House speaker unveils 2017 priorities amid re-election fight

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello promised Tuesday to make reducing taxes his priority in next year's legislative session, including the car tax and estate tax.

The Cranston Democrat unveiled his 2017 plans just over a month before he goes up against Republican challenger Steven Frias in November's election.

"My goal is to give real relief to Cranston taxpayers, to my constituents, and that will be real relief to taxpayers in the entire state of Rhode Island," Mattiello said, noting that many of his constituents have told him they don't like the car tax.

Frias has also called for phasing out car and estate taxes and said Tuesday that Mattiello had a chance to do it earlier. He called the speaker's promises "election-year gimmicks."

Towns and cities set car taxes, not the state, but both men said they want to restore state aid that reimburses municipalities, which allows the tax burden to be lowered for car owners. Frias has proposed raising money for those reimbursements in part by eliminating the legislative grants that lawmakers direct to local youth sports leagues, senior citizen groups and other neighborhood organizations. Mattiello said Tuesday that he supports keeping the legislative grant program and that to reduce car taxes "you have to get into the budget, you have to roll up your sleeves, you have to actually find the money."

He said he's made progress each year in reducing taxes on retirees, businesses and other groups and called himself the most pro-business House speaker the state has had in a long time.

First elected to the General Assembly in 2006, Mattiello became speaker in 2014. He faces what's seen as his toughest fight in years to keep his seat representing suburban neighborhoods in western Cranston. Both candidates are attorneys. Frias is a national committeeman for the Republican Party.

"These are obviously election-year promises, and the reason he's making them are he's in serious trouble in the election," Frias said of opponent. Mattiello expressed confidence at his chances of winning but said he hasn't yet seen the results of a recent opinion poll his campaign conducted.

Calling it a policy speech, Mattiello gave Tuesday's address to reporters at the Cranston headquarters of Taco Comfort Solutions. CEO John Hazen White Jr. praised Mattiello as he introduced him.

White said corporate executives "can't afford to die in Rhode Island" because of the hefty estate tax, and further reducing it is "the most important thing that will keep people like me from leaving" the state.

Asked by reporters Tuesday about a series of scandals involving members of his leadership team earlier this year, Mattiello tried to distance the ethical misdeeds from the work of the General Assembly. He said he thinks the criminal investigation that led to the resignation of former Democratic House Finance Chairman Raymond Gallison is going to result in a charge of "embezzlement from an estate in Massachusetts." He and his campaign immediately backtracked on that claim, saying it was an assumption and not based on official sources.