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R.I. Gov. candidates debate in Salomon

The race for governor of Rhode Island came to Salomon 101 Thursday night as the candidates — Democrat Frank Caprio, independent Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14, Republican John Robitaille and Moderate Ken Block — debated their ideas for solving the state's problems.

The debate, moderated by Director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy Marion Orr, covered topics including illegal immigration and the looming budget deficit.

Caprio and Chafee are running neck-and-neck in recent polling. The two shared center stage and traded barbs over providing in-state tuition to undocumented students and addressing the state's unfunded pension liability. The Chafee campaign suffered a setback Thursday when campaign manager J.R. Pagliarini resigned amid allegations that he collected unemployment insurance while working on the Chafee campaign's payroll.

In his opening statement, Block — the first gubernatorial candidate of the party he founded and which gained official status in the state only last year — urged voters to "shake the habit that we're in of voting for the lesser evil."

Robitaille expressed his conviction that "we've allowed government to grow too large and become a drain on the private sector."

Caprio touted his commitment to "putting the wind at the backs of small businesses" and said his plan would provide businesses greater access to credit and reduce their tax burden. Chafee said he was running for governor so that young people would have the option of finding a job in Rhode Island.

The candidates fielded queries on social issues including gay marriage, with all but Robitaille in support of legalization. Robitaille said he would "look at legislation for civil unions," but called efforts to redefine traditional marriage "a mistake."

The discourse heated up when candidates turned to the state's economic challenges.

"When you look at any survey or comparison of the states, Rhode Island comes out 49th or 50th in business friendliness," Robitaille said. "We're the last place, unfortunately, that most businesses want to locate or do business."

Block proposed creating three venture funds that would invest in different sectors and would be managed by "nationally prominent venture capital firms."

Caprio said one small business owner told him that "between the taxes and the regulation, she feels that at the end of the day the cash register just doesn't have enough money in it to continue to keep up with her bills and her payroll, never mind the cost of health care."

Chafee focused instead on Providence's Jewelry District. The 20 acres cleared by the relocation of Interstate 195 are particularly promising for growth in the medical sector, he said. But he cautioned, "there's no doubt a shadow of corruption hangs over this state."

When Block attacked Chafee for his plan to eliminate sales tax exemptions on a number of goods, Chafee fired back that raising the sales tax was "the least harmful way to economic growth" and faulted politicians for relying on vague promises to eliminate "fraud, waste and abuse and hope the deficit disappears."

Caprio and Chafee also sparred over addressing the state's pension issues. Caprio said he advocates a hybrid pension plan resembling a federal model. Chafee proposed changing pension plans so that employees and employers share the consequences of the stock market's volatility and suggested that elements of Caprio's plan might conflict with the state constitution.

But it will take more than just policy changes to surmount the state's challenges, according to Block.

"Ultimately, if we want to fix the problems that we have as a state, we have to begin voting differently," Block said.

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that J.R. Pagliarini resigned Tuesday. In fact, Pagliarini resigned Thursday, the day of the debate.


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