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Truck Tolls: Plaintiffs Appeal Ruling to Dismiss; Do Not Accede to Moving the Fight to State Court

On March 19, the federal district court in Providence dismissed the American Trucking Associations’ lawsuit against Rhode Island’s truck-only tolls, heeding the State of Rhode Island’s legal argument that their truck-only tolls are not a federal but a state matter and within the state’s purview to assess because they are actually taxes. (Wait, what?? Since when? From the beginning and all through the toll battle, Governor Gina Raimondo and state leaders repeatedly told us that tolls are a “fee”, a “user fee“, an apple – anything but a tax.)

At that point, the ATA had two choices: file the suit in state court or move to keep the suit at the federal level by appealing the decision. They just issued a statement indicating that they have chosen the latter course, stating, in part

Yesterday, the American Trucking Associations, along with three motor carriers representing the industry, appealed last week’s decision by the federal district court in Rhode Island to dismiss their challenge to Rhode Island’s RhodeWorks truck-only toll scheme, on procedural grounds.

In its challenge, ATA contends that Rhode Island’s truck-only toll scheme is unconstitutional because it discriminates against interstate trucking companies and impedes the flow of interstate commerce. In its March 19, 2019 decision dismissing the case, the district court did not address the merits of that constitutional claim. Instead, it held only that ATA’s challenge could not proceed in federal court.

ATA President and CEO Chris Spear went on to underscore, “…we look forward to establishing the unconstitutionality of Rhode Island’s discriminatory tolls on the merits.”

[Monique has been a contributor to the Ocean State Current and Anchor Rising for over ten years, was volunteer spokesperson for the citizens advocacy anti-toll group StopTollsRI.com for three+ years and began working for the Rhode Island Trucking Association as a staff member in September of 2017.]

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Governor Seeks to Punish Employers Via Proposed Medicaid Tax

Businesses should be applauded for hiring those most in need of work…not punished with more taxes, and certainly not made out to be the bad guy. It is misguided to think that if employees are not covered by their employer’s insurance plan, full or part time, and instead are enrolled in Medicaid, then the business should be punished.

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The 6.5% Sales Tax Promise: Money In Your Pocket

Existing state law (General Law 44-18-18) specifies a “trigger” for a sales tax rate reduction to 6.5% (from its current level of 7.0%!) if certain internet sales tax collection criteria are met. The rationale for this law was to relieve Rhode Islanders of the additional burden of imposing a sales tax on a broader range of purchased goods, by easing the tax.

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A Simple Way to Keep a Sales Tax Promise

On Monday, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity suggested that the State of Rhode Island should keep its promise to reduce the sales tax rate to 6.5% whenever it began to collect taxes on Internet sales.  Now, Republican Representative George Nardone, of Coventry, has put in legislation intended to do just that:

State Representative George Nardone District 28 Coventry is introducing legislation to lower the sales tax from 7% to 6.5% based on a 2014 R.I. law that was universally supported by the House, Senate, and Governors office.

“It’s time for state lawmakers to keep the promises we made”

The bill, H5854, is very simple.  State law already states that Rhode Island will collect Internet sales taxes and drop the rate to 6.5% “upon passage of any federal law that authorizes states to require remote sellers to collect and remit sales and use taxes,” and reduce the rate.  Nardone’s legislation simply adds the words “or court decision” after “federal law.”

This would be a no-brainer for elected officials if their brains were able process the notion of not always increasing revenue.

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Honoring the Good-Policy Promise of Lowering the Sales Tax

Today, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity released a policy brief arguing that, with the 2020 budget, the state will have effectively reached the point of online sales tax collection that was supposed to trigger a reduction in the tax rate from 7% to 6.5%:

While the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision is not literally the same thing as “passage of any federal law,” it can be argued that the State of Rhode Island has effectively triggered this threshold of collecting sales taxes from remote sellers, including Internet vendors. It can further be argued that our state has actually exceeded this legal threshold.

Yet, politically, not one lawmaker has made any noise about how Rhode Islanders may legally be getting ripped off by a broadened sales tax that doesn’t fulfill the legally required lowered rate that was promised.

The Center suggests that the General Assembly should honor its commitment to the people of Rhode Island, should abide by legislation that the legislature itself passed, and should complying with state law. The House of Representatives should include in its FY20 budget statutory language that would officially reduce the state sales tax to its statutorily required 6.5% rate.

The included chart pretty well tells the story of the state’s expansion of the sales tax — at more than twice the rate of inflation, with nearly a 40% increase since fiscal year 2012:

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Rhode Island Needs A Freedom Agenda. (And It’s Coming This Week.)

The Ocean State is doomed to lose a US Congressional seat because of its hostile tax, educational, and business environment. The state’s current thinking chases away the wealth, families, and businesses that are needed for all of us to be truly prosperous. The far-left big government policies that have reigned in our state for far too long will continue to only make matters far worse. Instead, we need a change of direction.

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Another Day, Another New Fee in the Budget

Here’s an-easy-to-have-missed tidbit on the Raimondo nickel-and-diming front:

To help buy and maintain new DMV technology, Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget plan for next year proposes hiking the $1.50 “technology surcharge” on DMV transactions to $2.50 and making it permanent. (The fee was slated to sunset in 2022.)

What the budget doesn’t mention, but Raimondo administration officials acknowledged this week, is that in addition to increasing the size of the fee, the DMV hopes to start charging it to vehicle owners when they have to take their cars in for mandatory safety and emissions inspections every two years.

These fees may seem small, but when you’re hit with them every time you take a breath, they add up. And when new fees are constantly added to cover that which was supposed to be covered under other fees or taxes, we should ask where all the money is going.

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A School Choice Nose in the National Tent

Presumably, this proposal would greatly enhance Rhode Island’s tax credit scholarship program:

While most of the K–12 educational-funding and -policy decisions are appropriately housed in the states, an innovative new policy idea would allow the federal government to play a constructive role in expanding educational opportunity in America. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has unveiled a proposal for Education Freedom Scholarships, with corresponding legislation introduced by Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Bradley Byrne. The plan would invest $5 billion annually in America’s students by allowing individuals and businesses to make contributions to in-state, non-profit Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs) that provide scholarships to students. Contributors would receive a non‐refundable, dollar‐for‐dollar federal tax credit in return for their donations. No contributor would be allowed a total tax benefit greater than the amount of their contribution, and not a single dollar would be taken away from public schools and the students who attend them.

The program would actually be administered through the state, which puts Rhode Island at an advantage because we’ve already got such a program going.  Of course, it would be even better if Rhode Island expanded its own program in the ways suggested, here, notably by allowing individuals, and not just corporations, to contribute.

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Siccing the Tax Man on the People

In early December, I pointed to a story about the state taxing authority going after funeral homes to tax urns and prayer cards.  The State of Rhode Island was hitting these small businesses with bills for back taxes on products that had always been handled as tax exempt.

As I looked through the tax changes in Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s budgets for the past few years over the weekend, a connection became clear, with an important lesson:

  • In fiscal year 2017, the governor called for two new revenue agents for field audits and three new revenue officers for collections, with an estimated increase in revenue of $1,793,806.  The General Assembly accepted this proposal, but assumed a net budget impact of $3 million, meaning that the actual revenue collected would be higher in order to pay the five new employees, so actual revenue would be around $3.5 million.
  • In fiscal year 2018, the governor called for two more revenue agents and two new data analysts who were supposed to generate another $750,000. The General Assembly accepted this proposal but assumed a $2 million increase in revenue.
  • In her current budget, the governor wants to add a lawyer and case management system to the collections unit, to generate another $750,000.

Going after small businesses for back taxes nobody ever told them to collect is what this effort looks like.  After the changes in fiscal years 2017 and 2018, the state had nine new employees with an implied mandate to find $5.5 million in new tax revenue.

To the extent anybody even notices these new hires, the impression is that they’ll be going after scofflaws for money they are somehow hiding from the state.  There may be some of that, but what the funeral homes are experiencing is the effect of the state hiring people with a monetary target and siccing them on the people of Rhode Island.

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Chris Maxwell: National Academic Board Finds No Data to Support Raimondo & RIDOT’s Claims of Truck Damage to Highways & Bridges

The National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board (TRB) recently met to assess whether changes to truck size and weight (TS & W) should be implemented. The nation’s scholars, engineers and infrastructure “wonks” came away from the conference with a consensual determination that there was not enough data to support changes and that further studies were needed before any revisions were made to either decrease or increase the allowable dimensions and weight on America’s highways and bridges. In fact, the group spent significant time developing a plan for future research on the TS & Weight issue because there are information gaps and inconsistencies in studies.

So why are DOT leaders around the country yelling “fire in the theater” as they pin the trucking industry with the ills of our infrastructure?

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An Unexpected Suggestion to Fix Providence’s Pension Woes

To fix Providence’s pension fund, Mike Riley proposes a solution that might surprise some folks:

People dont Realize that Providence debt burden is the 3rd worst in the country. Raimondo and Elorza plan to pass this to State taxpayers. I say NO WAY !!@!!

This is Providence mess to clean up. They should impose a wealth tax to cut this number in half. Don’t tax us. Tax your own wealthy citizens who have elected Elorza and let him kick the can. Those wealthy people are dying soon so I would start imposing the wealth tax ASAP.

In addition the City should impose a real Estate Transfer tax of 50% on any Property over $3 million dollars that changes hands in the next 3 years or until the Pension Shortfall is < $500 million. These taxes , both the Wealth tax and the transfer tax, would be deposited directly into Providence Police and Fire pension plans.

One suspects the “tax the rich” approach is offered, here, mainly for educational purposes.  Riley’s drastic proposal is made in response to an F for Providence’s finances from Truth in Accounting.  Those who’ve watched Rhode Island finances will find a catch in that linked document:  namely, that just about every Rhode Island municipality faces similarly dire straits.

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Loss of US Congressional Seat Underscores Need for Reform Agenda

The state of the State of Rhode Island is not good. Even as the rising national economic tide has lifted ships in all states, when compared with the rest of the nation, our Ocean State is severely lagging, and is in danger of sinking further behind if progressive policies continue to be implemented.

Perhaps no indicator more appropriately demonstrates the failure of the leftist status quo, than does the near-certainty that Rhode Island will lose one of its precious House seats in the U.S. Congress. The persistent jokes of family and friends “moving out of state” have now tragically manifested themselves into the harsh reality that our state is not competitive enough to see population growth on par with the rest of the country.

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Political Monday with John DePetro: Fees, Fraud, Fetuses, and Finding a Field of Candidates

My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, this week, was about the many new fees and taxes in the governor’s budget, a progressive’s alleged embezzlement, the significance of an abortion poll, and the multiple candidates for RIGOP chair.

Open post for full audio.

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Parks and Beaches: Another Investment We’re Already Making

Along with her budget’s request to increase fees for beaches and Rhode Island parks, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo is rolling out the usual message about “investing” in our state:

“Our beaches and parks are such a special part of who we are as Rhode Islanders, and we need to preserve them for future generations,” said Governor Gina M. Raimondo. “The study DEM commissioned recently makes clear that we’re not doing enough now. It’s critical that we commit to long-term investments in our parks and beaches. Let’s make sure our kids have the same opportunities that we did.”

The study noted that Rhode Island exhibits high park use and low investment compared with the rest of the nation – ranking 1st in visits per park acre but 47th in state spending per visit. The study calls on the State to make a strategic, sustained, long-term investment to increase the self-sufficiency and economic potential of the park system, protect infrastructure, enhance programs, and bolster operations and staffing.

The missing statistic in that summary is anything gauging Rhode Island’s tax burden.  Especially in the messaging of our current governor, everything is an “investment.”  The problem is that we’re already making those investments.  We’re just not getting much for them, whether in terms of infrastructure, economic development, or education.

Another budgetary favorite of Raimondo’s emphasizes the point:  budget scoops.  When the governor’s office makes a regular practice of “scooping up” money from restricted funds, which are often driven by fees of one sort of another, it sends the message that it’s all really about finding new sources of revenue.

In other words, she’s actually looking for investments in more of the same old insider deals that have drained money away from things Rhode Islanders actually value.

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When the Taxman Decides What’s Creative

Well, this minor controversy looks pretty obvious to me:

The dispute centers on the sales tax exemption that state law provides writers, composers and artists residing in Rhode lsland who sell their own “original and creative work.”

Much to the dismay of nonfiction writers like the prolific Paul Caranci — the former North Providence councilman who went undercover for the FBI — the state tax department has decided that nonfiction does not qualify as an “original″ work of art, eligible for an exemption from Rhode Island’s 7 percent sales tax.

The ACLU is on the case, arguing that the Division of Taxation should not be authorized to judge literary works for their creativity.  A much more obvious line could be drawn between books and, say, “works for hire,” or generally technical documents drafted as part of a job.  (Of course, it’s difficult to see why such works would become subject to the sales tax, anyway.)

If only the ACLU would broaden its views, though.  If the government cannot differentiate non-fiction from fiction, how can it differentiate political non-fiction from other forms?  That is, campaign finance regulations, particularly those requiring the publication of the financial backers of a publisher (so to speak) cannot be applied only to a particular type of speech.

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The SEIU May Get a Child Care Reward for Its Political Support

Here’s some legislation that would be a reward for the SEIU for all of its political donations during last year’s election.  Unsurprisingly, the bill summary is misleading:

This act would expand the tiered-rate structure for the childcare assistance program to meet the federal benchmark for access to high-quality childcare for all age groups of children, with higher rates paid to licensed child care centers that have achieved higher quality ratings in “BrightStars”, the state’s quality rating and improvement system. A requirement that childcare providers must raise tuition rates for all other public or private paying families in order to receive higher state rates is removed.

The law already provides for tiered payment rates.  All this bill would do is dramatically increase the amount that taxpayers are required to pay.

Taking the taxpayer’s point of view puts another light on the section removing a “requirement that childcare providers must raise tuition rates for all other public or private paying families in order to receive higher state rates.”  Right now, the law simply states that taxpayers won’t pay more than child care providers charge their unsubsidized customers.  This bill would allow providers to charge those families who pay for their own care less.

One consequence of this change in incentives is obvious: To the extent that the market rate for child care is less than the government’s rate, providers will have incentive to fill up available space with subsidized customers unless families can pay more.  If this creates a crisis, then (from the Big Government perspective) so much the better.  The politicians will be able to cash in on the promise of giving away “free” care to everybody.

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Yet More Bad Toll Numbers from Raimondo & RIDOT

Surprise surprise surprise! WPRI’s Ted Nesi reports that

Gov. Gina Raimondo has sharply lowered her forecast of how much money truck tolls will generate this year because they are getting and running more slowly than initially expected.

The budget proposal Raimondo released earlier this month projects that tolls will generate $7 million in the current 2018-19 budget year, which is $34 million less than was expected when the budget passed last June.

If you’ve watched the toll discussion and rollout even casually, you will know that this development is actually not at all a surprise.

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Governor’s Regressive Budget – The Wrong Direction?

Is the Governor’s budget pointing our state in the right direction? On Monday, I attended the Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast hosted by the RI Ministers’ Alliance. At the breakfast, the Governor said that the country is moving backward, and that she is committed to moving RI ‘forward’ and in the opposite direction. What planet is the Governor living on?

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Governor’s Budget: The “Rhode To Serfdom”

Instead of seeking to shape Rhode Island’s future with the proven ideals of a free-society, Governor Raimondo’s proposed 2019-2020 budget is a stunning departure from America’s core values and, instead, would put our state on a “Rhode to Serfdom.”

The Governor’s regressive budget points us 180 degrees in the opposite direction of where we need to head, and would stifle any opportunity for growth.

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Roland Benjamin: Look to Mass for Both Educational Outcomes and Budgeting Approach

Last week I wrote about the constraints that Massachusetts placed on its school districts nearly 40 years ago. Under the same constraints, South Kingstown spending (since the year 2000) would have trended very differently. Each year, SKSD is spending $10mm to $12mm more than if normal inflation been applied over the last 20 years. For now, ignore the additional factor that enrollment literally dropped by a third over the same time period.

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“Choice” is Clear in Upcoming Furious Healthcare Debate

A federal judge recently ruled that Obamacare is unconstitutional because the individual mandate, repealed in the 2017 federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, is no longer in force. Even though existing federal health-care laws will remain in effect during the appeals process, states should not panic and codify Obamacare into state law, as it is not certain how long federal subsidies will remain intact.

While the courts hear the appeals, and with Democrats winning back control of the U.S. House of Representatives largely on the health-care issue, another furious debate is about to unfold.

Democrats will probably introduce some kind of government-centric plan, while Republicans are poised to introduce their own free-enterprise solution. What we all want are simply more choices at lower net costs.

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Roland Benjamin: Why Are We Spending So Much More on Education than Massachusetts?

In 1980, the State of Massachusetts recognized the limitations and threats of relying too heavily on expanding property taxes to fund our public education systems. Proposition 2 ½ was passed to limit the increases a town could levy through its property taxes each year. Named for the enacted cap of 2.5%, any town that needed to increase its levy beyond it could do so, but only through a town wide referendum. For the last 35 years or so, Massachusetts has tamed its property taxes and runaway school spending.

Rhode Island enacted our own, lighter version, of a tax cap. Unfortunately we chose 4% as our limit and waited almost 30 years to implement it. During the lead up to the cap, can you imagine what districts did? In South Kingstown, we ramped our baseline spending up between 6% to 12% each year despite losing about 100 kids per year from our enrollment.

The chart here shows how this played out over the last 2 decades.

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Happy New Year from the Center! How to Start Winning Conservative Victories in 2019.

Happy New Year from everyone at the Center! Do you want to start winning conservative victories in 2019? It is my view that conservatives in our state MUST boldly and relentlessly stand for the core values that have always bonded Americans together, and translate those values into kitchen-table issues that benefit families.

Our vision is based upon the core values of love of country, freedom of religion, self-sufficiency, and preservation of the individual rights granted by God to every American, as defined in our constitution.

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Merry Christmas From The Center!

Merry Christmas! Imagine Rhode Island as a more attractive home and destination of choice for families. We could be a state that offers financial security now and opportunity for prosperity in the future. We could have a policy culture where individuals and business are successful in increasing the overall wealth of our state’s economy, and enhancing the quality of life for every Rhode Islander.

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Balance of Toll Gantries Going Up at Top Speed; Serious Implications of Raimondo Breaking Her Word

As we jump into the latest unsavory development in the state’s shady, deliberately ignorant roll-out of truck tolls, this preamble is the most important take-away: tolls on any vehicles in Rhode Island are completely unnecessary. The spending to repair Rhode Island’s bridges can be found within the annual budget – and without throwing 30% of the revenue away on gantry construction and toll fees.

RIDOT has announced today that they received federal approval for the balance of the gantries and that the contractor has been issued notice to proceed with construction, with the first new gantry expected to go live in May of 2019.

This flies in the face of Governor Gina Raimondo’s repeated statements that any more gantries would wait until the lawsuit and the legality of truck-only tolls is decided. Just one instance was on Dan Yorke State of Mind earlier this year (starting at Minute 06:00):

Yorke: You said, “If we lose the litigation, we don’t put the tolls up”.

Governor: “Correct”.

Governor: “We’re going to start with one in February. We assume there will be litigation which we will then have to defend and then we’ll see.”

Governor: “We gotta do one, we gotta see how it goes and then we’ll move to the next one.”

To not proceed with the construction of the balance of the gantries until their legality had been threshed out was a significant undertaking and also the prudent course on behalf of taxpayers and residents.

The implications for Rhode Island residents of her breaking her word and doing a highly irresponsible one eighty are significant. We have received repeated assurances that these gantries will be used only to toll trucks. But what happens if the court rules truck-only tolls illegal? The most innocuous – and actually not that innocuous – implication of her action in erecting gantries for a use that may be legally vacated is that she has very irresponsibly opened state taxpayers to a significant, unnecessary expense; i.e., putting us all on the hook for the cost of these gantries.

A far more ominous implication is that, by proceeding with the construction of all gantries before a court ruling, she is actively positioning the state for all-vehicle tolling. In a recent interview with WTNH, Governor Ned Lamont said that Governor Raimondo told him she is “highly confident” that the lawsuit will be found in the state’s favor – and “later this spring”, no less. (This attitude strikes me not only as baseless, extreme legal optimism but also quite disrespectful of the judge presiding over the case.).

The governor’s highly quizzical legal prognosticating to one side, it is impossible to predict the lawsuit’s outcome. A ruling against truck-only tolling doesn’t mean that tolls themselves have to go away, only their discriminatory assessment. By going back on her word on gantry construction, Governor Raimondo may be telescoping the time it takes to spread the – remember, completely unnecessary – toll cancer to all vehicles.

[Monique has been a contributor to the Ocean State Current for over ten years, has been a volunteer for StopTollsRI.com, a grassroots citizens group opposed to all tolls, for four years, and began working for the Rhode Island Trucking Association as a staff member in September of last year.]

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When Rhode Island Tax Hell Freezes Over

Gary Sasse is, without a doubt, one of the foremost authorities on the tax situation in Rhode Island.  Still, one can’t help but feel that his essay on GoLocalProv started with the conclusion and tried to fill in the text from there, without quite completing the circle:

In his 2009 State of the State Address Governor Donald Carcieri told the General Assembly, “I am tired of people writing stories that Rhode Island is tax hell.” Perceptions linger, but today it is inaccurate to characterize the Ocean State as a non-competitive tax outlier, much less tax hell.

The real tell that something is off comes with his assurance that the Providence region’s ranking on tax burden by one measure “was as close to the middle as the bottom.”  You know another way of saying that?  Around the bottom quarter.

The following chart just takes the ranks that Sasse cited, so it misses a lot of important caveats.  Still, proclaiming the end of a “tax hell” seems premature, to say the least.

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Consider where the Ocean State does best.  If our sales tax is low per capita, it could that Rhode Islanders and non-Rhode Islanders go elsewhere for their shopping.  (These numbers probably don’t include the new taxes on Internet purchases.)  If our income tax is middle of the pack, it could have something to do with the fact that our median income is about 20% lower than our neighboring states.  Those two factors could combine to produce our best ranking, sales tax per income.

The fact remains that we’re in the worst quarter of states for total taxes, whether per capita or as a ratio with income.  As Sasse notes, our property tax is high per capita, but that’s something one can only escape by leaving the state.

The bottom line is that taxes are still too high in Rhode Island.  The next essay that Sasse writes should explain why he thinks it’s important to cast a rosier light on them.

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Death and Taxes in Rhode Island

According to a Katie Davis story on channel 10, the State of Rhode Island has decided that prayer cards and cremation urns are taxable and are hitting funeral homes up for huge retroactive bills:

… State law exempts caskets and burial garments from sales tax. Urns aren’t specifically listed in the law, but funeral directors say for decades, they never collected sales tax on them.

“Since the 50s, none of us had,” Ted said. “The State of Rhode Island, when we were audited, never asked or required or looked for any information pertaining to any of that.”

But now, state tax officials are taking a second look at the law and adding up what’s owed.

Manning-Heffern is one of at least six Rhode Island funeral homes hit with a bill for back taxes.

Well, that’s one way to find a windfall for a government that is overspending its budget.  One can’t help but think that it’s a harmful approach in the long run, though.  What other salable items and, similarly, regulations might exist that a go-getting taxman might find and target?

People go for decades with the understanding that the container for a deceased person’s ashes falls under the same tax definition as a container for an uncremated body, and rather than put in legislation clarifying for future purposes, the government sends an eye-popping bill.  I guess the state had to make up for the even-more-eye-popping bill a state college has to pay for an administrator’s vacation Internet bill.

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