Declaring that “I have watched Rhode Island’s elected officials run this state into the ground,” Ken Block says he wants to be governor “so I can fix an avoidable catastrophe.”
Block, who recently became a Republican after abandoning the Moderate Party of RI that he founded just over four years ago, believes that Rhode Island is in such poor shape that, “If we don’t fix it shortly, there won’t be recovery from where we are.”
Block, a successful software engineer who recently ponied up $500,000 of his own money to start his campaign, told The Times Tuesday that “I could be doing about anything else with my time, energy and money, but I am doing this because I like living here; this is a great state. But if we don’t fix it, we will continue to see the bleeding out of our educated kids.”
This is Block’s second try to become the state’s chief executive. In 2010, running under the Moderate Party banner, he finished fourth in a crowded field with about 6.5 percent of the vote. In 2014, he faces a Republican primary against Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. That primary will be made more difficult because many Republicans feel Block was a spoiler in 2010, taking just enough votes away from Republican John Robitaille to allow then-independent Lincoln Chafee to squeak to victory. Chafee, now a Democrat, is not seeking re-election.
“We remain mired as one of the worst-ranked states to do business in the country,” he said. “If we do not fix that, we will never fill (Woonsocket’s) downtown area with employers, we will never fill (Providence’s) Superman building with employers, and our educated young people will continue to go elsewhere for jobs. We are almost missing a generation of our educated youngsters, because the opportunities aren’t here for them. That is a self-inflicted wound. That wound is inflicted on us by how we have regulated and taxed ourselves into a non-competitive situation.
“What do you do with a generational gap?” Block asks rhetorically. “How does that work for us? I don’t know if we have ever seen that before. If we end up with a missing generation of kids, what does that do to us, with our social services and everything else, when we are missing a generation of taxpayers?
“There are some big, big problems that come along with failing to compete,” he contends. “We need to avoid those problems. I don’t want to learn what the consequences of those problems are; I just want to avoid them altogether.
Despite all that, Block is not pessimistic.
“It is fixable,” he says. “That is my mission; I want to make us competitive, I want to make sure our young people have job opportunities so they can stay here and live. That’s the whole game. If we don’t fix that we are in dire trouble.”
As far as politics goes, Block asserted, “There is no more visceral argument you can make to parents than that they don’t have to watch their kids move away and go elsewhere when they grow up.”
Too often, Block said, “politicians want to talk about where the end zone is, they want to score a touchdown, but they don’t tell you what the play is that is going to get you there. That is what was missing in 2010: I didn’t hear the how. This campaign is all about the how.”
So far, Block’s “how” is focused on economic reforms he contends will combine to save the state and its residents $1 billion.
“We have to look at what makes Rhode Island stand out in a negative way to the rest of the country and solve those problems.
One of his main targets would be Rhode Island’s unemployment insurance system. It is the unemployment tax on businesses “that roots us in the bottom of all the rankings, he said.
One reason why, he said, is that the system is being milked by a small percentage of employers who use it year after year on a regular basis. That is not how insurance is supposed to work, Block says, and it is hurting the overwhelming number of businesses that don’t abuse the system.
In some other states, he notes, either the employees who work for companies who have regular annual layoffs aren’t eligible for unemployment checks, or the businesses are required to pay the full amount of the workers’ unemployment benefits.
Block says he wants to use the bully pulpit that is at the governor’s disposal to rally the businesses who aren’t taking advantage of the program to help him lobby the General Assembly to change the law. He recognizes the difficulty in that method: one of the groups of employers who regularly use the unemployment system are in the hospitality industry, many of them are located in Newport, and they have the protection of the powerful Senate President, Teresa Paiva Weed, whose district is in Newport.
Another system that is overused, Block said, is Rhode Island’s Temporary Disability Insurance.
He says Rhode Island’s TDI program costs twice as much to run as similar programs in other states.
Because that is run by the Department of Labor and Training, which is under the purview of the governor, that would be easier for a governor to fix, he said. It could be done by changing the eligibility rules, to prevent disabled workers from routinely using the full 12 weeks of eligibility when they may be physically able to go back to work before that.
That alone could save Rhode Island workers who pay for the insurance $80 million a year.
Not only would reforms in unemployment insurance, TDI and other programs, which in some cases could be used to lower sales taxes and corporate taxes, save money, but it would also get Rhode Island out of the bottom rankings that retard its economic growth.
Block lives in Barrington with his wife, Jennifer, and their two children, Sam, a sixth-grader, and Anna, who is in fourth grade. He grew up in Milford, Conn., and has lived in Rhode Island for 25 years.
Follow Jim Baron on Twitter @Jim_Baron