Activists call on RI House to raise taxes on the one percent

By Steve Ahlquist

Community leaders, advocates, and lawmakers gathered outside the Veterans Memorial Auditorium on Thursday – the temporary meeting place of the Rhode Island House of Representatives – with a clear demand: it’s time to invest our communities’ well-being by raising revenue from the top 1% highest income earners in our state.

“It’s time to invest in our people again,” said State Representative Karen Alzate (Democrat, District 60, Pawtucket), sponsor of H5227 to raise revenue from the highest-income Rhode Islanders. “I’ve proposed this legislation because my neighbors in Pawtucket, and working families across our state, cannot continue to bear a higher responsibility for our tax burden than the very rich in our state. All of us – white, Black, and Brown, native and newcomer – deserve to thrive in our state, and this legislation is designed to ensure that the people who can most afford to invest in all of our well-being chip in a little more to make Rhode Island a community that cares for each other.”

Representatives David Bennett, Rebecca Kislak, Teresa Tanzi, Edie Ajello, Liana Cassar, Joshua Giraldo, June Speakman, Brandon Potter, Brianna Henries, Katherine Kazarian and David Morales also attended the event.

Attendees drove home the demand by holding up giant, cut out letters spelling “INVEST IN US, TAX THE RICH”. Each letter was hand-painted with imagery showing priorities that could be invested in with increased revenue, including schools, healthcare, and housing.

Ahead of a hearing in the House Finance committee regarding increasing taxes on the wealthiest Rhode Islanders, political organization Reclaim Rhode Island announced it had contacted over one thousand voters in key House districts regarding the legislation.

“We’ve spoken with voters across the state – from Warwick to Cranston to Cumberland – and their responses confirm what we already knew: Rhode Islanders support taxing the rich,” said co-Organizing Director Tal Frieden.

Over the course of the past few weeks, over 60 Reclaim Rhode Island volunteers have called and canvassed +1000 voters in House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi’s district in Warwick, Representative Jacquelyn Baginski’s district in Cranston, and Representative Alex Marszalkowski’s district in Cumberland. Throughout these conversations, says Frieden, voters expressed their support for taxing the top 1% of income earners.

Voters across the state expressed their concern that without increasing taxes on the top 1%, cities and towns would be forced to raise property taxes. One voter from Cranston wrote, “I was unhoused, and now I rent [in Rep Baginski’s district]. If property taxes go up, so does my rent!” Among the other priorities listed by voters were additional funds for housing, infrastructure, and schools.

“This event is about what kind of community we want to live in,” said Rhode Island Working Families Party Organizer Andrea Rojas, who emceed the rally outside the Vets. “The wealthy have profited throughout this pandemic, and now they need to invest in our long-term recovery.”

Khadija Lewis Khan, Executive Director of Beautiful Beginnings Child Care Center stressed the investments that these funds could make in childcare. “Nothing is more important than investing in our children’s education, and in the quality childcare programs our children and families need. Let’s raise this revenue and make sure that we can support small businesses like mine and open up more high quality, affordable early childhood opportunities to families across our state.”

“It’s hard being a small business in this current environment,” said Roger Flores of La Bella Boutique, a local small business in the Mount Pleasant area of Providence.

“We’re fighting so hard to keep our doors open, while money keeps flowing into the pockets of the very rich and staying there,” continued Flores, speaking in Spanish. “We need to put these dollars back into work in our communities, so they can be spent at businesses like ours.”

“This pandemic has put so much pressure on working Rhode Islanders who are struggling living paycheck to paycheck trying to remain housed, while others are looking to find adequate housing,” said Terri Wright from Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE). “We have to raise new revenue and use it to build quality affordable housing across our entire state. A tax hike to Rhode Island’s wealthiest will allow communities to Thrive and save lives!”

Multiple speakers highlighted years of decreases in taxes for the wealthiest Rhode Islanders at the state and federal levels, and declared support for bills H5227 and S0326, which would add a new tax bracket only on residents making over approximately $475,000 a year. The proposal would bring in about $182 million each year for investments in key programs – childcare, housing, infrastructure, services for people with disabilities, and much more.

“The economics behind taxing the rich and investing in Rhode Island programs is clear,” said Rachel Flum of the Economic Progress Institute. “This helps small businesses, and there’s no proof that raising taxes on the very wealthy will drive them out of the state. Rhetoric like that is an attempt to divide us against each other – investing in our communities would make all of Rhode Island a better place to live, work, and raise our families…”

“It is important to pass this now,” continued Flum. “You may have heard that now is not the time because we’re getting a lot of federal dollars. But that is not the case. the way tax policy works is that it takes a while to get the revenue. If we pass this now, it will go into effect for tax year 2022, which means that we’ll get the revenue in April of 2023 – just about the time that those federal funds are done.