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Declaring that â€śI have watched Rhode Islandâ€™s elected officials run this state into the ground,â€ť Ken Block says he wants to be governor â€śso I can fix an avoidable catastrophe.â€ť
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, â€śIf we donâ€™t fix it shortly, there wonâ€™t be recovery from where we are.â€ť
Block, a successful software engineer who recently ponied up $500,000 of his own money to start his campaign, told The Times Tuesday that â€śI 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 donâ€™t fix it, we will continue to see the bleeding out of our educated kids.â€ť
This is Blockâ€™s second try to become the stateâ€™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.
â€śWe remain mired as one of the worst-ranked states to do business in the country,â€ť he said. â€śIf we do not fix that, we will never fill (Woonsocketâ€™s) downtown area with employers, we will never fill (Providenceâ€™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 arenâ€™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.
â€śWhat do you do with a generational gap?â€ť Block asks rhetorically. â€śHow does that work for us? I donâ€™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?
â€śThere are some big, big problems that come along with failing to compete,â€ť he contends. â€śWe need to avoid those problems. I donâ€™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.
â€śIt is fixable,â€ť he says. â€śThat 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. Thatâ€™s the whole game. If we donâ€™t fix that we are in dire trouble.â€ť
As far as politics goes, Block asserted, â€śThere is no more visceral argument you can make to parents than that they donâ€™t have to watch their kids move away and go elsewhere when they grow up.â€ť
Too often, Block said, â€śpoliticians want to talk about where the end zone is, they want to score a touchdown, but they donâ€™t tell you what the play is that is going to get you there. That is what was missing in 2010: I didnâ€™t hear the how. This campaign is all about the how.â€ť
So far, Blockâ€™s â€śhowâ€ť is focused on economic reforms he contends will combine to save the state and its residents $1 billion.
â€śWe 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 Islandâ€™s unemployment insurance system. It is the unemployment tax on businesses â€śthat 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 donâ€™t abuse the system.
In some other states, he notes, either the employees who work for companies who have regular annual layoffs arenâ€™t eligible for unemployment checks, or the businesses are required to pay the full amount of the workersâ€™ unemployment benefits.
Block says he wants to use the bully pulpit that is at the governorâ€™s disposal to rally the businesses who arenâ€™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 Islandâ€™s Temporary Disability Insurance.
He says Rhode Islandâ€™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