Speakman, Hunt square off in District 68 debate

Warren candidates are only two on ballot for November

By Ted Hayes
Posted 10/22/20

First term Representative June Speakman squared off against her lone challenger for the House District 68 seat, Libertarian Billy Hunt, in the only debate between the two before the Nov. 3 election, …

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Speakman, Hunt square off in District 68 debate

Warren candidates are only two on ballot for November

Posted

First term Representative June Speakman squared off against her lone challenger for the House District 68 seat, Libertarian Billy Hunt, in the only debate between the two before the Nov. 3 election, held online last Thursday evening.
Over the course of about 40 minutes, the candidates talked of the Covid-19 crisis, the state of Rhode Island's economy, the environment, the politics of the state General Assembly, and what they'll do if elected to the seat that sits about 70 percent in Bristol and 30 percent in Warren.

The debate, held over the Zoom online format, was sponsored by the Rhode Island League of Women Voters and the East Bay Media Group, publisher of the Warren Times-Gazette and other publications. It was moderated by Christy Nadalin of the newspaper group.

Ms. Speakman, a Democrat who won on her first campaign, and Mr. Hunt, who has run three previous times for the office, know each other well and live in the same Warren neighborhood. They kept away from personal attacks, focusing instead on policy as they answered about 10 questions posed in advance by citizens, and read by Ms. Nadalin.

Mr. Hunt said he is running to bring financial stability to the state, and to bring an independent voice to state politics.

"When I first ran in 2016 our economy was just getting back," he said. "Since that time ... we still have not fully funded our pensions, our schools are in disrepair, infrastructure is falling apart and we are running a $900 million deficit," he said. "I feel like I'm in it for the right reasons. I wouldn't be up here running for my fourth time if I wasn't trying to do what I think is best. (If elected) I'm going up there to shrink the size of government so people can make decisions for themselves."

In her first term, Ms. Speakman said, she advocated for solar siting legislation, pollution and environmental controls, and had hoped to start other initiatives, including examining the state's education aid funding formula, before the Covid-19 crisis consumed the state and made the normal work of the Assembly more difficult. She hopes to continue to advocate for her constituents' causes and help Warren and Bristol navigate the Covid-19 crisis, she said:

"We in the General Assembly need to do everything we can to come out of the current crisis (and ensure that) children get the education they deserve."

"I was just getting started learning my way around the state house" when Covid hit, she added. "I'm eager to learn more. And I am as committed as Bill to the health and well-being (of) our citizens. I think I'm doing it for the right reasons too."

On government efficiency
Asked how each would work to make government more efficient, Mr. Hunt answered first, saying that among other things, the state needs to have zero-based budgeting, so state agencies will have to justify their budget requests each year to "make sure that spending is kept under control and not just growing each year. That would help significantly lower the state budget and lower the tax burden.

He and Rep. Speakman both agreed that giving the governor the power of line item veto would help keep the General Assembly in check.

"It's very important that our governor has the power to strike particular line items," Mr. Hunt said. "If we had that ability (that would) go a long way."

"I agree with Mr. Hunt about the line item veto," Rep. Speakman said. "Forty-four governors have it and I think Rhode Island should as well."

Small business
Asked what could be done to give small businesses the help they need to survive in the midst of the pandemic, both said they need more help, an easier route to funds, and creative thinking:

"I do think we need more loans and funds for even the smallest businesses," Rep. Speakman said. "They don't qualify for many of the programs" currently out there, and thus those programs need to be expanded and be more accessible.

Mr. Hunt agreed, saying that even for the paltry amount most small businesses are eligible for, owners have been made to wait too long, and jump through hoops, to get the help they need.

Climate change
When asked how the state should respond to climate change, Rep. Speakman said she hopes to continue her fight for a solar siting bill, "which would move Rhode Island away from fossil fuels."

Also, she said, state and local governments need to do more to plan for coastal resiliency as sea levels rise. She pointed to Warren as a good example of a community moving in the right direction.

"Our excellent town planner has gotten a grant to look at the Market Street area ... I look forward to helping support that effort ... to make sure that the most threatened properties in Bristol and Warren receive the aid they need."

"I think the number one thing we should do is stop building structures in flood zones," said Mr. Hunt.

Such practice, as well as establishing opportunity zones in low-lying areas, is not environmentally or socially sound practice, he said. He pointed to the Settlers' Green proposal in Warren, which would see a large affordable housing development built in a flood plain on Kinnicutt Avenue, as a prime example of policy that does not take into account environmental concerns.

Producing a viable workforce
One question centered on whether there is a skills gap for workers coming out of high school, and whether that is hindering economic development:

"It's essential ... to be thoughtful about vocational education and career training," Rep. Speakman said. "We need to make sure the students get the training they need to move into the professions."

Just as important, Mr. Hunt said, is school choice.

"Rhode Island needs" it, he said. "We need more guidance and programs" in place for students who elect to go into the trades.

On police accountability and responsiveness
The candidates gave different answers when asked how to make police more responsive and accountable.

Mr. Hunt said the main things that could be done include "ending the war on drugs, which is what is causing a lot of the interactions" with police, requiring that "a majority of the funding for our police departments come from the communities" which they serve, "demilitarizing our police forces (and) ending qualified immunity."

"Our police departments play an essential role in our communities," Rep. Speakman said. "It's important to look at the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights."

"That is something we will be looking at" in the General Assembly, she said, as well as other reforms in the 2020 reform proposals recently released by the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association.

Health insurance
The crisis is in America's health care system has deepened with the Covid pandemic, and each candidate had a different answer when asked how they would help provide medical care for all:

"I support a public option so folks have the same opportunity to access health care that our seniors have," Rep. Speakman said. "It's going to require some time to implement that but I think that's the way we should go."

"Generally, I don't support state-funded health insurance," Mr. Hunt said. "I think the easiest thing to do to make the insurance market more affordable is to open the market and allow insurance companies to sell over state lines."

The biggest thing that could be done, he said, is to "lower the tax burden so we can put tax dollars back into (consumers') pockets.

Ms. Speakman didn't necessarily agree, as "we can't just assume that people will have the money to go into the open market."

But "a better business climate will help, as consumers would be able to afford their own health insurance coverage," Mr. Hunt replied.

Opioids
One citizen asked through Ms. Nadalin what each would do about the opioid epidemic, which is growing worse.
"We need to focus on ending the failed war on drugs," Mr. Hunt said. "If we decriminalize and ended the war on drugs and made it available on the free market ... it's something that will resolve itself and you're not going to have the issues you're having now."

"I wouldn't decriminalize opioids," Ms. Speakman replied.

"They're much too harmful; they need to be controlled. I would support enhanced funding for mental health support services. We know that works."

"Decriminalization means we're treating it as a health problem, not a criminal problem," Mr. Hunt clarified. Doing that "reduces interactions with police officers, reduces addiction, and makes it a health problem, not a criminal problem."

Education funding and choice
When asked about equal opportunity to quality education and the funding of that education falling to the state or local communities, Ms. Speakman said "we need to (find) says to lessen the dependence on property tax. Taxes are high and we need to be mindful. (Property taxes) create tremendous inequity in education."

"A child's education should not be determined by their zip code, which is why I'm such a big proponent of school choice," Mr. Hunt replied.

"The tax dollars should follow the student .. .whatever school they want to go to. They should be able to choose. Rhode Island spends in the top 10 in the country (but) our actual return on our investment" is low, he said. "Even our best performing schools in Rhode Island would be average in Massachusetts, so we're obviously doing something wrong."

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