Citing the state's high unemployment and "broken" economy as major issues, Republican gubernatorial candidates Allan Fung and Ken Block faced off Thursday in a debate moderated by NBC 10's Bill Rappleye.
The debate was hosted by Johnson and Wales University.
The questions, submitted by viewers, ranged from economic issues to undocumented immigrants and drug testing for welfare recipients.
The opening question asked the candidates to discuss "drastic changes" each would make that previous governors had not made.
Block addressed the need to fix "broken" programs, such as temporary disability and unemployment insurance. He cited the state's high unemployment rate and high cost of doing business. Block suggested following the lead of other states by setting economic development zones, including one on the former I-195 land. He noted that the changes didn't need to be drastic and that fixing programs like temporary disability could put money back in the paychecks of Rhode Islanders.
Fung cited his record as mayor of Cranston, noting that his administration has made realistic but "surgical" cuts and addressed pension reform to work more efficiently and consolidate. He claimed a friendly business environment in Cranston has allowed for the addition of more than 1,000 jobs in the city. Fung also proposed a $200 million tax reduction plan and, when asked whether this plan was "game-changing," said it was the most competitive way to stop people from leaving Rhode Island to do business in Massachusetts.
Another question posed to the candidates was how to handle the problem of undocumented immigrants and whether to house unattended minors in Rhode Island.
Both candidates said Rhode Island cannot afford the programs it has on the books now and cannot afford to make this a "Rhode Island problem." When asked by Rappleye about housing unattended minors, a group being classified as "refugees," both candidates cited examples of legal immigrants and said their proposed solution would be comprehensive federal reform. Block described the current situation as states trying to set federal policy by "cobbling together" individual rules into a "patchwork of 50 different solutions."
Asked whether the state should have a constitutional convention, factoring in the time and expense of doing so, both candidates expressed a desire for more power in the governor's office by allowing a line-item veto. Block described himself as a "long-term supporter" of the constitutional convention and said he believes an imbalance of power among the branches of state government is causing Rhode Island taxpayers to suffer.
Rappleye asked the candidates whether they were concerned that voter initiative referendums could result in "mischief" by special interest groups "taking over" elections. Block noted that voters have to approve each proposed change in a referendum and said he is not worried because he thinks voters would do the right thing.
In a final question, a viewer asked for the candidates' thoughts on requiring recipients of state aid to take drug tests. Rappleye asked the candidates to discuss "ferreting out fraud" more broadly.
Block said he thinks the government needs to stay out of people's business as much as possible. He said the state is not going after "welfare mothers" but said he wants to ensure children who depend on food stamps for nutrition are getting what they need. He said the state needs to find and recover waste but that he is against drug testing for welfare recipients.
Fung said he supports ways to find fraud, whether that means requiring photo identification or possibly implementing drug tests.
In Block's closing statement, he spoke of his own children and the need to turn around Rhode Island's economy so young people won't have to leave the state to get the opportunities they deserve. He said career politicians do not have the answers and described himself as an "expert" at finding fraud.
"I know how to make things run efficiently," Block said. "We deserve better from our government than we're getting."
He cited Massachusetts as an example of a state that has turned itself around.
Fung said that Rhode Island needs a "proven leader" who has skills and experience but also possesses an urgency to get things done. He claims that his administration has worked with business owners in Cranston and has gone three straight years without property tax increases.
"I want to put people back to work," Fung said, adding that he would declare Rhode Island "open for business."
NBC 10 will broadcast the Republican gubernatorial debate in its entirety at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.