WARWICK — Gov. Dan McKee hinted at the possibility of a sales tax cut on Thursday, during a gubernatorial forum that placed him on the same stage with five of his major-party challengers for the first time.
Before it was over, the five Democrats and the one Republican on stage at the Crowne Plaza had defined their positions on rent caps to keep down spiraling apartment costs, "immediate relief" for struggling taxpayers and the pros and cons of expanding Rhode Island's abortion rights guarantees.
One of the funniest moments came when Democrat McKee, who vacillated on whether he would take part in the forum, publicly thanked the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council for holding a seat for him.
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With Rhode Island awash in money, the candidates were asked what specifically they would do, were they the governor, to provide immediate relief to Rhode Islanders struggling with inflation and increased gas prices.
Candidates discuss their stance on R.I. taxes
On the Democratic side, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea reiterated her earlier call for the temporary suspension of the state's 33-cent gas tax.
Helena Foulkes, a former top executive at Woonsocket-based CVS, cited her call for a $500 one-time tax cut for people earning $100,000 or less, "to address the immediate concern that people have around costs and inflation and the price of living in the state."
She said it's better than a gas tax cut because it helps people who may not drive cars.
Former Secretary of State Matt Brown had a list that included the reversal of past tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the wealthy, the cessation of "corporate giveaways" and a $19-an-hour minimum wage.
McKee initially seized the moment to talk about ways, he said, his proposed budget ups spending for on-the-job training and other programs that could help people get employed in better-paying jobs.
Two minutes into his answer, he said he will "propose some level of immediate tax relief ... where it makes sense." Elaborating later, he suggested a potential reduction of Rhode Island's 7% sales tax to match either Massachusetts or Connecticut, where the sales tax is 6.25%.
Health care advocate Luis Daniel Munoz said he would urge an increase in the state's child income tax credit and a "supplememtal" wage on the road to a $25 an hour minimum wage.
GOP candidate Ashley Kalus said she would favor suspending the gas tax, but said Rhode Island needs to take a look at all of its taxes to see how it can be more competitive.
Gorbea distanced herself from both McKee and Foulkes - the two fundraising leaders in the race - by backing a proposed hike in the top income tax rate for the wealthy.
"Look, if you are doing better in life, you should pay more," Gorbea said. "That's sort of a simple way of looking at these things....[and] the truth of the matter is before we got all of that federal money, we had structural deficits" that crimped what R.I. could afford to do.
"So I would support taxing at higher levels'' the incomes of both individuals and corporations, she said, "but I would do it in a way where we target those monies and you know where it is going."
RI governor candidates discuss abortion policy
As far as their policy stances, all except Kalus agreed that Rhode Island should do what it can to extend abortion rights, by repealing a law that bans state-paid health coverage for state employees and Medicaid recipients seeking abortions.
During and after the debate, Brown asked his fellow candidates to join him in making a pledge to "reject endorsements from legislators who opposed codifying Roe v. Wade."
"There are currently 32 sitting legislators who voted against the Reproductive Privacy Act which codified Roe v. Wade in 2019 including 19 Democrats," Brown said. None of the candidates on the stage responded.
How the candidates plan to address cost of living increases in the Ocean State
Asked if Rhode Island should impose a cap on annual rent increases, Munoz alone gave an unqualified yes as part of a package of moves to increase affordable housing, and specifically: low-income housing.
McKee said: "There may be a spot for that," but he believes the $250 million in his proposed budget for new housing will generate $1 billion of activity that will do more.
Gorbea said of rent caps: "I am not sure we are there yet." She said Rhode Island should focus on loosen(ing) the barriers" to new home construction.
"There is no one silver bullet," she said. "What you need is leadership in the governor's office..."
Brown talked more generally about the crisis created by rising rents, but has voiced support for capping rent increases at 4% annually.
Republican Kalus gave an unqualified no.
Democrat Foulkes also said no to a rent cap. She said Rhode Island needs more affordable options, such as "accessory dwelling units" known to some as granny flats.
In her years as a top executive at the Woonsocket-based CVS, Foulkes said newly hired employees would come to R.I. for jobs, but buy houses in Massachusetts for the education.
Throwing a dig at McKee, she said: "We got $200 million from the federal government. We have only given $100 million of that out for rent relief."
(Responding to a subsequent Journal query, R.I. Housing spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger said the actual number that "went out in rental and utility payments" was $180 million, which helped "over 27,000 households to remain in their homes.")
One of the most potentially revealing moments came after the moderator — WPRI reporter Steph Machado — asked each of the candidates which elected official, living or dead, they most admire.
On the Democratic side, McKee said Barack Obama; Foulkes said FDR; Brown said the late civil rights icon John Lewis and Munoz said: "Bobby Kennedy the last 90 days of his life." Gorbea 's pick: Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, who is best known for his heroic participation in the Battle of Gettysburg.
Republican Kalus named Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, though she declined afterward to say if she would support DeSantis over Donald Trump if they both run for president in 2024.
In a reporter's scrum after the debate, Kalus took issue with the health department saying her COVID testing company, Doctors Test Centers, had been the target of more than 100 complaints, about long wait lines, early closings and other issues.
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She said that translates into "a hundred complaints over 400,000 tests... My workers risked their life and I find using this for a political thing to be disgraceful... We did good work," she said.
"I left my children, as a frontline health-care worker, to help Rhode Islanders so I find this pretty disgraceful, quite honestly."
Asked where her children were during the six months her company had a state COVID testing contract, she said she had her children "leave my house" when she felt her "occupational risk was too high." She would not say where they went.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI candidates for governor split over key issues