PROVIDENCE — Asked about his goals and priorities for the upcoming General Assembly session, one of the first things House Speaker Gordon Fox said is “I don’t want to raise taxes.”
That being said, the Speaker, who is a former House Finance Committee Chairman, knows the state this year faces what has been called “the cliff,” a sheer, $240 million drop to the fiscal rocks below caused by the sudden loss of the federal stimulus money that has propped up the state budget for the last two years. That is the lion’s share of the projected $280 million deficit that budgeters will have to deal with in the coming year.
Fox’s desire to hold the line on taxes could run afoul of Governor-elect Lincoln Chafee’s plan for a 1 percent sales tax on items exempt from the current 7 percent sales levy. On the other hand, Fox says he sees Chafee as someone he can deal with.
“I can already say I like the guy,” Fox said of the incoming governor. “I find him to be a straight shooter and he shows compassion for folks. You can’t always say that about people in this building.”
Fox said that, unlike his predecessor, Gov. Donald Carcieri, “he’s not going to be making pronouncements and we have to react to pronouncements. He isn’t just going to hand out the budget and say ‘we’re going to get those union guys and if you don’t go along, you are in the pocket of special interests.’”
He said Chafee understands, “there is, if not common ground, ground you can have a discussion on, even if it is a disagreement.” Still, Fox says he understands that, “it’s not going to be easy; nothing is a piece of cake.”
The Speaker said he is ready to sit down and talk budget with Chafee when he gets his fiscal team in place.
Nonetheless, he repeats: “I don’t want to raise taxes on anyone, especially the sales tax, because that can hurt the lower and middle income people. I won’t say no, but it may take a lot of convincing,” for him to embrace Chafee’s 1 percent plan. There may be room to maneuver, however, because Fox says, “We have gone from having an economy based on goods to a service-based economy and our sales tax has never reflected that.
Fox says the fact that Chafee is an Independent, so he doesn’t have a party of natural allies on either side of the aisle, will present a difficulty. “Party labels are not that important to me.”
But it will present some interesting situations. Traditionally the state budget bill is introduced by the Majority Leader or the Minority Leader, depending on which party the governor belongs to. With Chafee as an Independent, who he chooses to submit the budget bill, and whether he or she is willing to do it, could give an early indication of the political climate on Smith Hill for the coming year.
One way or the other, he said, “We have to solve some huge problems. The question we have to answer is how do you make peoples’ lives a little bit better, or else why are we here?”
Finding money to support education – both higher education and elementary and secondary education – is going to be a high priority this year, Fox said. “Both finding funds and then putting the funds where we really need it.
This is the first year a funding formula for local school districts will be in place after nearly a decade of trying and it will be up to the governor and legislature to provide the money for the formula to distribute.
“It is a priority for myself,” Fox told The Times, “I know it is a priority for the Senate and I think it is a priority for the governor.
Currently, the Providence Democrat says, “We cheat higher education by pushing off the cost onto tuitions.” Although investments have been made in recent years in buildings at both the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College, Fox says a balance must be struck: “Is it buildings or is it programs.”
But the bottom line, he said, is “a lack of money shouldn’t prevent you from getting ahead in life,” and education is the way to get ahead.
Health care is going to be another major issue, according to the speaker, who says the state isn’t generating the kind of savings it should from the Global Medicaid Waiver, a contract with the federal government the state entered into a couple of years ago. He says it is unclear how that will mesh with the new federal healthcare law – familiarly called Obamacare – passed earlier this year.
“All of this is so new,” Fox said. “Who knows how all these disparate things are all related?”
He said Hopkinton Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy will rejuvenate the Health Care Oversight Committee during this session, “to start to ask those types of questions. A lot of issues are complicated and are going to require long-term solutions.”
Another “brand new, whole cloth” issue is what to do about Central Falls, the state’s smallest community whose fiscal crisis is about to reach critical mass.
“The receiver’s report says it should be annexed by Pawtucket,” Fox says with exasperation in his voice. “Annexation, how do you even do it? What are the real ramifications? Should the state be forcing cities and towns to join together?
“We have to deal with all these unique issues that aren’t really unique to Central Falls,” he said. “Other cities have problems that are the same or similar or worse.”
Fox said Central Falls could be the template the state uses to deal with issues such as regionalization or underfunded municipal pension plans.
Asked about the perennial issue of making same-sex marriage legal in Rhode Island, the state’s first openly gay House Speaker said, “there comes a moment in time to do things,” and he thinks this may be the time for marriage equality.
“People may have been left wondering why a Majority Leader (which Fox was for seven and a half years before assuming the Speaker’s rostrum last February) couldn’t get this passed,” Fox said. He noted that the top powers in the state – including Carcieri, former House Speaker William Murphy and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed -- were uniformly opposed to same-sex marriage, “but two of those three have now changed.” Fox is a longtime supporter and Chafee said continuously during the campaign that he would not only sign a same-sex marriage bill into law, but would vigorously lobby the legislature to send such a measure to his desk.
Fox says the fact that a marriage bill would no longer need a supermajority to get past a gubernatorial veto is “huge.”
Permitting same-sex marriage, he said, “is an equity issue, a fairness issue and polls show a majority of Rhode Islanders are in favor of it.” Nonetheless, he said he would not want to put it to a referendum vote because civil rights issues should be legislated.
It wouldn’t be a legislative session without discussion of a casino.
Fox said, “we will keep our eyes on the north” to see what Massachusetts does with issues of casinos and slot parlors. Rhode Island will probably react to whatever moves the Bay State makes, Fox said, echoing statements made last week by Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed.
When Fox looks out from the House dais this year, he will see 22 new members elected last November, nearly one-third of the 75-member chamber. New chairpersons will have to be found for two key committees – the Finance Committee, to replace Steven Costantino who left to make an unsuccessful bid for Providence mayor and will be nominated to be Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Chafee administration, and the Judiciary Committee, to replace Rep. Donald Lally who has been elevated into the House leadership.
He said new members run the gamut from progressives to those who ran on a conservative Tea Party platform, “so we’ll see how it plays out.”