WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — The major candidates for Rhode Island governor faced off on minimum wage, spending, reproductive rights, and other topics at a forum Thursday.
The hour-long forum, hosted by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick, rounded up six candidates looking to win the corner office in November.
The lone Republican candidate, businesswoman Ashley Kalus, met with the crowded Democratic field which includes incumbent Gov. Dan McKee, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, former CVS executive Helena Foulkes, former Secretary of State Matt Brown, and community activist Luis Daniel Muñoz.
Watch the first part of the forum in the video above, and see part 2 below.
12 News reporter Steph Machado was the moderator of the event, which focused on taxes and spending state dollars.
Asked for their number one priority to spend the state’s $1.1 billion in remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds, Brown and Gorbea listed housing, while Kalus and Foulkes said education topped the list. Muñoz said health care was his top priority, while McKee listed the economy and increasing people’s incomes as his top priority.
McKee hinted that he may propose to cut the 7% state sales tax to be more competitive with Massachusetts and Connecticut, while rejecting the idea of cutting the personal income tax amid the surplus of cash in the state.
None of the candidates said they would favor lowering the income tax, in response to a question submitted by a member of the audience. Muñoz said he would expand child tax credits, while Foulkes proposed a one-time $500 tax credit for the middle class. Gorbea noted the state has a structural deficit, and said the one-time pandemic funds should not be used for a long-term tax cut.
Kalus said all taxes in the state should be reviewed, but did not propose a specific cut.
When asked what the minimum wage should be in Rhode Island, several candidates agreed on $15 an hour, including Foulkes, Gorbea and Kalus. (Rhode Island law is currently slated to gradually raise the wage to $15 by 2025.)
“$15 an hour is a good start, but that isn’t enough for people to actually earn a living,” McKee noted.
“Our goal should be $25, however long it takes,” Muñoz said, whose proposal includes supplemental wages paid by the state.
“$19 an hour, which is just about $40,000 a year,” Brown said.
McKee, Foulkes and Gorbea all said they would reform the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, while Muñoz and Brown said they would repeal the law, which provides protections for police officers accused of misconduct. Kalus said she needed more information about the law.
As the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade rocks the country, all five Democratic candidates said they support legislation to cover abortions through the state’s Medicaid program and in health insurance coverage for state employees. McKee, who did not originally include such coverage in his budget proposal in January, said he has promised to sign such legislation if it reaches his desk.
Kalus said she does not support further expansion of abortion rights, describing herself as pro-life.
McKee’s attendance at the forum made headlines before it even started. The governor had confirmed his attendance to RIPEC months ago, but pulled out of the forum last week.
McKee later announced on Monday that he would participate, returning from a trip to Florida to attend.
He joked about the about-face during his closing statement, thanking RIPEC for “saving his chair.”
“I try to make the right decisions based on the fact that our staff had committed and after reviewing it I wanted to make sure I kept that promise,'” McKee told reporters after the forum.