As 2021 begins, Rhode Island’s top elected officials are promising a progressive agenda for the new year. Their priority list is hugely popular among voters, and legislators and advocates shouldn’t back down until it’s enacted into law.
Three of Rhode Island’s most powerful lawmakers, Senate leaders Dominick Ruggerio, Michael McCaffery and Maryellen Goodwin, described their new groove for the first time in November following their re-elections to key posts. Those remarks were covered by Uprise RI. More recently, Ruggerio and McCaffery reaffirmed their priorities in a December interview with the Providence Journal. The agenda: increase the minimum wage, legalize recreational marijuana, lower the cost of housing and hike taxes on the rich.
State leaders have committed themselves to winning causes. Recent polling shows the proposals they pledge to advance are supported by wide majorities of Rhode Islanders. With the election over, it’s now time for these lawmakers to follow through on their promises.
Raising the minimum wage
Senate leaders vow to push for a “statutory pathway to a $15 an hour living wage,” raising the state’s minimum wage from its current rate of $11.50. “We must insist on a clear pathway to $15 per hour,” Ruggerio announced in November after winning re-election for a third term as Senate President.
Rhode Islanders are on board with the fight for 15. More than two in three voters support increasing the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, according to a 2017 survey conducted by pollster Dan Cohen for the Rhode Island Working Families Party. The poll finds 68% approve of raising the wage floor to $15 by 2023.
The COVID-19 pandemic has likely further strengthened public support for a $15 minimum wage, as a greater number of people have come to understand and value the contributions of low-paid essential workers. Nationwide, voter favorability of boosting the minimum wage rose from 66% in February of last year to 72% in August, Ipsos polling for USA Today and Public Agenda finds.
“The time has come to legalize adult cannabis use,” McCaffery declared in November after being re-elected to the position of Senate Majority Leader. “We have studied this issue extensively, and we can incorporate the best practices as learned from other states.” Ruggerio has tasked McCaffery and Senator Josh Miller, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and a longtime legalization supporter, with crafting a plan to make it happen.
A growing majority of Rhode Islanders favor loosening restrictions on marijuana. Three in five Rhode Island voters approve of legalizing, regulating and taxing the drug for adult recreational use, according to a 2017 poll from Public Policy Polling commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project. Just 36% are opposed.
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Popularity has increased with time. A 2008 poll commissioned by MPP indicated that 41% approved of legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana. By 2012, that number had risen to 52%; by 2015, 57%. The 2017 poll shows 59% support. Polling from Brown University’s Taubman Center identifies the same trend toward greater support for legalization. A 2016 poll found 55% in favor, up from 48% in 2014.
Ruggerio and McCaffery pledge to address the state’s housing crisis by expanding the supply of affordable homes and delivering emergency support to renters.
Rhode Islanders overwhelmingly agree that buying or renting a home is too expensive. Three in four voters say housing costs are a problem in Rhode Island, according to a 2018 poll from Fleming & Associates commissioned by Roger Williams University and WPRI. Middle-age voters and young voters are the most likely to say the price of housing is a “serious” problem.
The pandemic and its economic fallout have widened the gap between housing costs and many Rhode Islanders’ ability to pay—likely strengthening support for efforts to improve security and affordability. One national poll from May 2020, for example, finds nearly all voters approve of policies to temporarily halt evictions and provide aid to renters.
Taxing the rich
State leaders increasingly support raising tax rates on high-income Rhode Islanders. “It’s time. Let those who make more money pay more to address the deficit,” Goodwin, the Senate Majority Whip, said in November. “Even without the deficit, it’s good policy. Now there’s more urgency.” Ruggerio has signaled interest in raising the top marginal income tax rate from 5.99% to “the vicinity” of 8.99%.
Two in three voters favor raising the state’s top tax rate to 8.99%, according to a March 2020 poll conducted by Fleming & Associates and commissioned by the Revenue for RI Coalition. Overall, 67% support the proposal. 45% strongly support it, while just 17% strongly oppose it.
A similarly large share of voters is concerned about income inequality in Rhode Island. Seven in ten say the gap between the rich and poor in the state is a problem, a poll conducted in June finds. That poll was administered by Fleming & Associates for Bryant University’s Hassenfeld Institute.
Voters have long favored a fairer tax code. A Fleming & Associates poll commissioned by the Rhode Island AFL-CIO in 2012 found 68% supported an increase to the state’s top tax rate. The following year, nearly half of the General Assembly cosponsored a bill to raise taxes on Rhode Islanders with incomes over $250,000—but legislative leaders did not allow for passage. In 2008 and 2009, as the state was undergoing a multi-year decrease in the top tax rate which began in 2006, three in five voters favored reversing the tax cuts and reinstating higher rates, polling from Brown University found at the time.
Rhode Island’s legislative leaders have honed in on a hugely popular agenda for the 2021 session. Voters overwhelmingly approve of boosting the minimum wage to $15, legalizing cannabis, lowering housing costs and raising revenue from the rich. It’s time for lawmakers to deliver.