It’s not often you hear a high ranking Democrat from a solidly blue state say, “the focus has to be on eradicating the safety net and not bolstering the safety net.” It’s not often a conservative Republican goes that far. But that’s exactly what Rhode Island’s Speaker of the House, Rep. Nicholas Mattiello, said to an Interfaith Coalition focused on poverty this week.
Mattiello preceded his comment with his usual rhetoric of building a strong economy with good jobs as being the best route out of poverty, and that the safety net should be funded at “appropriate” levels. House spokesperson Larry Berman offered this clarification: Speaker Mattiello, “means that if we alleviate poverty, there will be not need for a safety net. He wants to improve the economy and get people working to eradicate poverty.”
However, other public comments by Mattiello leave little doubt that the Speaker’s call for the eradication of the safety net should worry progressives enormously.
The RI Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty has held this event on the second day of the General Assembly being in session for the last seven years and traditionally the Governor, Senate President and Speaker of the House are invited to speak. Usually the assembled politicians say a few nice words about keeping the plight of the poorest Rhode Islanders in mind as they maneuver bills through the system, whatever their actual intentions towards the poor might be. But Mattiello, beginning his first full term as speaker, seems eager to chart a new course: He’s being upfront about his intentions slash social service programs to “appropriate” levels.
A staunch conservative, Mattiello has the solid backing of both the NRA and Right to Life. He has the strong backing of conservative Republicans. House GOP leader Brian Newberry says, “Philosophically, he’s just closer to us than his predecessor.” Meanwhile, Mattiello has targeted progressives within his own party. He endorsed progressive legislator Maria Cimini’s Democratic primary challenger “because she didn’t back him for speaker, didn’t apologize for that and because she doesn’t agree with him on policy.” Cimini lost her primary.
When the Providence Journal asked Mattiello where the cuts would be made this session, the Speaker answered, “Eligibility for human-service benefits and so forth. Let’s see where we are versus our neighbors …. Prioritize which ones are more important and look to cut expenses out of them.”
In his first term as speaker, Mattiello cut the corporate tax rate from 9 to 7%, now the lowest in New England, and raised the exemption on the estate tax to the first $1.5 million of wealth. He’s eager to cut funding for Healthsource RI, one of the most successful state run Obamacare programs and has even suggested closing the system down and “giving it back to the federal government.”
RI Monthly quotes Mattiello as wanting to steer the state away from being, “on the leading edge of the social agenda” but can economic policy be so readily separated from issues of social justice? Rhode Island has the highest poverty rate in New England, yet when workers organize to help themselves out of poverty, Mattiello has led the charge to slap them down.
Mattiello likes to talk about jobs and the economy, but people are more than their jobs. People have value beyond the economy. Like it or not, the government has a role in securing that there is a system, a social safety net, to prevent the most vulnerable from facing the worst life has to offer. And maybe, along the way, we can even help lift people up.