In a repeat of a race that was decided by less than 100 votes in 2016, Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello and Republican challenger Steven Frias are both confident they’ll be able to come out on top in District 15 this year.
And as they continue to knock on doors and put their signs up in the district, which they’ve both already been doing this summer because neither face a primary opponent, they’re getting their messages out about the state budget, tax structure, the PawSox’s move out of state, and very local issues as well like the homeless shelter at Harrington Hall.
Both are attorneys, Mattiello in private practice in Cranston as a criminal defense lawyer and Frias as a utilities lawyer for a firm in Boston, and both say that budgetary concerns in Rhode Island is the key issue their constituents care about.
Frias thinks that the roughly $9.5 billion dollar budget for this fiscal year is too high, and spending should be cut in a variety of places so that taxes can be cut, and therefore more companies/individuals will want to do business in Rhode Island. He thinks that the budgets of the General Assembly, which he estimated to be around $40 million, and the commerce corporation, which he put at around $50 million, should be cut significantly.
“You have to reduce some spending,” he said. “We spend over $40 million a year on a part-time legislature. New Hampshire, which is the same size as Rhode Island, spends less than half that amount. It’s much better run than our state.”
Frias also thinks that there should be a restricted account for 911 fees, which he said have been misused and “millions” have gone into the general fund, which he called a black hole. He also thinks there should be an Inspector General whose job is solely to keep track of the state’s budget.
Mattiello said that all of the budgets since he became Speaker have been balanced and are taking care of the needs of Rhode Islanders.
“We have a balance of interests,” he said. “The budget is a balance of community needs and every community has different needs. It’s a balance I’m very proud of.”
He said that everything in the last budget “has a constituency out there that’s interested in having services provided by the state” and they wouldn’t have put money towards them if they didn’t think they had to. He said Social Security payments being exempt from Rhode Island taxation for most recipients, veteran exemptions, and elderly facility funds are some of the positive measures taken by the General Assembly.
The two candidates have similar philosophies on how to bring businesses into Rhode Island.
They both want to cut taxes.
Mattiello touted a recent initiative to cut corporate taxes in the state from 9 to 7 percent, which he said has resulted in Amgen bio manufacturing plant opening up a new operation in West Greenwich. The Speaker also believes that the car tax phase-out that he initiated two years ago has been well-received by Rhode Islanders. He called the car tax phase out a key issue in District 15 because it saves people money.
Overall, Mattiello said the state “isn’t where we need to be, but we’re far more competitive with other states than we were before.” He said there are more jobs than ever before and he believes the economy to be “picking up.”
Frias believes that taxes have continued to be too high under the leadership of Speaker Mattiello.
“Speaker Mattiello has immense control over the budget,” he said. “The General Assembly’s budget increases just about every year. He could reduce it and provide tax relief, but he just won’t do it. There’s a lot of patronage over there.”
The Republican candidate said Mattiello has supported an expansion of the sales tax to online sales, which Frias thinks should be reduced or eliminated because he said that having higher sales and gasoline taxes than neighboring states means that people on border towns choose not to do business in Rhode Island, resulting in less revenue for the state.
Frias also believes that government subsidies to corporations are not the best way to attract business.
“This is the bottom line. If we are going to try to compete with Massachusetts to bring and keep businesses here by providing tax subsidies, that is a game we can never win,” Frias said. “The only way we can beat them is by having tax rates that are lower.”
Mattiello said that because of recent corporate tax cuts Rhode Island is “positioned competitively right now” with Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Aside from budgetary issues, another hot-button issue the two candidates will be talking about this election season include the PawSox’ move to Worcester, which neither candidate seems to be very upset about.
Mattiello, who many believe played a major role in the PawSox decision to leave, said that he “hasn’t heard one negative comment” about them leaving as he’s gone door-to-door around Cranston the past couple weeks.
“Rhode Island has paid heavily for that institution,” the Speaker said about the PawSox. “I listened to the taxpayer. I believed that the taxpayers wanted the PawSox to pay, but they did not want to guarantee the total sum of over $80 million.”
Mattiello believes that much of the discontent with the PawSox decision to leave lies in Pawtucket, which he “respects” and will “have to look at to find ways to help develop their economy,” and from “political people with a biased agenda.” He said the opportunity of paying for a triple AAA baseball stadium was too high, and the money could be better spent elsewhere.
Frias has been an outspoken opponent of using taxpayer money to build a new stadium.
“It’s sad to see them leave, but it would have been sadder to see the taxpayers spend millions of dollars every year for the next 30 years without their approval,” he said.
He believes that Mattiello came up with a “last-minute junk bond plan,” which was “going to cost the taxpayers and the team owners more money because it wouldn't use the state’s credit program.”
“His plan was an attempt to fool people on both sides of this debate,” he said. “I think this could have been much better handled if we had just put this out to the vote of the people, like we do all other bond referendums. We ask people to vote on school buildings, road construction, but refused to let people decide if they wanted to go into debt to build a new stadium. That created cynicism and skepticism whenever they were told at the state house that it wouldn’t cost taxpayers.”
Mattiello said that Frias only took this position that it should be on the ballot after the team decided to leave, and the PawSox didn’t want it on the ballot in the first place, so that wasn’t an available option anyway. Frias, however, said he has an official statement from testimony he gave to the Senate in Sept. of 2017 saying that the issue should go to a vote.
“At the end of the day, nobody wants to be responsible for the loss of the PawSox,” Mattiello said.
More locally, the number of sex offenders residing at Harrington Hall is an issue both Frias and Mattiello are concerned about fixing.
Frias said that Mattiello hasn’t done enough to deal with the issue, and he cares especially about it because he has three young children who live and go to school close by.
Mattiello said that the government tried passing a law last year that capped the number of sex offenders who could reside there at 10 percent, but the federal courts said that was unconstitutional and put a hold on that. He said that instead, the budget has included $1,000,000 in each of the last two years for housing vouchers to transition people there to their own housing units, which he said has decreased the number of sex offenders there. He said that because it’s the state’s only “shelter of last resort,” it’s not practical right now to build one anywhere else, however.
Both Frias and Mattiello want to eventually see a model for Harrington Hall where sex offenders are not housed there, and both seek to address that if they’re elected.
Now, as the summer comes to an end and the heat transfers to the political season, the two candidates for House Representative District 15 are scouring Garden Hills in an attempt to solicit votes and hear from constituents about the issues. The yard signs are out in full force, and Mattiello guesses that he has more than 50 percent more signs out than Frias, although support for both of the candidates can be seen by taking a ride through District 15.