Fung gives Block Island a lookGOP candidate for governor addresses issues
There comes a time when being the butt of a joke just isn’t funny any more.
Rhode Island, long considered somewhat comical due to its long history of political corruption and economic malaise, has been in a downturn for far too long.
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, the Republican Mayor of Cranston, wants to reinvigorate the state as its next governor. Fung officially declared his candidacy on June 23.
“They’re struggling day to day,” Fung said of Rhode Island residents during an interview at the offices of The Block Island Times. The discussion ranged from pension reform to tourism to his staunch opposition to the Deepwater Wind project.
“People are saying that loud and clear. This economy is impacting every walk of life, every demographic,” he said of his reasons for running.
When speaking of the much-maligned state pension system, Fung used the word “horrible.” He uses the word “battle” to describe some of the skirmishes he’s had in the city of Cranston to push through reforms. He described the condition of the state’s infrastructure as “abysmal.”
The influential blog www.fivethirtyeight.com described Rhode Island this way on a posting from June 23: “The state’s unemployment rate was 8.2 percent in May, making it the last state still above the 8 percent mark. It has now had the nation’s highest unemployment rate for seven straight months. (Before that, Nevada had held the dubious distinction for more than three and a half years.)
“The unemployment rate often isn’t the best way to measure the health of an economy, but Rhode Island’s recovery has been weak by just about any measure. The state still has 2 percent fewer jobs than when the recession began, and it experienced the slowest rate of job growth of any of the five hardest-hit states (as measured by each state’s respective low point for jobs). Per-person economic output grew just 1.3 percent in Rhode Island last year, and its income growth ranks among the nation’s worst.”
Fivethirtyeight.com says that there are signs of recovery, but Fung believes some of the economic measures that have been put in place in Rhode Island haven’t gone “far enough.”
The first thing Fung said, when he talked about how he plans on improving conditions here, was to “make us more business-friendly.”
What he is touting is a $200 million tax package reduction, including reducing the state corporate tax from 9 percent to 6.5 percent. “That’s a start,” he said. His plan is to reduce that tax down to 5 percent by 2019. He would reduce the state sales tax of 7 percent to the Massachusetts rate of 6.25 percent. (According to Forbes magazine, the sales tax brings in roughly $800 million a year.)
He would raise the R.I. estate tax exemption, which now stands at just under $1 million to the federal level of $5.25 million.
On recent measures to ease the burden of pension packages, largely the effort of a potential rival, State Treasurer Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, Fung said “We still need reform. We didn’t go far enough. [The pension system] was not challenged at the local level,” he says. He’s had his court battles in Cranston already on this matter, as had another potential rival, Democrat Angel Taveras, Mayor of Providence. Fung cut a deal with two city unions — the Teamsters and the Laborers — that saw Cranston taxpapers paying $6 million less into the city pension fund in 2012-13. He believes the fight should be allowed at the local level. “Enact enabling legislation to allow those cities and towns the ability to freeze COLAs (cost of living increases),” he says. “That’s what I’ve been advocating. The Treasurer (Raimondo) and the Governor (Lincoln Chafee) left the municipalities to fend for themselves.”
When asked if he could replicate his success at the state level, he said, “We’ve done it in Cranston.” The worst-case scenario in the state happened in tiny but densely populated Central Falls, which declared bankruptcy in 2011. “That was sad to see; that was a hard reality,” says Fung, who became mayor of Cranston in 2009.
Overall, Fung said he would like the state to “get out of the pension business and get into 401(k)s.”
Fung said his own background has shaped his economic views. His family ran a Chinese restaurant in Cranston. “I saw their struggles, pulling money out of their pockets to pay the bills,” he said. He described himself as a “Rhode Islander born and raised” but said the state that he and his parents fell in love with is “no longer offering the same opportunities to the next generation.”
He looks to Massachusetts, a state he describes as “competing across the country and the globe.” Fung said he wants local students — even if they don’t go to college — to be “college-ready” and to provide more vocational training for young people in the state.
When asked about tourism, which is so important to Block Island, Fung said that the state needs to have a “comprehensive strategy” to market itself and he called the $400,000 tourism budget “ridiculous.” He said that “Block Island is a jewel, but it shouldn’t be a hidden jewel.”
When speaking of local issues, Fung said he was “not a supporter of the wind farm. I’m looking at this financially. It’s too great a subsidy to have for the taxpayers in Rhode Island. We’re going to pay for it.” He said he would support a transmission cable to the mainland, but that if he is elected governor, he said he “would take a stand not to have that (wind farm) completed. There has got to be a better way to help out Block Islanders than this giant subsidy.”
Near the end of the conversation, Fung was asked to give the state a rating or grade on how it was doing overall.
“Compared to what?” he asked. Business environment? “The business environment is an F,” he said. “We have not had the foresight to tackle the tough issues.” Infrastructure? “An abysmal situation with our infrastructure. We have not invested over time,” he said.
Seeing crumbling bridges, potholes, and graffiti throughout the state has an impact.
“It becomes a self-esteem thing,” he said.