CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello pledged Tuesday to push through a cut in the car tax if he wins re-election, saying the frustration expressed by voters in his district has convinced him to prioritize the issue.
“I strongly believe that this is the biggest concern that folks have,” Mattiello, D-Cranston, told reporters.
Speaking at the headquarters of manufacturer Taco Inc. five weeks before Election Day, Mattiello also promised to increase the state’s income-tax exemption for retirement income from $15,000 to $20,000, and said he will again raise the estate-tax exemption, this time from $1.5 million to $2 million. Mattiello said he ultimately hopes to eliminate both the car tax and the estate tax altogether.
Mattiello is facing an energetic re-election challenge in his Western Cranston House district from Steven Frias, the state’s Republican National Committeeman, who has been attacking the speaker for months over issues including ethics and truck tolls. A lower-profile independent candidate, Patrick Vallier, is also running.
R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell joked on Twitter, “Halloween is coming: Mattiello is looking for a costume so people don’t recognize him and his record of failed leadership.” House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, said Republicans have supported eliminating the car and estate taxes for years.
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Mattiello’s statement on the car tax was long on words but short on numbers. The state currently spends about $10 million a year to cover car tax payments up to $500 in assessed value, with individual taxpayers responsible for the rest; the speaker refused to put any dollar amount on how much he plans to increase that next year. He did mention that one aspect of his plan could be eliminating the sales tax on car tax payments for leased vehicles.
“I have never proposed anything since my first day of being speaker that I have not delivered on in a very real way,” Mattiello said. “I would not be standing up here and telling the citizens of the city of Cranston and the state of Rhode Island that they’re going to get relief on their car taxes if I did not 100% plan to deliver on that.”
In the past, Mattiello has indicated he saw the car tax as a municipal issue and a low priority, but on Tuesday he said: “Nick the state representative from District 15 heard from his constituents, and they told me they don’t like the car tax, it’s regressive, it’s unfair – they just don’t like it.”
Frias said he supports repealing the car tax, too, but said of Mattiello: “He’s had three years in power, three years as speaker of the House. He could have done it already. And he didn’t.” He also noted that Mattiello supported the 2010 move to restore the car tax as House majority leader.
“He is now trying to backtrack,” Frias said. “He is in trouble, and he knows people are upset about taxes, and the car tax is one of them and he is responsible for how high it is here in Cranston. … He knows he’s in trouble, and that’s why he’s trying to make these big promises that he could’ve done years ago.”
This wouldn’t be the first time Rhode Island lawmakers promised to axe the car tax.
A previous effort to phase out the tax and replace the lost municipal revenue with state money was approved in the late 1990s, but in 2010 then-Gov. Don Carcieri and Democratic legislative leaders reinstated most of it to deal with a drop in revenue during the recession. The state’s 39 cities and towns levied $215 million in car taxes in 2014, state data shows.
As candidates in 2014, Gov. Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza held a news conference shortly before Election Day to offer their support for reducing the car tax. While Raimondo has shown little interest in the issue in office, Elorza doubled the exemption to $2,000 in this year’s city budget.
David Ortiz, a spokeswoman for Raimondo, had little to say Tuesday about Mattiello’s proposal.
“She is interested to see details on the car tax proposal, which she has said is a burden on Rhode Island families,” Ortiz said. “We need to protect the investments we’ve made in education, infrastructure and skills training to create jobs so every Rhode Islander can compete in the 21st century economy.”
Taco CEO John Hazen White Jr. said that while he was not endorsing Mattiello on Tuesday, he thinks the speaker “has walked the walk in many regards as business-friendly. He uses the word ‘business’ in serious sentences.”
Prioritizing cuts in the estate tax is particularly important to wealthy business owners such as himself, Hazen White said. “There are people who will lose their businesses with the current environment,” he said. (Hazen White also said he’s open to running for governor in 2018, but downplayed how likely he is to pull the trigger.)
Mattiello and Frias are scheduled to debate on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers on Nov. 4. While Mattiello has represented District 15 since 2006, the suburban House seat is one of the most Republican-friendly in the state.Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram