If Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt's (D-Dist. 49) popularity at is any indication, her primary challengers have a lot of work ahead of them.
The representative got welcoming smiles from Paul and the staff Friday morning and spent a few minutes making small talk with patrons on her way to a table. The incumbent seems at home and comfortable there.
To those voters who might be on the fence about whether to back Baldelli-Hunt for another term, she says her service has been conscientious, in the best interests of her constituents.
The life-long Woonsocket resident has been getting to know those constituents for some time now. She worked as a Post Office clerk from 1984 until 2005, when she left to begin managing real estate investments full time, providing more flexibility while she raised her three children. During her time at the Post Office, "I met thousands of people," Baldelli-Hunt said.
She managed rental properties for a little while, but eventually moved on to commercial real estate, buying a strip plaza on Social Street in 2006. That year she learned her neighbor, David E. Laroche, the state rep. for Dist 49, wasn't planning to run again. "I knew that I could be an asset to the community," Baldelli-Hunt said, and make the city, and the state, a better place for her kids and grand-kids. She ran unopposed, and has been representing the district since then.
Primary challenger Mike Morin has criticized her vote to table House bill (H-7729), which, according to Rhode Islanders Tax Equity (RITE), would have increased the income tax rate from 5.99 percent to 9.99 percent on individuals making more than $250,000 per year. The tax rate would have gone down 1 percent for each 1 percent reduction in the state's unemployment, until the tax rate returned to 5.99 percent. The effect on the state budget would have been an additional $118 million in revenue, according to RITE.
Baldelli-Hunt, who signed the bill when it was first introduced, said she voted to table an amendment adding those changes to this year’s budget because its sponsor, Representative Maria Cimini, introduced an altered version she didn't have time to review in the heat of the legislative session. "Things are moving very quickly," during the session, Baldelli-Hunt said, "It's a total of about a minute." She said the amendment wasn't identical to Cimini's bill, and she didn't feel voting for a changed version was responsible when she didn't know what the changes were. "This is something that needs to be vetted," she said.
Baldelli-Hunt said her position against the supplemental tax bill, which she originally supported before the General Assembly's Finance Committee, was also an act of conscience.
She said that although it was evident to her that the Mayor and City Council's plan was to go to the taxpayers first for the supplemental tax and then make cuts to the city's budget, she agreed to support the bill. "For 48 hours I acquiesced to their request, even though in my gut, I felt very uncomfortable. It was a horrible 48 hours for me. I knew my conscience was telling me it was wrong," Baldelli-Hunt said.
Then, before the General Assembly vote on the bill, she said, she learned that the funds expected from the supplemental tax were estimated based on Central Falls' 65 percent collection rate, where taxpayers had a year to pay in installments. "Ours was due in one payment," Baldelli-Hunt said, and taxpayers wouldn't get a year to come up with the money. She said the burden on taxpayers seemed too high, with an unrealistic expectation of the funds that would be raised.
Also, she said, she and the rest of the Woonsocket delegation learned that the Supplemental Tax Bill wouldn't necessarily prevent a Budget Commission for the city.
Finally, she said, state officials were concerned that the municipal side of the budget was in trouble as well as the school side. Finance Director Thomas Bruce said the city has, in fact, operated with surplus for the last two years, a fact that is backed up in finanicial reports posted on the city's website, and repeated in Moody's ratings reports on city finances and at Budget Commission meetings.
Still, Baldell-Hunt said, "I should've never agreed, for 48 hours," to back the supplemental tax. She said she imagined what such a bill showing up in her family's mailbox when she was young would've done. "You can't do that to people," Baldelli-Hunt said, "It's not OK."
Baldelli-Hunt repeated her statement that a supplemental tax should've been the last resort, not the first. She said Mayor Leo Fontaine and the City Council had months after learning about the impending deficit to negotiate with the unions before seeking a supplemental tax, and failed to do that until after the supplemental tax bill was defeated and the Budget Commission was established.
Despite her position that union talks should've come first, Baldelli-Hunt said she's not anti-union. She said firefighters, teachers and police are an important part of the community, but cuts to benefits had to be made to mend the city's deficit and keep it running in the future. "We have to think beyond the single moment that we're in," Baldelli-Hunt said.
When asked whether her change of heart had anything to do with aspirations to the mayor's office, Baldelli-Hunt said that, had she not had the best interests of her constituency in mind, a vote for the supplemental tax would've been a better political move, because, "The tax increase would then have been in place and it would've been blamed on Mayor Leo Fontaine," she said.
She said she's been happy representing Dist. 49 for the last several years, and, "I want to continue it for two more."