An unofficial transcript of Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Ken Block’s presentation, to the Cranston Republican City Committee from Tuesday, January 7, seeking the committee’s endorsement in the 2014 Rhode Island Republican Gubernatorial Primary:
I am involved in politics for a really simple reason. I got active because I have two children. Anna is in fourth grade, Sam is in sixth grade. I am worried beyond belief that if we do not turn our economy around, if we do not take the poor economic situation that we are in and make it better, then when my kids graduate, they’re going to have to leave the state to find employment. And I know far too many people in this state who have watched their adult children leave or their grandchildren leave. We’re almost missing a generation of our educated children. And I have been frustrated by watching administration after administration, by watching our legislature pay lip-service to economic development and jobs, and not deliver the goods.
Nobody can really argue against the fact that what we have in this state is a ruined economy. And what’s going to be required to fix it is leadership and a specific plan of action to take us from dead last to a place where we are competitive, most importantly in our region, also in our country — but the reality is we have to compete worldwide as well. We don’t, but we can.
The problems that we suffer from here are self-inflicted. We’ve done it to ourselves. We have taken ourselves and made ourselves uncompetitive by implementing tax policy that prices us right out of the marketplace. We can’t be competitive for businesses looking to move here because the cold hard fact is they can go to Massachusetts and they can get a better deal. And guess what? They do.
So how do you fix it? Because that’s really what we’re here about, that’s why we’re all involved in politics, isn’t it? We’re here to fix the problems that we have. So let’s talk about fixing the three biggest problems that we have in this state. Our biggest problems are economic (jobs); educational, because one of the worst statistics I have in my head is the fact that 70% — more than 70% — of our high-school graduates who go to CCRI require remediation the day they walk in the door, and what’s worse is that a great many of them come through that the door with a sixth-grade education. That is a horrific fact. We can fix that, and there are other states that have.
Lastly, is our government. I held a press conference today, all about government, good government and bad government. And what I talked about in that press conference today is bad government, and I’m going to talk about how we together can fix that because the governance of this state is directly linked to economic development. We are the who do you know state, I know a guy who can get you a job — or worse, you want a lease, I can work that out for you. That’s what we have, and I’m going to talk about, in the short amount of time that we have.
So let’s talk about economic development, first and foremost. They way to fix our economy is that we have to become more competitive. The way we become more competitive is we have to lower our cost of doing business. We cannot compete against Massachusetts, when it costs more to do business here, than it does across an invisible border that doesn’t have a fence, has the same air on both sides of the border, has the same water, and mostly it’s the same gene pool.
So why do they outperform when we don’t? Because they beat us. They’re more competitive than we are. The way we fix it? We have to find the savings in our spending programs to save the money so that we can lower our taxes by being smart about which ones we pick to become competitive. It sounds kind of basic and common sense, because it is basic and common sense.
I will find and save a billion dollars of spending in our social services, in our budget and outside of our budget, and we’re going to purpose that money to a number of different places. We’re going to give it back to the taxpayers, when that makes the most sense to do, we’re going to pay down debt, we’re going to improve our infrastructure when that makes sense, but most importantly, we going to identify the taxes to lower that bring us in line with the other states and make us better.
But we can’t do those things if we can’t find the savings. Where does the savings come from? We will go after the TDI program in the state. It is a state run program, just like New Jersey’s. New Jersey’s program is half the cost of ours. Anyone in this room who makes $60,000 or more a year is paying close to $800 a year to purchase TDI insurance from the state government. In New Jersey, you pay about $350.
The reason ours is more expensive is that we do not run it professionally. I just talked to a business owner the other day who had an employee who’s going out on TDI and the employer very generously said “I’m going to keep you on the payroll”. The employee said thank you very much, it’s a six or seven week convalescence, by the way do you mind if I apply for TDI too. Because in Rhode Island, even if you getting full salary, you can collect TDI. You want to know why it costs twice as much as New Jersey? It’s because of silliness like that. Why do we pay someone to have a bonus because they’re sick? It defies common sense.
Unemployment insurance. We have the worst-ranked unemployment insurance system in the country. We cannot tolerate that. We shouldn’t stand for that, and frankly, if you own a business in this state, you’re getting a bad deal. We do not run our unemployment insurance system professionally. In fact, the problems that we have in that system, other states have had, and they have fixed. We will fix our unemployment insurance system and we will bring its costs down.
In the TDI program, we can save one-third of a billion dollars in TDI over four years. $80 million dollars year over year over year, for the four years of my first administration. Unemployment insurance, if we make the changes that we need to make…we should be able to save somewhere between $50M and $80M per year, year over year over year, saving as much as a 1/3 of a billion dollars, and we’re not even inside of the budget.
In my business, my company helps state governments find, identify, and recover waste and fraud in social service spending programs. We did a report, for that state of Rhode Island, free of charge, and the reality is, if you do this right, there are tremendous cost savings that can be realized, if you go do it. We’re going to do these things, we’re going to find that money that we need, and we’re going to recover those dollars, and put them to use, the way I talked about before.
In our educational system, the bottom line is we can test in high school all we want. They only thing we’re going to learn is we’re not doing a good enough job of educating these kids. We can’t remediate an 11th grader with a 3rd grade education. So the problem and the task is to identify where you go off the rails and fix it in the right part of that child’s education. And the cold hard fact is, if you go into fourth grade not being able to read, you cannot read to learn, and you are left behind.
Our job in our educational system is to ensure that any third grader transitioning to fourth grade has the skills necessary to be a successful fourth grader. When we solve that problem, we’ve solved our educational problem in the state. We’re looking at the wrong end of the animal, and there’s plenty of academic evidence that there’s plenty of things that we can do to beef up our K through 3 education and fix that problem.
Lastly, in my press conference today, I took the state properties committee to task, because they were violating the open meetings laws, not just once, not just twice; they are a chronic offender, of violating open meetings laws. Now, a lot of people in this room may not even know what the state properties committee is. The state properties committee is a board of five people. Two from the Department of Administration, one from the Attorney General, those are the voting members. Two from the public who vote, and one representative from the General Treasurer’s office. Their job is to review all the leases, deal with all the state contracting in terms of property and property management. They deal with tremendous dollar values, in and out of that committee, and they were only filing, best case, about one out of every two meeting minutes that they generated.
The Attorney General’s representative sat on that board and voted, and yet the broke the law over and over and over again. What’s worse, the last time there was a public representative on that board was in 2012. No member of the public was represented on this board that dealt with a tremendous dollar value of deals for the state, and the Attorney General’s representative knew it, didn’t do anything about it. General Treasurer Raimondo, who had visibility to all of this, chose not to stand up for the individual and taxpayer and say where’s the public representation. Governor Chafee, in his role of nominating people to sit on that board, chose not to reappoint the people needed to represent the public interest.
That is how to run a state that is called the who do you know state. Plain and simple, we cannot afford that. We have to hold a constitutional convention. We must, because the only way we can fix what’s broken here governmentally is to take back some of the power that the General Assembly has and abuses.
We are one of only six states in the country that does not invest the governor with a line-item veto. We’re only one of six. And the General Assembly will never willingly give that power to the Governor, but we need it, because the governor needs to be able to balance the power, and act as a check and a balance. You can’t do that when your only options are to sign a budget, allow a budget to pass without your signature, or to veto it, where it inevitably gets passed over your veto. You cannot be an effective check and balance that way.
The master lever. We have a very archaic form of voting. It disenfranchises voters and candidates downticket. There’s hard academic evidence that shows this. This legislature has proven unwilling to get rid of the master lever, we need to take the master lever back in a constitutional convention.
We have to pay attention to the governance issues, because business stays away when they know the place they’re going to go to is not a place where things are done transparently, where it’s done with a wink and a nod, and I know someone who can help. That’s not how we’re going to be effective at rebuilding the trust that the public has lost in government. It’s not going to be an effective way of leading us into a successful and prosperous future.
The way to fix what’s broken is to common-sensically attack our problems, one by one by one, knock them down and move ahead. We can fix what’s broken here. I’m actually incredibly optimistic that we can fix what’s broken here. I’ve talked to a lot of GOP committees where the tone has been decidedly pessimistic. What can we do? We can’t fix this. Everybody has tried to fix this, look at how many decades have gone by and you can’t fix this.
The reality is we can fix this and we will fix this and we have to fix this. If we do not fix what is broken here, right now we’re toast. I believe that to the core of my being. This is the time. If we don’t turn the corner and become competitive, it’s going to be exceedingly difficult for us to do that at any point in the future. It’s now.