Interview With Geoff Schoos

Geoff Schoos is challenging Senator Bea Lanzi in a Democratic Primary for Senate District 26 in Cranston, Rhode Island. His most recent letter to The Cranston Herald regarding the proposed tax breaks for wealthy Rhode Islanders is available here.

Kiersten Marek: This year in Rhode Island, we have an estimated $230 million dollar deficit for the state’s budget. What are some of the factors that are contribute to Rhode Island’s deficit problem? As a legislator, how would you work to address this problem?

Geoff Schoos: There are a number of factors that have impacted the Rhode Island state budget — some external to Rhode Island and others that we can control. Rhode Island, like other states, became victim to the new federalism that began in the 1980’s and continues through today. Thus, we have a federal Budget Reconciliation Act that reduces federal Medicaid reimbursements. We have an under funded No Child Left Behind program that the state, and thus the cities and towns, have to grapple with. And the state is not immune from the macro economic conditions that prevail for example the increased cost of fuel.

But, there are things over which we do have control. For example, according to one report in the Providence Journal last fall, a significant portion of the projected deficit was the result of less than forecast gambling revenues from Lincoln Downs and Newport Grande. Projected at 15%, the revenues were coming in at a rate of 4%. Basing such a significant portion of projected revenues on such an unstable revenue stream is just asking for trouble. Another example is that more uninsured workers have had to access publicly supported health care programs because their employers fail to provide affordable health insurance.

Additionally, we have mortgaged part of our fiscal future by selling tobacco settlement bonds. The Governor proposed to insure a bond repayment fund (that is currently in excess of $ 51 million) for about $ 2 million and use the balance in the operational budget. However, because of an arbitrator’s decision that could reduce the amount of the settlement Rhode Island would receive, it’s unlikely that insurance could be had to cover the bond repayment fund. Thus, because the anticipated transfer of money from the fund to the operational budget will probably not be feasible, the deficit may actually grow by another $ 49 million.

What is clear is that there are no easy or quick solutions to the state’s budget problems. There’s a lot of work to do. In the short term, we need to ensure that the pain of the state budget deficit is borne equally by all. That is why I’m appalled that anyone, let alone democrats, would propose a tax cut for our wealthiest citizens. There’s been a lot of demagoguery on this issue, so I’d like to try to put things in some perspective. First, the per capita tax burden on Rhode Island taxpayers, on average, is less than the burden on our neighbors in Massachusetts and Connecticut. It is only at the higher incomes that the marginal rates go to 9.9% versus the Massachusetts 5.3% marginal rate. But what the proponents don’t discuss is that after deductions permitted under the Rhode Island tax scheme that are unavailable under the Massachusetts scheme, the Rhode Island rate drops to just over 7%. In practice, the alleged inequity doesn’t appear to be as great as it does in theory.

Second, if this tax cut proposal were to pass the legislature, the first year of implementation would reduce tax collections by $10 – 14 million. By the final implementation of the tax cuts, the loss of revenue is projected at $ 70 million. In spite of the staggering loss of tax revenue in uncertain fiscal times, no proponent of this tax cut has come forward with any plan to raise the money lost to the wealthy. The hope is that such a cut will spur economic development, but as Ellen Frank of the Poverty Institute pointed out at a hearing before the House Finance Committee, it would take the creation of over 12,000 pretty good jobs to replace the money spent on the proposed tax cut. Given that Rhode Island job creation averages just over 4,000 jobs per year, she was not optimistic — and neither am I.

The long-term answer to our budget and overall economic problems is the creation and implementation of a serious economic development program. Unlike the wishful thinking of trickle-down proponents, companies do not relocate solely because of favorable tax rates. No doubt a consideration, it’s not the only consideration and it’s often not even a major one. What’s more important is that there is an infrastructure in place to receive and transport goods, whatever they may be. What’s important is that there is an educated workforce ready to be tapped. What’s important is that the cost of living and quality of life are attractive to employees and executives that might be transferred. And what’s more important are public-private partnerships that support and enhance economic activity. There is simply no evidence that an executive will move his company to an otherwise inhospitable environment merely because the executive will receive an income tax break. The fact that Michael McMahon, CEO of the Economic Development Corporation, thinks that this is possible screams for a change in our economic development policy.

We need to develop affordable housing for our citizens and those who we hope to attract to Rhode Island. Recently, the Providence Journal, using the possible relocation of Bristol-Meyers as its focus, compared housing costs in Rhode Island and the competing state of North Carolina. In that comparison, the average cost of a house in Providence was over $ 290,000 — the average cost of a house in the Raleigh, North Carolina area was just over $ 100,000. That’s why the passage of the $ 75 million bond issue in November is so important — not only would affordable housing make Rhode Island more attractive to out-of-state businesses, but it would also leverage other money along with the creation of good jobs in the construction trades. Moreover, the money spent on affordable home construction would ripple throughout the Rhode Island economy.

The April 16, 2006 edition of the Providence Sunday Journal published a column in the Business section that pointed to the existence of good paying jobs that go unfilled because there are not enough trained people to fill them. Clearly, we need to improve the performance of schools at all levels, from kindergarten through college. However, rather than making political capital out of bashing teachers unions, we need to take a closer look at the mission of schools and the actual processes by which kids are educated. We constantly talk about the importance of education but treat it like the proverbial football, to be tossed around until someone is blamed for dropping it. While not as politically appealing (or profitable) as creating straw men to knock down, true education reform and improvement will only begin with an active partnership between all those with a stake in the outcome state and local government, school administration, teachers associations, businesses, appropriate non-governmental organizations, and – not least – parents. When feasible, we should include students in the collaborative process. I don’t minimize the difficulty of such an undertaking, but it’s obvious that the approach we now take isn’t producing the desired results. Besides, I’m still optimistic enough to believe that people can join together for a common cause.

We need to invest in human services programs that work. That’s why I was so disappointed that the Governor proposed to alter the provisions and funding of the Family Independence Program. The FIP works. People who leave the program start jobs well above minimum wage. They become consumers of goods and services and contribute tax dollars for the acquisition of public goods. Moreover, more people who leave Rhode Island’s FIP remain off the program than do their counterparts in Massachusetts and Connecticut. And, according to the state’s own annual FIP report, less than 10% of those in the program came from out-of-state – hardly supporting the detractors’ derision of the program as some sort of state sponsored welfare haven.

There are 80,000 to 100,000 working Rhode Islanders who have no health insurance. We need to help small businesses, which constitute approximately 94% of all Rhode Island employers, to be a able to provide affordable health coverage to workers. While the so-called “Wal-Mart� legislation is a step in the right direction, it does little to help the vast number of uninsured people who don’t work for Wal-Mart. Health care is vital to any economic development plan as the cost of lost production due to illness is staggering. But more importantly, there is a definite moral imperative to ensure that each person, no matter their station in life, is able to access quality health care.

The increase in the state minimum wage was also a step in the right direction. However, the buying power of the increased minimum wage is 37 cents less than the buying power of the minimum wage in 1979. Thus, the increase in the minimum wage should be supplemented with an increase in the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit. While such an increase constitutes a tax expenditure, the expenditure will yield a return as a result of increased economic activity.

Finally, we should make responsible investments in business creation, expansion and relocation. As taxpayers, when tax money is given to a business, we become investors who like other investors seek a favorable Return on Investment. That ROI can take the form of a tax stream to help shoulder the burden of the acquisition and provision of public goods and services, or it could take the form of job creation. Whatever the ROI, there has to be some formalized method of accountability that safeguards the taxpayers and their investment. Currently, there is no system to assess the wisdom of any tax expenditure for business relocation or job creation – all that exists is the hope that the “invisible hand� will work. While hope springs eternal, other states are more demanding and so too must Rhode Island. There should be an annual public accounting of how much money was spent on relocation and job creation, along with a tally of the benefits that accrued as a result. In conjunction with this plan, there has to be a quid-pro-quo to any tax expenditure on an economic development project. The state needs to establish a measurable return for its investment. Only by doing so can we determine whether taxpayer money was properly spent and resulted in an ROI favorable to the taxpayer.

Obviously, there’s more that could be said on any one of the items that I identified above. One thing that I think I would bring to the legislature is an understanding that none of these issues exists in a vacuum. Rather, all these issues are so interrelated that to address one issue without addressing other impacted issues is foolish. But too often that’s what happens, to the detriment of the people. One thing to remember is that when talking about the budget we’re not just talking about dollars and cents; we’re talking about the delivery of public goods and services that have a direct impact of the lives of people – people the legislature is elected to serve.

• Kiersten Marek: Recent studies of municipal pension funding indicate that states like Rhode Island may be in way over their heads in terms of pension obligation to their state employees, particularly because of the rising cost of health care as a long-term pension benefit. What do you think about this issue?

Geoff Schoos: Rhode Island is not alone in experiencing pension challenges. Most states have unfunded pension liabilities. In fact, on average, the assets to liabilities ratio is around 86%. The State of Rhode Island is no exception as witnessed by the Governor’s budget proposal to make a $ 100 million “down payment� on the unfunded pension liability. Currently, the State finances its retiree health benefits on a “pay-as-you-go� system – essentially paying the cost of a retiree’s health care as it’s incurred.

In his 2007 Budget message, the Governor proposed the creation of a Trust funded by a one-time allocation of $ 100 million to pay the cost of retirees’ health care. The proposal anticipated the reimbursement of this one-time allocation by the remaining unsold tobacco settlement money. But as I pointed out earlier, the amount of settlement money due Rhode Island is in doubt due to a recent arbitrator’s decision. I think that the Trust fund proposal has some merit and should be closely analyzed. But even conceding that the Trust fund proposal would work, the Governor did not see the unfunded liability ultimately resolved for approximately 30 years. Such is the nature and depth of the problem.

Of course, pension problems are not limited to the state. We witnessed this problem in Cranston a few years ago. Recall that Cranston had two budget problems – one was a structural deficit in the annual operating budget and the other was the unfunded pension liability, which amounted to over $ 200 million. Cranston taxpayers endured three tax increases in two years and repaired the structural deficit. However, the unfunded pension liability remains. According to the Auditor General, the City has continued to under fund its pension obligations.

Health care costs have increased dramatically in the last decade. This becomes particularly acute in the pension system when the State is paying health care costs that are incurred by an older group of pensioners who are more likely to be in need of care, and be in need of more expensive care than younger workers. As more workers reach retirement age at a time when states, including Rhode Island, are collecting less revenue pension obligations are bound to increase more rapidly than the collection of revenue to meet those obligations.

It is important to note that a public sector pension system is significantly different than a private sector pension system. Public employees generally remain in public service for all of their careers as opposed to private sector employees who often change employers or even occupations during their work lives. Public employees generally are more highly educated and have more specific skills than their private sector counterparts – thus commanding higher wages, which ultimately results in higher pension benefits. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies police officers and private sector clerical workers as service workers. It should come as no surprise that the police officers, because of their unique skills and high risk occupations, command higher wages than to their private sector clerical counterparts.

There is a work group in the Department of Administration that is studying alternatives and methods of improving the pension system in Rhode Island. I would hope that they consider the following facts. First, the problems with health costs are endemic and will not be resolved without a wholesale overhaul of the health care system. That is not to say there is nothing the state can do. What the state should at least do is recognize that this is an issue that will continue to exist as far as we can see into the future and deal with health care costs on that basis.

Second, unlike private sector employees, the state government has a higher moral obligation to meet its commitment to its retirees. Over the course of their careers, public employees taught our kids, plowed our roads, collected our trash and kept us safe. We not only welcomed those services and many more like them, we demanded them. Now its time for government, on behalf of the citizens who were well served, to keep its promise. Not only does the state government have to adequately fund its pension system, it needs to do so in such a way that retired workers, who over time may become more fearful of perceived threats to their financial security, need not worry that their pension checks will arrive on time or that health care will be readily available when needed.

Third, and this pertains to both state and local governments, a greater effort must be made to fund the unfunded pension liabilities. We saw in Cranston what happens when money that would otherwise have been directed to its pension obligations was diverted to other purposes. This “rob Peter to pay Paul� approach to the financing of pension obligations has to stop. In some ways, this comes down to an elemental political issue. Politics, in a governmental setting, is about balancing legitimate competing interests. However, because it’s generally impossible to do everything or meet every legitimate demand placed on limited governmental resources, it is also necessary to prioritize those competing legitimate interests. Sometimes its easier to say “yes� to everybody – conflict is reduced or eliminated and the political rewards can be enticing – but it is never the responsible approach. The political scientist Harold Lazwell once defined politics as “Who gets what, when, where and how.� Public officials need to keep in mind the concepts of balance and prioritizing that are inherent in Professor Lazwell’s definition.

Finally, there are several pension budgeting approaches to the current “pay-as-you-go� approach used by the state. For example, the Brookings Institution and the Employee Benefit Research Institute have recently published papers suggesting alternatives to the current method of pension plan financing and administration. The Trust Fund proposed by the Governor, if it can be adequately funded, might be such an alternative approach. Perhaps a private administration of the pension fund would be more beneficial than a public administration of the plan – or perhaps not. But one thing is clear, because the system’s health care liabilities far exceeds its assets, no idea should be automatically excluded from consideration.

Like many other issues that confront Rhode Island, there are no easy answers – just tough decisions. We have to wrestle with the issue of high health care costs as best as we can. We have to keep our promise to people who delivered on theirs. And we have to always keep in mind that public finances are limited. We live in a dynamic, changing economy; one that requires all of us, whether in the private or public sector, to adapt to new conditions, seize new opportunities and overcome new challenges. The state will never solve its pension obligation problems if it remains mired in the same philosophies, methods and political decision-making processes as in the past.

• Kiersten Marek: Going back to the issue you raised in your first answer regarding the Democrats in Rhode Island proposing to cut taxes for the highest income earners, I am wondering if you have any ideas about why the Democrats are doing this. What is driving them to propose these tax breaks if there is no evidence that it will benefit the common good? Is this an example of the Democratic Party forgetting what it stands for?

Any answer that I could give as to why the proponents of the tax cut for the wealthy are advancing their proposal would be merely speculative. Perhaps by appealing to wealthier people they expect to be able to broaden their base of political contributions. Perhaps they think that by appealing to “business� interests Democrats will be perceived being more moderate, thoughtful and pragmatic. Perhaps the proponents really believe that a tax cut for high income earners really is a good idea. Or, perhaps as E.J. Dionne wrote in his book “Why Americans Hate Politics,� they’ve just run out of creative ideas.

Absent any evidence to the contrary, I’m willing to credit the proponents with being sincere about their proposal. But whatever the motivation or underlying reasons for the proponents’ position regarding these tax cuts, I disagree with it. This proposal not only directs scarce public resources to people who don’t really need them and away from people in need, there is no credible evidence that this proposal is a legitimate economic development tool. Additionally, because the tax cuts have little to no chance of succeeding in achieving the proponents’ stated goal, those cuts could result in making a bad budget situation worse. As I indicated earlier, we could do better and achieve a higher public purpose in advancement of the common interest than by directing approximately $ 70 million to people who don’t need the money.

But your question touches on a central issue in American politics at the beginning of the 21st Century – what is the Democratic Party and what does it stand for? Does it have a message or a core set of principles? Can it unite its various components into a cohesive whole? Does the Democratic Party need to transform into “Republican lite� in order to win elections? The answers to these questions will determine the direction of American politics for the foreseeable future.

The Democratic Party has a long and honorable tradition of representing average people – people who are powerless to compete with the wealthy and influential. As President, Franklin D. Roosevelt fought on behalf of who he called the “forgotten man� and gave America a New Deal when confidence in government was at its lowest ebb. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson supported civil rights even though to do so would harm the Party’s electoral chances in the south. Lyndon Johnson pursued a War on Poverty in an effort to enable more people to share in the American dream. Democrats in the Congress enacted the most sweeping environmental protection legislation in history. President Clinton, after 12 years of Republican control of the Executive Branch of government, balanced the federal budget, which was a major catalyst of an economic expansion that benefited millions of average citizens.

However, the Democratic Party at both the national and state levels seems to have lost its way. Seemingly more interested in winning elections than in governing or representing its core constituency, it has strayed from its core principles. It has become increasing evident that the Democratic Party is an organization in search of a purpose and a message. At the national level, the Republicans have been successful even though their message and core principles are antithetical to the interests of most Americans. At all levels, the Republicans have what I consider a poor message, yet they manage to control all the branches of the national government and many state houses and state legislatures throughout the country – proof that more often than not a bad message will beat no message.

I believe that Robert F. Kennedy was right when he said that “Government belongs where evil needs an adversary and there are people in distress who cannot help themselves.� That admonition not only has to become a central governmental principle for the Democratic Party; that simple statement of purpose has to become the organizing principle of philosophy and policy of the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party has to combat evil whether that evil is hunger, homelessness, discrimination in all its insidious forms, the unavailability of health care, schools that are poor performers, the neglect of the elderly, the abuse of workers in the workplace, or the catering to special interests at the expense of the public interest. At the same time, the Democratic Party has to stand for individual rights as well as economic justice and fairness in the marketplace. It has to champion a tax system that is equitable and that does not lessen the tax burden for a selected few, be they individuals or corporations, only to have that burden shifted onto the shoulders of those less economically fortunate. The Democratic Party must work to create a stable economy where business large and small can flourish and expand opportunities for all people and put a stop to the predatory economic practices that currently exist.

I would hope that Democrats will stop running away from their roots and instead embrace their core traditional beliefs. What bothers me most about the Rhode Island House leadership’s proposal for tax cuts for the wealthy is not that it won’t work, although it won’t, but because it flies in the face of what I think Democrats ought to champion. Democrats can stand up on behalf of the average person. As James Carville has recently pointed out, the Democratic Party does not need a heart transplant, it needs a spine transplant.

I embrace the sentiment expressed by the late Senator Paul Wellstone when he said “If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we really don’t stand for them.�

• Kiersten Marek: How would you be a more effective leader than Bea Lanzi, the current Democrat representing District 26 in the Senate? Why are you a better alternative for Democrats voting in the primary?

I think three illustrations will highlight the differences between me and Senator Lanzi. First is her co-sponsorship of S 2608 entitled “An Act Relating To Lead Hazard Mitigation.� As you may know, the Lead Abatement Act of 2002 has been a source of controversy since it was enacted. At the heart of the issue is whether rental properties will be made safe from possibly inflicting kids aged six and under with lead poisoning. Children below the age of six years old are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, and if so afflicted will carry that affliction for the rest of their lives. Lead poisoning can sometimes result in quite severe learning disabilities and behavioral problems. With proper maintenance and repair of dwellings, lead poisoning is preventable. The Lead Abatement Act of 2002, as revised in 2005, provides reasonable and practical directions for the owners of rental properties to make needed repairs for the safety of young children.

This obviously placed a burden on the owners of rental properties and for the past three years, the opponents of the Lead Abatement Act of 2002 have made several legislative and court challenges to the Act. In 2005, under the leadership of Senator Rhoda Perry, the Act was revised to make it more workable by modestly reducing the requirements as they related to owner-occupied property with two or three rental units. What the 2005 revision did not do, much to the chagrin of the Act’s opponents, was significantly alter the inspection/repair/insurance scheme and most significantly, did not restore the pre-2002 “innocent owner provision� in the law. The “innocent owner provision� basically provides that an owner of rental property is not liable for any injury due to lead poisoning until after an incident of lead poisoning related to his property. Thereafter, and only then, could the owner be liable for the unsafe conditions present on his property. The first victim of lead poisoning, the child who placed the owner on notice of the unsafe condition, had no cause of action against the owner for damages inflicted by lead poisoning.

In 2002, after nearly ten years of arduous effort by Senator Tom Izzo to bring all the stakeholders and other interested parties together, the legislature enacted the Lead Abatement Act of 2002, thereby replacing a reactive system with a proactive system to safeguard the health and safety of vulnerable young children. I am familiar with the history of this legislation and can say with certainty that Senator Lanzi was not involved with the drafting or enactment of the Act. The 2005 revisions maintained the pro-active posture of the original legislation.

In 2006, S 2608 was introduced to the Senate. This legislation would essentially eviscerate the Lead Abatement Act of 2002 and its 2005 revision. This legislation would not only set pre-determined levels of lead in the bloodstream of a child to be considered lead poisoned, it would also alter some of the inspection provisions and most onerous of all, it would restore the “innocent owner� provision that existed prior to 2002. This proposed legislation would restore the reactive system that existed prior to 2002, thereby leaving children increasingly vulnerable to lead poisoning.

Why, after years of silence and inactivity relative to the issue of lead poisoning, would Bea Lanzi now co-sponsor legislation that would return Rhode Island to the “bad old days� is for her to say. But, it’s important to note that Senator Lanzi has received significant financial support from the chief opponent of the Lead Abatement Act – the Rhode Island Realtors Association. In fact, after having never taken a public position on this issue, Lanzi received $ 1000 from the Realtors’ Political Action Committee in 2004 and additional contributions from that PAC during 2005.

In 2004, in a mailing to voters, Senator Lanzi attempted to take credit for the significant health related legislation that was enacted in the State Senate. Her attempt was thwarted when I pointed out, and the Cranston Herald confirmed, that Senator Lanzi was not a listed co-sponsor on any of that legislation, made no public statement in support of that legislation, and according to the relevant Senate Journals, did not participate in any debates regarding the legislation. However, now when she could stand up against the health danger of lead poisoning posed to young children, she chooses to stand on the side of property owners who have consistently resisted any effort to compel them to make their properties safe.

Often, governing is about balancing competing interests. Here, on one side are the owners of investment properties who seek the highest return on their investments. On the other side are children who have no power to influence policy. My position is that if the cost of the owners increases as a result of inspections and repairs to their properties, that’s a small price to pay compared to a lifetime of disability that could result from lead poisoning.

Not only is Senator Lanzi on the wrong side of this issue, she’s out of step with the Senate leadership’s position on this issue as evidenced by Senate President Montalbano’s editorial published in the April 23, 2006 edition of the Providence Sunday Journal. Fortunately for Rhode Island’s children, S 2608 appears to be going nowhere during this legislative session – but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be revived in the future.

The second area where Senator Lanzi and I disagree is on the issue of election reform. In the Cranston primaries of 2004, largely due to the first-time use of provisional ballots pursuant to the Help America Vote Act, confusion reigned. A significant problem occurred when many democrats were permitted to vote by provisional ballot in the republican primary. Additionally, rather than being placed in a separate container for later review of their validity, an unknown number of these ballots were inserted and counted by the optical scanners at various polling places. If that were not enough, in at least two polling locations, improper ballot applications were completed by voters and the voting logs did not accurately reflect which primary these voters participated in. All this was in addition to the usual chaos that exists on election day.

I was the campaign manager for Tom Izzo’s State Senate campaign in the 2004 democratic primary. By mid-morning of primary day, our campaign had numerous complaints of voters’ participation in the wrong primary and the improper handling of provisional ballots, along with first-hand accounts of the improper insertion of provisional ballots in the voting machines. Our campaign raised these issues with the Cranston Board of Canvassers, along with the instance of improper ballot applications at one polling location that we knew about at that time. In one form or another, these problems continued to exist for most of primary day. It was so bad that Roger Begin, Chairman of the Rhode Island Board of Elections commented that the situation in Cranston was so severe that any election that was decided by 100 votes or less would be entitled to an automatic rerun of the primary.

The results of the republican primary were lopsided, but the contest in the democratic primary was decided by 30 votes. Within 36 hours of the close of the polls, it became evident that because of wrong information provided by poll workers, more than 500 Cranston voters had their ballots discarded, and were thus disenfranchised. This constituted approximately 4% of all voters who participated in both primaries. One week later, Board of Elections Commissioner Frank Rego would remark that he saw no widespread disenfranchisement of voters in Cranston.

For the week following the primary, and for two months following the Board of Elections’ decision not to perform a meaningful recount or conduct a more thorough review or investigation into the conduct of the Cranston primaries, I compiled a study of that primary. It was obvious from the documentary evidence that both the Board of Elections and the Board of Canvassers knew that there were votes at one polling place that could not be accurately reconciled. It was also clear that there were more than 50 questionable votes in an election decided by only 30 votes. And, based on an affidavit by a member of the Cranston Board of Canvassers signed in late October, 2004, the voting results of the primary had not been reconciled one and one-half months after the primary.

After several attempts on my part to call attention to this matter, the Cranston Herald on September 15, 2005 published a one year retrospective on the primary. That article supported my contention that the primary was poorly administered, that there was little interest in any review of that primary by either the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office or the Board of Elections, that vital information regarding the re-read of the optical scanner packs was missing, that the Cranston Board of Canvassers admitted that poll workers were poorly trained and that more had to be done, and that the voting lists were not accurate.

Here’s the difference between us. In September, 2005, I proposed a seven point program to reform elections in Rhode Island. Among the proposals was the designation of a “chief elections officer,� the location of all election administration and campaign finance enforcement in the Elections Division of the Secretary of State’s office, the reformation of the Board of Elections into a quasi-judicial body that would be the first venue for election contests, and regular policy and procedure audits of local boards of canvassers. Bea Lanzi has said and done nothing on this issue.

I have long advocated for election reform. In a democracy, elections serve a moral purpose – they are the only vehicle that permits the community to come together and express its common will. If the people lose confidence in the integrity of elections our democracy, as we know it and wish it to be, will soon be lost. And if the integrity of our elections is lost, then the legitimacy and authority of government will be eroded. We must avoid that outcome at all costs.

Senator Lanzi or her representatives attended all the meetings that I attended. She saw much of the same information that was available to me. Yet, in September, 2005, the Herald wrote in its retrospective:

Senator Lanzi – who plans to seek reelection – said she thought the 2004 primary was fair but uses it as a lesson.

“Basically, what it showed to the voters is that every vote counts,� she said. “I have always said that. And yes, every vote is important.�

The Cranston Herald, in its February 15, 2006 article regarding my campaign wrote this:

Schoos also led the fight to investigate the polling results from the 2004 elections, alleging the ballots were mishandled and potentially miscounted.

Senator Lanzi is correct, as far as she goes, when she says that every vote counts. But, she apparently misses the point that every vote must be counted fairly and accurately.

Third, and related to the first two issues, is the issue of campaign finance reform. If we are to clean up elections and restore democracy, we need to clean out the influence of special interests that is bought by their money. The infusion of so much money into the electoral process impacts the outcome of elections and often determines policy.

In 2005, a Clean Elections Act was introduced in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. I supported the general tone of the legislation with the only reservation that it wasn’t strong enough. The Clean Elections Act proposed a public financing scheme for candidates for the General Assembly. I thought that the funding limits were too low and would inadvertently result in protecting incumbents. Moreover, I thought that the funding should not come primarily from general revenues – that was tried in Massachusetts and the legislature refused to appropriate the money for that state’s version of a Clean Election Act. I thought Arizona’s approach had some merit. Arizona funds its Clean Elections Act from ten dollar surcharges on fines collected by its court system. This approach has survived legal scrutiny and should be considered by Rhode Island.

This year, Senator Perry and three listed co-sponsors, one of whom is Senator Elizabeth Roberts from Cranston, have introduced a Clean Elections Act in the State Senate. This version seems more detailed and comprehensive, especially regarding the funding stream. The Act’s funding and spending limits seem more in line with the reality of elections and will be less likely to inadvertently protect incumbents. Although voluntary, there is an equalization formula to prevent a non-participant candidate who would not be statutorily bound to specific spending limits from taking advantage of a participating candidate who would be bound by those limits.

This legislation is a good start at the process of limiting the political influence of special interests. I have been publicly advocating campaign finance reform since 1980. It is the one necessary step that must be taken toward overall election reform.

There is room on the face of a bill for four co-sponsors. There are only three co-sponsors of this Clean Elections Act. I would be proud, if I were in the State Senate, to have been the fourth co-sponsor. Senator Lanzi, who did have the opportunity to co-sponsor this legislation, was not a co-sponsor when this bill was introduced to the Senate.

There are real differences between me and Bea Lanzi. For the past two years, she has rarely spoken out about any issue of public concern. Her effectiveness as a legislator is questionable at best. And she obtains her campaign money primarily from one source.

Throughout this interview, I have been frank about what I think needs to be done if Rhode Island is to flourish and improve. Over the past two years, I have spoken out on issues of public concern and stood up for what I thought was right. In my announcement to the press, I stated that I didn’t want to represent big business, labor unions or health insurers. They have enough representation on Smith Hill. I want to represent the rest of the people in Senate District 26 who are not so represented in the legislature.

I think that the three examples above contrast the differences in our views of and approaches to public issues, as well as our leadership styles.

• Kiersten Marek: In the modern era of short attention spans and hectic lives, could you define the most important parts of your message in 15 to 20 words?

This hasn’t much to do with keeping in the 15-20 word limit, but I’d like to tell a story that I think is relevant to your question.

My wife and I were at dinner with another couple Charlie and Judy. I was trying to interest the Charlie, who was a long time friend of mine, in working on a campaign that I was thinking of running. As anyone who knows me would probably attest, I’m not a flamboyant or abrasive guy – I’m kind of soft spoken, civil, etc. Judy leans over to Kathleen and whispers that I seem too “nice� to participate in the rough and tumble of a political campaign. Then she asks: “What’s he like when he’s in a campaign?� To which Kathleen responded in a single word: “relentless.�

With that said, the first word is “relentless� – I’ll pursue what I believe in to the end, wherever that may be.

Other words/phrases that I hope capture me and my campaign are (in no order):

Integrity – personal and political (I say this because a friend and I disagree over whether they can be separated – he thinks they can, I say they are both the same)

Communicative/responsive

Pro-growth progressive

Compassionate

Inclusive

Proactive problem solver

Egalitarian

Substantive personally and politically

Pragmatic and Idealistic (I think we can be pragmatic as we strive to reach the ideal – it’s pragmatism that gets us there)

Honest – will tell “truth to power.� (What a sad commentary that should be a stated ideal or value)

Balance and prioritize competing interests

Problem solver

Economic and social justice

Issues oriented

Promotion of the public interest

• Kiersten Marek: Thanks, Geoff. This has been an informative exchange. I wish you the best as you forge ahead relentlessly with your campaign. More information on the Schoos campaign for Senate is available at http://www.schoosstatesenated26.com.

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