Interview With Elizabeth Roberts

On healthcare, education, economic development, ethics in government, and environmental issues, Elizabeth Roberts provides answers on how she would lead Rhode Island to a better future as our first female Lieutenant Governor.

On the Job

What is your vision for the state of Rhode Island? How does this contrast with what your opponent, Kernan King, would bring to the job?

I have lived in Rhode Island for over thirty years and I know how wonderful our state is. I am also convinced we can be better. As a parent, businesswoman, community leader and for the past 10 years as a state senator I know the problems we face: Less access to affordable and good-quality healthcare, soaring energy costs and a high-tax burden on working Rhode Islanders. This all contributes to slow economic growth for our state. We can do something about it.

My opponent and I have had very different life experiences. I have made my home in Rhode Island. I have raised my children here. He has lived in Massachusetts and Florida and just recently moved back to our state in November. Our philosophies are different. We need to be responsible to our citizens and hold the line on taxes, but I don’t believe that the only way to spur our economy is tax breaks only for the wealthy.

We need to make healthcare a priority to create jobs. The number one obstacle for businesses wanting to expand is the cost of providing healthcare for new employees. I am sponsoring a bill that will create a public/private partnership to reduce the burden of healthcare costs on small businesses.

I also believe that the lieutenant governor needs to be an effective advocate for Rhode Islanders — not just the governor — no matter what party you are in.

Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, who reportedly demurred at national Republicans recommending that he run for lieutenant governor, described the position as such: “In Rhode Island, the job of lieutenant governor is to ride a bicycle around the state and wait for the governor to die.” Would you offer an alternative characterization of the job?

The lieutenant governor is not just an executive in-waiting. If you have a parent or grandparent in a nursing home, you know how fortunate we are to have a lieutenant governor that serves as an advocate for long-term care. If you have started a business with a grant from the Small Business Administration, you understand the importance of this office as an advocate for small businesses. And if you believe a horrible tragedy like Hurricane Katrina should never happen in Rhode Island, then you know how important the lieutenant governor is to emergency preparedness in this state.

The lieutenant governor’s clear role in succession is very important for stability in state government and for our economy. New Jersey doesn’t have a lieutenant governor and in a one-year period (2002) the state had 6 governors, with one serving for only 90 minutes. The people of New Jersey thought the position was so important, that they amended their constitution last year and created the position.

On Education

I note on your site you mention how you enjoyed walking your children to your community school in Cranston, Norwood Avenue School. As you know, that school has been closed in Cranston, and another community school, Horton, is now being slated for closing. This seems to be one way some school departments are dealing with their budget crises. What could we be doing to save small community schools?

My children received a wonderful education at Norwood Elementary and we are fortunate to have had that experience. Smaller schools and smaller class sizes result in a better education for our students. But we also need to reform our educational system to make sure children are learning and not just memorizing for tests. Standards are important and we need make sure students and teachers are meeting them. We also need to hold school boards and elected officials accountable to make sure we are using our educational dollars in the most responsible way. We can keep community schools open if we spend our money wisely and work hard to find creative solutions to our budget problems.

Two Democrats in Rhode Island, Peter Kilmartin and James Doyle, are proposing legislation to regionalize the administrative functions of school departments, reducing our systems from 36 to 5. Do you see potential for this legislation? Do you have concerns about it?

Reducing our system from 36 school departments to 5 may be severe at this point. There is a definite need to be more resourceful in a state as small as ours, but we need to find other creative solutions to maintain the strength of our neighborhood schools.

On Health Care

Some conservative critics in Rhode Island have charged that our healthcare for low income families is too generous. I wonder if you could respond to this criticism.

Annual doctor visits and asthma medication are cheap compared to what we would spend on a sick child in an emergency room. Preventative medicine saves money and puts less of a burden on our healthcare system.

The cuts to health care in the governor’s budget represent a drastic step that is unhealthy for families and children, detrimental to the health care services we depend on and harmful to businesses in the state. The cuts would increase the pool of the uninsured by at least 10,000 and increase premiums for all Rhode Islanders.

These cuts will drive low-income families off our programs and into the emergency rooms where costs are higher. This will affect the health of our state and end up costing us all money. More importantly, children and families are going to get sick and we will turn our backs on them.

On the national level, the President is calling for healthcare savings accounts and increasing the ability for people to “shop around” when consuming healthcare. One problem with this idea is that information about the quality of providers (their work history, complaints, special licenses, patient feedback) is not readily available. Nor is any information available about the costs which doctors charge. Do you think Rhode Island should take steps to provide more information to healthcare consumers, such as setting up a state-run database to provide information on the quality of individual providers and the prices they charge?

Government has a role in helping consumers make good decision about their healthcare needs. In Rhode Island, we are fortunate to have one of the best reporting systems in the country for healthcare quality. I help build the Performance Measurement reporting that is available online with the Department of Health. The report measures patient satisfaction and clinical performance, two very important criteria for evaluating healthcare facilities.

I also helped create the Office of Health Insurance Commissioner to oversee insurance companies and health care costs last year. The new commissioner, Christopher Koller, is a watchdog for consumers and the position is the first step towards better consumer education in healthcare.

On Gambling and Economic Development

There is just about nowhere in the state where you can be more than 20 minutes away from a gambling establishment. Yet more gambling places are constantly being proposed. Where do you stand on gambling?

I am opposed to a casino in Rhode Island because gambling is not an economic engine. We need a more broad-based economy based on sectors like biomedical research. Gambling is a too simple and narrow-minded solution and its implications are too complex and problematic for our state.

Do you have any other ideas to spur economic development in the state?

Biotechnology is a growing sector of our economy and we should continue to foster cooperation with the field. We need to build on the strengths of our local universities so we can be a national leader in research and development.

On the Environment

Are you in support of enlarging and further developing TF Green Airport?

We need to make sure we protect the quality of life for residents in Warwick and Cranston and maintain the economic interests of our state. Appropriate growth should be a priority as long as environmental and neighborhood concerns can be addressed. Residents of the towns directly impacted by plans should have some local input to mitigate issues with the state and the federal government.

Are you in support of plans to further develop a Liquid Nitrogen Gas terminal in Rhode Island or Fall River, MA?

I do not support an LNG terminal in Narragansett Bay. I do believe we need to focus on a comprehensive energy strategy that includes renewable resources.

On Corruption/Cronyism in Rhode Island

Should we be doing more in Rhode Island to combat corruption like the situation with Roger Williams Medical Center? If so, what?

As a public servant, I have devoted myself to the highest ethical standards and I believe all elected officials should be held to those standards. Public service must be built on trust whether you are serving constituents from Warwick and Cranston, or you are running an important public facility like Roger Williams hospital that serves all Rhode Islanders.

As co-chair of the legislative committee charged with healthcare oversight, I worked hard to reform the state’s largest healthcare insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield when they were losing the public’s trust. Our efforts helped refocus the non-profit’s mission to provide affordable healthcare and increased accountability to the public that Blue Cross serves. We will be holding hearings in the coming months to make sure hospital administrators conduct themselves ethically and have the public’s best interest in mind.

Do you think the separation of powers legislation passed in 2004 has impacted problems of cronyism and conflict of interest in Rhode Island politics?

Separation of Powers has greatly reduced the conflicts of interest in our state and I am happy to have played a role with this legislation. Government needs to be for all people, not just the powerful or well-connected. Part of creating a healthy and strong Rhode Island has to be eliminating corruption from our public bodies. I know strong ethics and a dedication to doing what’s right can make a difference for Rhode Islanders.

Finally, is there anything else you want to say? What message do you want to get to the people of Rhode Island?

I’ve dedicated my career to tackling the toughest issues facing Rhode Islanders and finding creative solutions that help people. My hard work and persistence has gotten results for my constituents. Now I am ready to put my experience and commitment to work on behalf of all Rhode Islanders.

I also want to become the first female lieutenant governor because I believe young women, like my two daughters Kathleen and Nora, deserve female role models in leadership positions.

I would love to hear from Kmareka readers and I would be honored to ask for their support.

Thanks, Senator Roberts. I have two daughters as well, ages six years and six months. My hope is that by the time they are old enough to vote, strong female leaders like yourself will be the rule rather than the exception in Rhode Island politics.

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10 responses

  1. My thanks both to the hosts of this site, and to Elizabeth Roberts for posting this interview. In this day of “sound bite” campaigns, it’s a very welcome change to get some in-depth responses to what are difficult questions. I especially liked the points on health care and TF Green. These are not simple issues that can be “solved” by imposing some sort of “quick fix” solution just because the quick fix can be summed up in a catchy phrase that would make a good headline.

    This is the sort of thing we need more of in order to make actual informed decisions, rather than voting for someone who “talks tough” on whatever issue. I keep hearing a lot about “democracy on the march,” but go back and read what the founders of this country thought about it. They knew that keeping a democracy was a difficult thing to do, that it required patience, willingness to compromise for the greater good, a spirit of good will, and an informed populace making informed decisions. Otherwise, you get mob rule where the side that shouts the loudest and longest wins, not because they are better for the commonwealth, but because they have intimidated all opponents by calling them “traitors” or “greedy” or things of that ilk.

    Thanks again.

  2. I agree with Elizabeth about the tax issues. If cutting taxes is such a great economic incentive, why do Alabama and Mississippi have the lowest per-capita incomes in the country? Are we supposed to emulate them? No thanks.

  3. Good point, f barnes. I lived in Maine back in the 80s, during the “Massachusetts Miracle” period. One Sunday, the paper had a long article comparting Maine to Mass. Maine had adopted a deliberate low-tax policy, thinking that this would lure business development.

    Guess what: businesses chose “Taxachusetts” over low-cost Maine. Why? The high taxes supported an excellent educational system that produced lots of high-tech workers. So the whole “keep taxes low” thing is a bunch of bull, IMHO. It doesn’t work. It’s never worked.

  4. This interview neglects to address the biggest problem facing the state right now which is the 230 million dollar budget shortfall. Sen. Murphy has proposed legislation that would lower taxes on the highest income earners in Rhode Island and put us on a par with Mass. I hope Sen. Roberts is going to support this legislation. Sen. Lenihan has proposed legislation to put spending caps and stop unfunded mandates. Sen. Roberts should support this as well.

  5. Can I ask a really stupid question? If cutting state taxes doesn’t lead to a higher standard of living in that state, why do Republicans keep saying that it will?

    Does anyone ever call them on this? You know, to like, provide some evidence?

  6. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity.

    As an average guy in Cranston with a house, family and child in public school there are three things that I care about.

    Energy, Healthcare and Education costs.

    On energy, this nation must beat the addiction of our fossil fuel addiction.

    How can Rhode Island lead the way?

    What are your thoughts on alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, and nuclear power?

    How would you encourage energy conservation in the public and private sectors?

    On healthcare, America’s healthcare system is the most inequitable, inefficient, and costly systems among industrialized nations. It’s driven by embedded vested interests who continue to feather their own beds.

    American heathcare might be the best in the world but what good is it if no one can afford it?

    Again, how can RI lead the way to a better system? How would you deal with the healthcare crisis that everyday working middle class folks deal with?

    On education, America is now post-industrial and in a globalized marketplace. We no longer need large numbers of American farmers and factory workers but bright and technically savvy college graduates ready to hit the ground running.

    Rhode Island must reform elementary and secondary education with the primary focus on higher education for all. CCRI, RIC and URI are wonderful institutions that can be made more efficient and more accessible to more Rhode Islanders. Not just in the Arts and Sciences but also Skilled Trades.

    If Rhode Island can lead the way in energy, healthcare and education we will be the model for the rest of the states in this country.

    Is that too much of a tall order?

  7. I also have two young daughters so it is encouraging to find such a wonderful role model as Elizabeth Roberts. I am especially interested in her ideas to save our neighborhood schools as I feel strongly that small schools are key to a good education. With Sen. Roberts experience and ideas I believe she could really make a difference as lieutenant governor.

  8. Thanks, Sue! We are all hoping to keep our community schools open here in Cranston. Unfortunately, it looks like they are in serious jeopardy. First, it appears that the school committee will most likely vote to close Horton. Second, unless the school committee’s request for funding (with it 10.7% increase over last year) is not fully funded, they will likely look at closing some of our other community schools.

    Also, I want to thank the many people who commented above. It seems people are wanting better answers and information about the proposed tax changes in Rhode Island, and are concerned about the budget shortfall. As regards the taxes, there was this Op-Ed in Projo:

    Linda Katz and Ellen Frank: Taxes no threat to R.I. economy

    01:00 AM EST on Friday, February 24, 2006

    EDWARD ACHORN’S Feb. 14 Commentary column, “Perestroika comes to Ocean State,” rehashes what is by now a familiar refrain: Rhode Island’s high taxes drive wealth and jobs to other states, including Massachusetts, while its lavish welfare benefits are a magnet for the region’s poor. The problem with this “hard truth,” as Achorn terms it, is that it’s not true at all.

    Let’s start with taxes. This year the House leadership announced a proposal to reduce the personal-income tax on wealthy residents, claiming that the tax “might be having an effect on the retention of wealthby causing retirees and companies to move to states with lower taxes.” But research does not support the idea that income taxes have much impact on business-location decisions. Furthermore, Rhode Island’s income tax on wealthy earners is not nearly as high as purported.

    Because Rhode Island allows deductions against income for property taxes, mortgage interest, and charitable contributions, and because we tax interest, dividends, and short-term capital gains at lower rates than does Massachusetts, our effective personal-income tax rate for Rhode Island’s top earners is much lower than the commonly cited 9.9 percent. Even the executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, Michael McMahon, was recently quoted in The Boston Herald as saying that “various deductions knock [the top personal-income tax] down to about 5 to 5.5 percent in reality.” Massachusetts taxes income at 5.3 percent.

    And high-income households have received very generous tax breaks in recent years from the federal government. An analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice found that in 2003, federal tax cuts — courtesy of the Bush administration — gave Rhode Island earners with average incomes of $808,000 an average tax cut of $45,262.

    Rhode Island is far from being perceived as a “tax hell,” as Mr. Achorn claims, when it comes to business taxes, as well. Rhode Island has the lowest corporate-income-tax collections (relative to state income) of all 46 states that have such a tax on business profits. Generous deductions, exemptions, credits, and a lenient attitude toward corporate-tax evasion have cut the corporate-income tax from 10.4 percent of state revenues, in 1989, to 3.4 percent in fiscal 2006. It is worth noting that Rhode Island’s high property taxes figure as one major reason that our tax ranking is so high — yet this is the one tax that policymakers seem reluctant to tackle.

    The claim that the wealthy are fleeing and the poor are flocking to Rhode Island is not borne out by research, either. Internal Revenue Service data on state-to-state migration show that over the last five years, those taxpayers moving to Rhode Island had higher incomes than those who moved from Rhode Island to Massachusetts.

    And despite popular belief, people are not flocking to Rhode Island for its welfare programs. In 2005, the percentage of families on the Family Independence Program (Rhode Island’s welfare program) that were new to Rhode Island was 50 percent lower than the percentage in 1997, when the FIP went into effect. In fact, the number of families on welfare leaving Rhode Island each month far exceeds the number of new residents joining the welfare program. Overall, the number of families receiving FIP cash assistance has dropped by 35 percent, and the state expenditures for cash assistance have plummeted from $55 million to $13 million.

    Rhode Island cannot afford to give tax breaks to a wealthy few at such a great cost. The first phase-in of the tax cut, to 7.5 percent, would cost an estimated $10 million, while a full reduction, to 5.5 percent in the near future, could cost the state at least $50 million a year.

    The average tax cut next year for the approximately 9,000 Rhode Islanders who earn more than $200,000 a year would be $1,077. Meanwhile, the governor has already proposed cutting millions of dollars from cash assistance, health care, and child care. These cuts would mean that a single person with two children who earns $24,900 a year would lose RIte Care health insurance and have to pay $720 a year more to keep health care and child care.

    This legislative session promises to be one of the most important in recent history. The proposed cuts in both taxes and spending would have long-lasting effects on working families and our poorest citizens, as well as on the state’s fiscal health.

    We believe that all Rhode Islanders want to live in a community that is safe and healthy, and that provides some basic assistance to our poorest residents, and to families that are working hard but need support to stay afloat.

    Budgets are about priorities. Others who believe, as we do, that this budget sets the wrong priorities should tell their state representatives and senators.

    Linda Katz is the policy director and Ellen Frank the senior economist at the Poverty Institute, in Providence.

    I’m inclined to believe Linda Katz and Ellen Frank. But if you want a countering opinion on this topic, you can go to http://ripolicyanalysis.org/RadarSpring06.html

    Sometimes it seems Tom Coyne, the primary author of the Ripolicyanalysis.org, is telling it like it is, particularly on some issues regarding the need for education reform. But I have noticed, after reading his site for over two years, he has become increasingly angry and insulting toward certain people. The authors of the above Op-ed are some of his prime targets.

  9. [...] Rhode Island blogger Kmareka recently interviewed Sen. Elizabeth Roberts (D), who is running to be Rhode Island’s next Lt. Governor (and first woman Lt. Gov.) after working for years in the Senate on reviewing and strengthening the health care policies across our state.  Her opponent is insurance executive Kernan “Kerry” King who stirred up a frenzy when he announced his candidacy because he listed a Boston phone number on his campaign forms, he is registered to vote in Florida and he organized his candidacy in RI before he was eligible to vote in Rhode Island.  In the recent Brown U. poll, Roberts is beating King 41% – 16%.   Here is an excerpt of the interview.  Click here for the full interview. On healthcare, education, economic development, ethics in government, and environmental issues, Elizabeth Roberts provides answers on how she would lead Rhode Island to a better future as our first female Lieutenant Governor. [...]

  10. To follow up on Sen. Roberts’ comments in this interview about holding nonprofits and their boards accountable, I was pleased to see her statement in Projo regarding the conflict of interest in having the interim part-time president of Roger Williams serve a dual role as board member:

    “Sen. Elizabeth Roberts, D-Cranston, co-sponsor of a bill imposing high ethical standards on hospital boards in the wake of disclosures about Urciuoli’s expense account, said that Cummings’ dual role as a board member and paid executive “would seem to me to be inappropriate.”

    “I’m sure that the board acted with the best of intentions,” said Roberts. “But it can get complicated to have a member of the board functioning in a (paid) role that might make it harder for the board member to fulfill his fiduciary responsibility over senior management.”

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