Gubernatorial candidates sound off on housing, taxation at RIPEC debate

GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATES attended a debate hosted by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council on Thursday afternoon at the Providence-Warwick Crowne Plaza. At far right is debate moderator Steph Machado of WPRI-TV CBS 12. / PBN PHOTO/JACQUELYN VOGHEL

WARWICK – American Rescue Plan Act funding allocation, affordable housing, taxation and combating inflation were several issues that took center stage at a gubernatorial debate Thursday afternoon.

The debate, hosted by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council at the Providence-Warwick Crowne Plaza, included Democrats former R.I. Secretary of State Matt Brown; former CVS Health Corp. executive Helena Foulkes; current R.I. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea; incumbent Gov. Daniel J. McKee; community organizer Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz; and Republican candidate Ashley Kalus, a business owner.

The candidates, questioned by debate moderator Steph Machado of WPRI-TV CBS 12, began by declaring their top priorities for the state. Kalus and Foulkes identified their priority as education, Muñoz as health care reform, and Brown and Gorbea as housing, while McKee referred to his budget plan.

All candidates spoke of the limited housing supply as a major issue in the state, but disagreed on whether the state should implement rent control measures.

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Brown said that to address housing, Rhode Island must use ARPA funds to build 10,000 affordable housing units and increase the minimum wage to $19 per hour to help renters keep up with increasing expenses.

Muñoz said he supports rent control through caps or rent stabilization at the local or statewide level. The state can’t stop at housing designated affordable, he added, and must also increase support for low-income and community housing.

This work would start at the cities and towns, he said, where “we need to work with municipalities to incentive them locally” to ease zoning restrictions.

Foulkes and Kalus said that overly restrictive zoning laws must change to increase the state’s housing supply, but both opposed rent control. Gorbea said she’s “not sure we’re there yet” in terms of implementing rent stabilization.

Gorbea and Brown both identified housing as their top priorities, with Gorbea adding that the state needs “leadership in the governor’s office that will work with cities and towns” to resolve issues around zoning.

McKee said there “may be a spot for” caps on rent increases, “but without a plan, you’re basically picking out of the air … In our budget, there is a plan,” he added. McKee also referred to his budget when asked about the issue he would prioritize, rather than naming a single area.

McKee briefly acknowledged his back-and-forth decision to attend or not attend the debate, thanking RIPEC for “saving [his] chair.”

Muñoz, speaking on his prioritization of health care reform, said that Rhode Island leaders “need to take an active step as a state” to set price controls and the limit financial burden on patients.

Foulkes, who identified education as the most pressing issue in Rhode Island, said reform means investing in before and after school programs, summer learning, ESL certification, and a guidance counselor in every school.

“It’s both a moral duty we have to our kids and a huge economic opportunity,” Foulkes said.

Kalus, who moved to Rhode Island in recent months and is making her first run for elected office, said that her “outsider” perspective will help her in finding long-term fixes for a competitive education system and housing.

Gorbea, Muñoz, McKee and Brown also said they support legislation that requires Medicaid and state insurance to cover abortion expenses for Rhode Islanders. Brown criticized McKee on this issue, saying that the governor has not pushed hard enough for the R.I. General Assembly to pass this stipulation in his budget.

Kalus, who called herself “pro-life,” said that abortion rights are codified in state law, and she “(does) not support extensions any further.”

The candidates also spoke on whether the state’s wealthiest residents should pay more in taxes.

McKee said that increased taxing “does not make sense at this point in time,” citing the state’s strong national ranking in COVID-19 recovery.

“This is the time to invest our dollars to create good-paying jobs,” he said, and not creating “continuing increased cost of living in Rhode Island.

Kalus also opposed a new tax bracket for the state’s wealthiest residents.

“Generally, I am not for things that make us less competitive regionally,” she said.

Foulkes said that Rhode Island should not implement higher taxes for the rich, stating that, “In Rhode Island, we need to remain competitive,” but said she supports higher taxes for billionaires and corporations enforced at the national level.

Gorbea supported higher taxes for wealthy Rhode Islanders, but said the state must take a targeted approach in where these monies are invested.

Muñoz called for tangible property tax exemptions for microbusinesses and taxing the top 1%.

Brown spoke against the concept of trickle-down economics, which he said does not deliver on its promises of benefiting middle class and working Rhode Islanders, and said the state should focus on bringing down housing and health care costs.

Jacquelyn Voghel is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Voghel@PBN.com.

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