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Updated: Thursday, 07 Oct 2010, 1:29 PM EDT
Published : Wednesday, 06 Oct 2010, 8:55 PM EDT
BRISTOL, R.I. (WPRI) - The four men vying to become Rhode Island's next governor agreed the state faces major problems while outlining different paths forward during their first televised debate Wednesday.
There were few fireworks during the 90-minute debate, hosted by WPRI 12 and The Providence Journal. But the quartet – Moderate Ken Block, Democrat Frank Caprio, independent Lincoln Chafee and Republican John Robitaille – did their best to draw distinctions with their opponents.
The debate took place as polls continued to show a tight race between Caprio and Chafee, with each garnering the support of around one-third of voters, trailed by Robitaille with around 25 percent and Block mired in single digits.
Caprio and Chafee largely ignored the other two candidates, training most of their fire on one another. Caprio hammered Chafee for his proposal to levy a 1 percent sales tax on items currently exempt, while Chafee fired back that Caprio is not being honest with voters.
Economy in focus
As he has on the campaign trail, Caprio emphasized that he would use the governor's office to aid the state's small businesses in an effort to boost employment, going so far as to wave a pamphlet produced by his campaign.
Chafee said he would focus on "the ABCs" as governor, which he defined as the state's assets, such as its medical industry and natural resources; the budget, which he said needs to be balanced over the long term; and eliminating "corruption and cronyism."
Robitaille portrayed himself as a realist who would follow outgoing Gov. Donald Carcieri's example by holding the line on government spending and reducing taxes. "Rhode Island doesn't have a revenue problem – it has a severe spending problem," he said.
Block presented himself as an outsider, saying he had founded the Moderate Party because the state's "recycled politicians" were not the answer to its problems. He cited his business credentials and pragmatic approach.
Different plans for deficit
With Rhode Island facing a projected $320 million deficit in its 2011-12 budget – the first one for which the next governor will be responsible – all four candidates were asked how they planned to get the state's finances in order.
Chafee defended his sales tax proposal as an "honest" solution, saying it would provide additional revenue while doing the least harm to the state's economy. "Ultimately, what we want is economic growth – that's the answer to all our challenges in this state," he said.
Caprio cited his plan to find $150 million in savings by scouring state departments for savings and opportunities for consolidation. He declined to offer specific cuts, but pointed to the ways he had reduced spending in the treasurer's office. "We're going to scale back all the departments," he said.
Robitaille said he would continue to look for ways large and small to shrink the state's budget, which totals $7.8 billion this year, citing as one example a less expensive way to address the problems of troubled young people.
Block said he could eliminate at least $150 million worth of "waste and fraud" from the state's $2 billion Medicaid program, which provides health insurance to poor residents and is partly paid for by the federal government.
Robitaille, Chafee and Block also pledged to fight to reverse the General Assembly's decision earlier this year to cut local aid meant to replace car tax revenue, which led to drivers in some communities receiving unexpected bills for their vehicles over the summer.
Caprio was more cautious. "The reality is, money's really tight," he said. "We need to look at the car tax in a much wider spectrum."
38 Studios controversial
Robitaille lambasted the other three candidates for their opposition to the R.I. Economic Development Corporation's plan to provide a $75 million loan guarantee to get 38 Studios, Curt Schilling's video game company, to move to Rhode Island. He said they were showing businesses "a 'keep out' sign."
Block and Caprio acknowledged that despite their criticism, once the transaction closes – which is expected to happen any day now – they will be forced to try and make it work regardless of their earlier concerns.
Chafee hinted that he would go after Carcieri for supporting the deal if it turned out the governor had failed in his fiduciary responsibility to the state while vetting the deal. Despite that, he said he would consider reappointing Keith Stokes as executive director of the EDC, and the others agreed.
Unions in the crosshairs
Chafee, who has been endorsed by many of the state's public-sector unions, said he was glad to have their support but would still stand up to them, citing a time when he was picketed by teachers as mayor of Warwick.
Caprio responded that he had been endorsed by "the unions that actually build things," referring to private sector groups such as the Teamsters. Block knocked both men for supporting binding arbitration to resolve contract disputes with teachers.
Robitaille said he would respect
state workers and seek to forge a good relationship with the unions, and also said "governors who sign bad contracts" are just as much to blame as organized labor for the state's compensation costs.
The candidates largely ducked questions about how they would deal with the future cost of providing health care to retirees, which Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said this week will put a major strain on state and local budgets over the next two decades.
Gay marriage, Carcieri grades
All four men said they opposed eliminating the office of lieutenant governor and removing "and Providence Plantations" from the state's formal name, and each one said he would sign a bill restoring the Ethics Commission.
Caprio, Chafee and Block said they would sign a bill legalizing gay marriage, while Robitaille said he would not do that but was open to allowing civil unions.
Asked to grade Carcieri's performance as governor, Robitaille gave an "A-," the best mark received by his term-limited fellow Republican and former boss. Chafee gave Carcieri a "D" except for his "A" response to the Station fire, while Caprio went with a "B" and Block a "C."
Asked to name their favorite living national politician, Robitaille chose New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Chafee picked New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Caprio cited Bill Clinton; and Block said he did not have one. (Caprio first cited his father, Providence Municipal Court Judge Frank Caprio Sr.)
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