January 13, 2008

Representative Joe Amaral on Business, the Future, and the State of the State

Justin Katz

Of the four General Assembly members whom I've contacted regarding the RI Economic Summit article in yesterday's Projo, only Tiverton/Portsmouth Rep. Joe Amaral has gotten back to me. (That's more a plus to him than a minus to the others, considering that it's Sunday.) I'll definitely say this: I was much too hard on him based on the limited information that I collected via the Dan Yorke show on a long-week commute home.

During our phone conversation, Mr. Amaral did much to convince me that we see eye to eye on the problems facing the state, and that our differences on process are probably less significant than might seem to be the case after a focused conversation on a narrow area of disagreement. In keeping with my new perspective, our discussion reminded me that it's probable that I wouldn't caucus with the General Assembly Republicans were I among them. (And toward mitigating my previous declarations: Really, how culpable is an overtime-working conservative for the periodic out-lash?)

Regarding the rub'n'tug grant system, Mr. Amaral contextualized his view with the suggestion that "Anybody [in the GA] threatened by 10–15 thousand dollar grants isn't worth their salt." He would support a legislative resolution ending them and allocating the money elsewhere — whether equal distribution, property tax relief, or deficit paydown. He would support the governor's action, say, of erasing the "general appropriation for General Assembly grants" from the next budget.

But in the broader perspective, he believes that the real rub'n'tug comes in the form of legislative quid pro quo activity, supporting legislation requested by members. That, he argues, is what leads General Assembly members to vote against a particular bill in committee, but then vote for it on the floor.

One example (although Amaral didn't make this connection explicitly) of the more significantly corrosive problems in the General Assembly is in education. The legislature has been "going at the whim of the General Assembly leaders to determine what money is given to schools." Their strategy (although of course last year and probably this year have seen level funding) has been to "make up whatever indicators they want to use to distribute funds."

Consequently, Amaral emphasized a reliable, consistent funding formula, by which he means precisely that: a mathematical function by which various numbers — including among other things number of students, relative wealth, and the effort that the district puts into its own education system — are put into an equation and result in a dollar amount, which ought to be relatively predictable from year to year. As part of any such formula, the state would have to scale back its unfunded mandates, according to Amaral. (He told me that he was one of the few legislators to vote against mandated school breakfasts, which the state funded for a couple of years and then left in place sans money.)

Mandates also figure into the problems that the state has, in Amaral's view, with health insurance. I asked how he would answer the Economic Summit's concerns about health insurance, and he stated that "5–7% of all health insurance cost [in RI] has to do with mandates," specifically citing the requirement that in vitro services be offered during pregnancies. Beyond that, Amaral sees it as a problem that our state ranks at the top in terms of seniors as well as in terms of healthy self-employed people who don't take health insurance, leaving working middle-aged residents picking up higher premiums; he prefers free market solutions, but believes we have to find some way to spread the burden (with mild reference to the MA mandatory health insurance policy). Additionally, "tort reform, malpractice reform, has to happen."

In short, as Anchor Rising readers would agree, the costs of doing business in Rhode Island — whether the state imposes those costs on itself or is merely too permissive in allowing the likes of lawyers to impose them — are too high, and Representative Amaral noted the ease of living, shopping, and doing business in neighboring states several times during our conversation.

In that line, he promised me that he does not support tax increases, by which I confirmed that he means any measure that seeks to raise the revenue from taxes, whether or not one can speciously deny that it's technically a "tax increase." For seven years, he informed me, he has put in legislation to reduce the sales tax. He also would not support raising taxes by removing tax credits. "We need to cut spending."

"There are no more tricks" — no more futures, surpluses, tobacco settlements. Many legislators, according to Amaral, don't want to see any more spending. "If the Democratic leaders move in that direction, there'll be a revolt of the people in Rhode Island." In that respect, the GOP has to solidify its efforts to make people "cognizant of the representatives who are voting for a tax increase."

He believes that the Republicans have to choose the battles that are necessary to emphasize — picking, for example, "five core positions to fight on." In general, he says, the Democrats lack the courage to vote against their leaders, and the Republicans are "more thoughtful and educated" about what's going on with the state. The Republicans have to grow the party one person at a time, and they have to stop shooting for the "glamour" races. Although, Amaral points out that, even were the Republicans to double their numbers in the General Assembly in the next election, they still would lack the numbers to sustain a gubernatorial veto.

I probed, prompting with several questions, to discover whether Amaral has any intention of creative politicking to change things in Rhode Island, and I remain with the impression that this is an area in which he and I will continue to strongly disagree. As with the rub'n'tug conversation, Amaral wants to follow "the process." He wants to study issues, propose legislation, build the party step by step, build consensus conversation by conversation; I would argue that this approach hasn't been effective and will not become more so. It's laudable that he's not interested in gimmicks, but he doesn't appear to be interested in taking the head of a principled charge. He's got a vision for what would be effective for Republicans to do, but he's not going to push the party toward it.

All in all, although I reserve the right to make future adjustments to my opinion (which has, after all, been wrong in the past), Rhode Island conservatives and Rhode Islanders in general would be mistaken to look to Representative Amaral for a savior, but he's worth supporting as principled ballast as we push forward with a more daring charge than he might be inclined to support.

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You have proven, on this blog at least, to be passionate about the welfare of this state and the people who live here. The effort you put forth and thought required to make that effort worth reading and ultimately contemplating is remarkable.

Put down your hammer and run for office already. Though philosphacaly opposed on a number of issues I would gladly support you.* You have a willingness to think, something sorely lacking in our present leaders.

*I'd have to figure out a way to make you just a little more pro-labor, I think I might be able to pull it off though it might take a lifetime

PS Can you get a spellchecker on this thing? I can't seem to spell philosophacally and can't find a dictionary.

Posted by: michael at January 13, 2008 6:07 PM

Amaral isn't the problem. Frankly, the GA leadership is less the problem right now than the rank and file, who are commited to funding the welfare and union hogs until the ligts go out.
I have to laugh when Amaral says "There are no more tricks". What would he call selling the lottery, VLT's and bridges, all of which WILL be done (my prediction) before substantive welfare/union cuts are made.
There is one bright spot. I learned conclusively over the weekend that the theives can NOT turn I-95 into a toll road to finance the union/welfare kleptocracy because the road was built and has been maintained with federal funs.

Posted by: Mike at January 14, 2008 10:38 AM

I'm sorry, this guy is a tool of the union hacks, look at his lousy voting record! He is slick and he even has you convinced he's not so bad. How in God's name can one compromise and work across the isle with such an overwhelming democrat majority? Its a little like the country of Liechtenstein saying "we have to find ways to compromise with the United States s we can get our way." Get real. The unions and the democrats will never compromise with the likes of this RINO, because they don't have to!

Posted by: Bob at January 14, 2008 2:22 PM

As long as he is voting to sustain the Gov. vetoes of the budget he is more part of the solution than the problem.

Posted by: Mike at January 14, 2008 7:20 PM
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