As I sat down and watched the gubernatorial debate on Facebook Live this evening, I felt like I was experiencing déjà vu. I’ve been hearing about these same issues for 13-years.
Nevertheless, it was an interesting debate, even though Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, and Republican Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and Minority Leader Patricia Morgan weren’t there. It was nice to see a debate based on issues instead of ad hominem attacks and platitudes and special interest pandering.
The candidates that were present, Democrats Spencer Dickinson, Matt Brown and Paul Roselli, as well a Republican Giovanni Feroce and Moderate Party Chairman William Gilbert, discussed issues like affordable housing, cost of government, and student loan debt.
But during the long discussion on affordable housing, I thought about the past–not the present or future, which is what elections should be about.
Back To The Future
Back in 2005 I was a reporter working for a small newspaper called The Chariho Times. The newspaper covered Charlestown, Richmond, and Hopkinton.
I recall one particular Hopkinton Town Council Meeting where another long discussion about affordable housing was taking place. See, every town needed to have 10 percent of so-called “affordable housing” as how the state defines it. Hopkinton wasn’t meeting the state mandates for affordable housing, and the state was threatening sanctions.
Then, just like now, everyone involved bemoaned the fact that there wasn’t enough affordable housing. During the discussion, then-Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey waited patiently for his turn to address the council about a package of bills he submitted to the legislature. Those bills would have given communities relief from state mandates and the ability to reduce their costs and therefore, their taxes.
Mayor Laffey addressed the council and argued that low taxes were the key to affordable housing. Basically, we needed smaller government, he said.
His arguments made sense. Lower property taxes equal more affordable housing. (Ironically, high property taxes do reduce property values, and therefore housing costs, but what good is that?)
Low Taxes Make Property Affordable
Fast forward to the present, and Matt Brown, argued on Wednesday night that income taxes on high earners should be increased so that property taxes could be cut. “It’s a trickle down economic theory that I think doesn’t work. It’s proven not to work,” said Brown.
But does anyone really believe that hiking taxes on high-income earners, and therefore incentivizing them to leave, is going to solve problems and make housing more affordable? I don’t. I, for one, don’t think any revenue increases gained from taxing high income earners would be used to offset property taxes.
Brown did argue that the state needs more economic activity.
“We’ve been struggling economically for a long long time,” said Matt Brown. “And I feel like what’s gotten us depressed is that we’ve gotten used to it. But it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Our Best Customers
But how does increasing taxes on high-income earners jump-start the economy?
Republican Feroce, however, argued that Rhode Island’s high taxes are a direct correlation to the state’s lack of affordable housing.
“Taxes. The problem is taxes. The problem’s taxes,” said Feroce. “The reason my neighbor moved was because they couldn’t afford the taxes. The prices are all jacked up. They just don’t care. They feel like they have to leave.”
He also argued that the affordable housing problem would not be solved by taxing the state’s biggest earners.
“Those are the people we want to stay here in Rhode Island,” said Feroce.
Doesn’t he have a point? Why would a business penalize or mistreat its best customers?
Is Government The 1-Percent?
Pat Ford, who serves as Chairman of the state’s Libertarian Party, has long argued that the problem in Rhode Island, is that you need to be connected to the government to thrive. If you don’t have a business that does work with the state, or you’re not a member of a union that has laws written to protect it, you’re probably working very hard for very little.
“Government is the one-percent,” Ford says.
No one else will say that, but is it wrong?
And I’m wondering, in another 13 years, if I’ll be watching another gubernatorial debate where the candidates bemoan the state’s lack of affordable housing, and floundering economy.
I sure hope not.