievable,” said Georgia Hollister Isman, New England regional director for the Working Families Party. “We’re not about pie-in-the-sky proposals.”

Indeed, several of the top agenda items are already advancing through the legislative process, with backing from key Senate and House leaders. 

The House Municipal Government and Housing Committee is slated to vote Thursday on legislation sponsored by Rep. June Speakman, a Warren Democrat and part of the Working Families coalition, that would make it easier to build “granny flats” or accessory dwelling units. 

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi has named passing the ADU bill one of his goals for this session, having failed to win support from the Rhode Island Senate on it last year.

Meanwhile, increasing paid family leave from six to 12 weeks is on the short list for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who is co-sponsoring the Senate bill introduced by East Providence Democrat Val Lawson. A companion bill in the House is sponsored by Rep. Joshua Giraldo, a Central Falls Democrat who spoke at the Working Families event.

“Our policy was once trail-blazing 10 years ago, but now we’ve fallen behind neighboring states,” Giraldo said. “Rhode Islanders are struggling unnecessarily.”

Addressing the needs of struggling residents – families, seniors and students – was a common thread stressed by lawmakers in explaining their legislative priorities. Take, for example, those who rely on public transportation to get to school or work. An impending fiscal cliff and staffing shortage-induced service cuts facing the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority will have drastic repercussions for them, warned Rep. David Morales, a Providence Democrat.

“Buses represent a lifeline from Providence to Newport to Bristol to Warwick to Woonsocket and to Central Falls,” Morales said.

Jabs at McKee

He pointed out that Gov. Dan McKee failed to include the $100 million in funding for the transit agency that advocates demanded, instead allotting $10 million of unspent pandemic aid in his proposed fiscal 2025 to help plug the $18 million deficit.

“It is clear our public transport is on the brink of collapse, on the verge of being severely, severely unfunded following the governor’s recent state budget proposal,” Morales said.

Rep. Justine Caldwell, an East Greenwich Democrat, was more blunt in her attack on the governor’s proposed spending plan, including for its failure to fund free breakfast and lunch for all public school students, regardless of income. McKee instead proposed extending free breakfast and lunch to the 6,500 students who already qualify for reduced meals.

Companion bills in the House and Senate would instead make meals free to all students, regardless of income, replicating legislation which failed to win support last year.

“We keep hearing that the governor’s budget helps kids who truly need it, but that is simply not true,” Caldwell said. “We don’t need fads, or prizes or citations to bolster attendance. Food incentivizes kids to come to school.”

In a jab at the basketball metaphor McKee invoked in his State of the State address, Caldwell said, “A good coach knows kids can’t play their best on an empty stomach.”

Convincing McKee, along with Shekarchi, that the state has the money to afford the $40 million price tag for universal free school meals, might be an uphill battle, though.

And while appetite to reform the controversial Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights has spiked, the version highlighted by Rep. José Batista, a former public defender and Providence Democrat, is one of several jostling for support among lawmakers. Batista’s version lets police chiefs enforce disciplinary action against officers immediately, with a review panel serving as an appeal board rather than the arbiter of punishment. 

Meanwhile, the Senate already unanimously approved a competing reform bill sponsored by Ruggerio, which makes changes to the hearing panel that reviews complaints, and increases the length of unpaid suspensions, but does not empower police chiefs to suspend or fire officers. 

A separate set of companion bills introduced by Sen. Tiara Mack and Rep. Jennifer Stewart, Democrats representing Providence and Pawtucket, respectively, would repeal the law in its entirety.

Taking the long view

The Working Families Agenda is achievable and practical, Rep. Leonela Felix said. But she also acknowledged that those achievements take time – sometimes more than a decade.

“Just look at cannabis,” Felix, a Pawtucket Democrat, said, referring to the recreational cannabis law approved in 2022. “It took us 14 years to get it done and get it done right, and now we have the most progressive legislation in the country.”

Important to the balancing act between doing it right and doing it quickly – the 2024 state elections, where all 113 seats in the General Assembly will be decided. Hollister Isman said the Working Families Party is looking to pick up more seats for progressive lawmakers, while holding on to some of its hard-fought victories from elections past.

Victories like Rep. Megan Cotter, an Exeter Democrat who edged out incumbent Republican Justin Price for her seat in November 2022 after Price marched to the U.S. Capitol as part of the Jan. 6 attacks. Cotter said her upcoming re-election battle had no bearing on her legislative priorities, however.

Instead, she stressed the needs of her constituents as the impetus for her support on issues like housing.

“People think that people who live in communities like mine don’t have housing issues,” she said. “That’s not true at all. I hear from people all the time who are in crisis.”

Other legislative priorities named as part of the Working Families Agenda include:

  • Creating a $50 million revolving fund to finance mixed-income, public housing;
  • Increasing the number of days of notice tenants must get before rent increases;
  • Guaranteeing right to counsel for tenants facing eviction;
  • Lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the state of Rhode Island to become a federally licensed wholesale importer from Canada.



Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.