2009-04-16 / Front Page

Ruggiero tackles tough budget issues in first year as state rep

By Steven Stycos

Deb Ruggiero Deb Ruggiero Freshman Jamestown state Representative Deborah Ruggiero was among a group of legislators who forced key changes in the state budget earlier this month.

The 20 dissident Democrats convinced Rhode Island General Assembly leaders to amend Rhode Island's supplemental budget to restore funds for local aid, nursing homes and the developmentally disabled. Their efforts to eliminate the alternative or flat tax, however failed on the floor of the House of Representatives.

In November, Ruggiero, a Democrat, defeated Republican state Representative Bruce Long of Middletown by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin. Hampered by the Republican party's poor showing, Long lost the House seat he had held since 1981.

Wanting to hold down property taxes and help some of Rhode Island's weakest and most vulnerable citizens, Ruggiero says she and the other dissident Democrats successfully restored $25 million for Rhode Island cities and towns, $3 million for nursing home care and $2.8 million for providers of care to the developmentally disabled. They also narrowly lost a vote to restore $31.4 million to reimburse hospitals for caring for people without adequate medical insurance. House leaders agreed to back the first three changes, guaranteeing their success. In addition, when they initially put the hospital cuts to a vote, House leaders suffered a rare defeat on a 37-37 tie.

House leaders quickly regrouped, however, and moved for reconsideration. Ruggiero held firm in her opposition to the hospital cuts, but four other representatives switched their votes and the hospital cuts passed 41-33.

"It not easy to be a little bit of a renegade," summarizes the first term lawmaker who works in advertising sales for the giant Citadel Broadcasting Corporation.

Ruggiero and other dissidents also failed to repeal the alternative minimum tax, commonly known as the flat tax. The tax allows taxpayers to figure their income tax the traditional way, or by using a flat percentage of their income. Then they can then choose whichever method produces a lower tax. When first passed in 2006, the alternative tax was 8 percent, but it has since been reduced to 6.5 percent. Figures compiled by the Rhode Island Division of Taxation indicate the tax, scheduled to be reduced to 5.5 percent by 2011, has saved wealthy Rhode Islanders millions of dollars. Had the 5.5 percent rate been in effect in 2006, for example, state income tax revenues would have been reduced $76.4 million and 45 percent of the reduction would have been collected by 2,218 taxpayers who earned more than a million dollars.

Rhode Island has a relatively low state income tax according to

a House Fiscal Office report. Fortytwo

states have income taxes and they raise an average of $31.65 per $1,000 of income. Rhode Island, however, raises only $26.56 per $1,000 of income.

"Governor Carcieri has done a really good job of protecting the wealthy," says Ruggiero, who supports repeal of the flat tax as a fairness measure. The majority of the House did not agree, however, and the amendment to eliminate the flat tax option failed 22-44.

Ruggiero also wants to examine the fairness of the state capital gains tax, although she would not endorse an increase in an interview with the Jamestown Press. She also says she "would not have a big problem with" a modest increase in the gas tax, as long as the money went to the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. Finally, Ruggiero wants to examine the possibility of charging large shipping tankers an anchorage fee of perhaps $5,000 a day. "Hey, we need the money," she explains.

Ruggiero has received far more publicity, however, for her proposal for a sales tax holiday on the third weekend in August, one week before Massachusetts' sales tax holiday. The holiday, which would cost an estimated $4.6 million, would boost retail sales, she states, giving the Rhode Island economy a needed boost.

In another budget vote, Ruggiero opposed an amendment to cut salaries of state employees who receive $100,000 a year or more by five percent. She also opposed doubling the fee to restore a suspended or revoked drivers license from $75 to $150.

Rank and file legislators like Ruggiero will not wrestle with the state budget again until June. In the meantime, she sits on the Health, Education and Welfare Committee. She requested the assignment, she says, and notes that the major issue before the panel is permitting marijuana to be grown for medicinal purposes. State law currently allows use of medicinal marijuana, but people must often travel to unsafe areas to purchase it, she comments. Ruggiero also supports gay marriage and abortion rights. "Abortions should be rare," she observes, "but they should be legal."

Her time as a legislator has been "a remarkable experience," concludes Ruggiero. "I'm on this journey. I don't know where this journey takes me. I'm on this journey to serve the people."

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