Politics & Elections

An interview with State Senator Sam Bell

“I think federal aid is important, but I think that if we don’t get federal aid, we need a plan. And there are ways that we can address this without brutal cuts. We need to fight the narrative that assumes that brutal cuts are the only option.“ Rhode Island State Senator Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence) is finishing up

Rhode Island News: An interview with State Senator Sam Bell

May 13, 2020, 1:17 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

I think federal aid is important, but I think that if we don’t get federal aid, we need a plan. And there are ways that we can address this without brutal cuts. We need to fight the narrative that assumes that brutal cuts are the only option.

Rhode Island State Senator Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence) is finishing up his first term as the General Assembly begins to plan coming back sometime this summer to work on the 2021 budget, a process that was interrupted and made very contentious due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, Bell picked up a primary challenger, Providence City Councilmember Jo-Ann Ryan (Ward 5), so I thought it was a good time to reach out and see what Senator Bells thoughts on this and other subjects were.

UpriseRI: I see that Providence City Councilmember Jo-Ann Ryan has confirmed that she is running against you. I expect this will be an interesting election.

Senator Bell: You know, from the moment I voted against the Senate President, and every single time I took what I felt was the right vote when it meant going against the leadership and the machine in this state, I knew that would mean a primary challenge and I’m sure the machine will spend whatever they can to try to beat me. I’m very much looking forward to the race. I think it’s a good opportunity to have some conversations about policy and I’m hopeful that this race stays focused on policy and does not fall entirely into personal attacks and things like that. I’m really hopeful that we can talk about the policy contrast.

I know Councillor Ryan said, in her last campaign two years ago, that for her, the single most important thing the General Assembly could do for Providence would be to privatize the water board.

I strongly opposed selling the water board. I refused to sign the bill and I made the strongest case I could to the Mayor to drop the bill, along with several other members of the delegation from Providence. We were successful in getting the Mayor to withdraw bill. I know how important that issue was to Jo-Ann Ryan. I also know how strong she fought for the Fane Tower and the special deal, the zoning override. She voted for it and advocated for it very forcefully on the council. I know it was very important to her and I’m very proud to have voted against the Fane Tower in the Senate and I stand behind that vote a hundred percent.

I think it’s wrong for us to be subsidizing luxury housing while we have such a terrible affordable housing crisis and that we refuse to, in any meaningful way, invest in affordable housing. So, those are some of the policy disagreements she’s had with me in the past, because of her work on the council. I’m sure she’ll raise other issues and I’m looking forward to hearing her concerns and disagreements with me and hopefully we can have an engaged conversation about the right public policy for Providence.

UpriseRI: Let’s move off the race a little bit. Let’s talk about what’s going on in the state right now with COVID-19 and the General Assembly not meeting and stuff like that. What are your thoughts about the General Assembly not being called into session?

Senator Bell: For me it was kind of shocking that this is even a controversial issue. People are suffering right now and the fact that we don’t seem to feel any obligation, that our leadership seems to feel no obligation to help people is, I think, inhumane. I really believe that it was a huge mistake that we did not appropriate funding to the nursing homes and the hospitals immediately. The fact that we made them go through this crisis, adding financial distress on top of all the other problems is irresponsible and reckless. I don’t believe this crisis in the nursing homes would have gone away if we had made those investments, but I don’t think as many people would have died. The governor does not have the power to appropriate funding, that’s the legislature’s job.

The governor did a number of things I agree with in putting out executive orders, but I think that she was probably a little hasty in lifting the stay at home order. But I give her lots of credit for promulgating those orders in the beginning. And I also give a lot of credit to Dr Nicole Alexander-Scott at the Department of Health for her leadership. But there’s only so much you can do without money. The General Assembly failed to meet in remote session to appropriate money. California voted a billion dollars for public health at the very beginning of this crisis. And I think it was incredibly irresponsible that we did not do something similar and now, as we move into this budget cycle, I think that there is going to be a massive push to make serious cuts to the state budget – slashing the state agencies, slashing the City of Providence, potentially even slashing Medicaid. And I think that would be deeply irresponsible and I plan to do everything I can to try to prevent that from happening.

UpriseRI: A lot of people are talking about what they’re calling an austerity budget coming down the road, although there’s very little official word out from House and Senate leadership as to what the budget might look like, only that it’s going to be a tough budget. Raimondo most recently said that she’s counting on federal aid to cover some or all of the shortfalls. What are your thoughts on that?

Senator Bell: I think federal aid is important, but I think that if we don’t get federal aid, we need a plan. And there are ways that we can address this without brutal cuts. We need to fight the narrative that assumes that brutal cuts are the only option. We can repeal the tax cuts for the rich. We can create a progressive corporate income tax. We could legalize recreational cannabis, although I think it is important that we do so in a mechanism that involves much less criminalization than in the governor’s proposal. And there are other things we do.

This gets a little bit more into the weeds, but the biggest way you close that deficit, that gap that’s almost a billion dollars, has to be the PayGo shift. We’ve had this long term, I would say irresponsible, fiscal practice of putting too much infrastructure spending in the current account, never putting it on the ballot, never putting it in the capital side. We’ve never put a general obligation road bond on the ballot in this state for more than a hundred million dollars. In comparison, Massachusetts did a $12.7 billion transportation bond in 2014, and their Governor is now proposing an $18 billion transportation bond for this year. And I do believe the people of Rhode Island would approve a transportation bond. Transportation is heavily funded on a PayGo basis, more so than in many other states in the country. So I really think we need to talk about shifting things onto the capital account. Without doing that it will be difficult for us to close the gap.

The other thing we can do is something known as the Medicaid shift. We did this with the hospitals last year, where the hospital license fee was increased, then the funds were invested in Medicaid because Medicaid matches our investments based on a complicated formula, but roughly about two to one.

Because Medicaid does that match we were able, at no cost to our side of the budget, to increase investment in Medicaid, and when we increase our Medicaid investments, we bring in more federal funds. Healthcare providers end up with more money and we don’t lose anything because of that federal match. That is a mechanism that we can use to raise several hundred million dollars.

There are several other things that I have always proposed as budget solutions. I believe that we can de-privatize Medicaid and that that would save several hundred million dollars. But that’s something that’s probably difficult to do in such a short timeline and needs to be done responsibly. It probably could not be feasably rushed through at the end of the year in the current budget cycle. I propose that we cancel the privatized version of UHIP for child welfare and financial planning, that’s almost a hundred million dollars. I think that we should not build a new State Police barracks in West Greenwich. We don’t need to make that $15.7 million handout to insurance companies. There are a number of things I think we also cut.

UpriseRI: Moving on from the budget then, what other legislation do you think the General Assembly might take up towards the end of the year or whenever they get together?

Senator Bell: It’s a really good question. There’s must have legislation, enabling acts for local municipalities and things like that that are non-controversial, that we have to pass. I hope that we not use this opportunity to ram through a conservative wishlist. Much of my focus at the legislature has been fighting back against policies I think are really unwise. A very important issue to my district is that we stop doing these special deals for wealthy, politically active nonprofits. It’s very important to me that we not pass, and I certainly will be voting against it if it comes to floor, that we not pass the LaSalle special carve out that would exempt the Academy from the excess land tax. It’s just a special deal for that one institution. It’s very important to people in Mount Pleasant that we not do special deals for wealthy institutions in our neighborhood and I think a lot of my constituents understand that even though LaSalle is an important anchor institution for our neighborhood, these special deals hurt the whole city and they lead to higher property taxes. I’m interested to know where my opponent stands on issue. And I’m also going to do everything I can to make sure that we don’t ram through a bunch of special interest bills all at the last minute and if they come to the floor I will vote against them.

UpriseRI: What about some of the key social justice bills that people have been pushing? Do you think the Parentage Act, the doula bill, other bills to expand Medicaid or to expand the earned income tax credit, have a chance?

Senator Bell: I very much hope we get those things done. I don’t think the prognosis is particularly great. I think it is important though that we get the the Senate version of the Parentage Act, Senator Lynch Prata’s bill. There are a couple of important differences between that one and the House bill. I very much don’t want that carve out that leaves members of our immigrant community behind on that issue. And I think it would be a mistake to pass the wrong version of that bill. I really hope that we have a full version of the Parentage Act. I think it would be better to wait until next year instead of taking the stripped down version that the Family Court wants.

UpriseRI: What one member of the family court wants…

Senator Bell: The Chief Judge anyway, and it is very important that we not associate every family court judge with the Chief Judge.

UpriseRI: I want to touch back a little bit on Medicaid because something occurs to me. If we expanded Medicaid to allow, let’s say, apartments for the homeless population, we would get Medicaid reimbursements. It’s like two to one. Is that how that would work?

Senator Bell: Well, it does require a federal waiver and the Trump administration, I think, is unlikely to issue this waiver. That’s why I support Chairman Miller’s bill, which has focused on exploring this idea, because we understand that we really can’t do this until we get an administration in Washington that would issue the necessary waiver. I very much hope that Democrats will take back the White House and the Democratic President will issue that waiver. I think that it’s something that we absolutely should do as soon as that becomes possible. I don’t want us to assume that we win the Presidency before it happens, but I do think it would make sense for us to start that process so that we can request a waiver when the new administration comes in.

Another part of this that really gets deep into the weeds is that it’s been a big project to try and transform healthcare payments. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee, under Chairman Josh Miller, has focused on these kinds of social determinants of health, things like housing, but instead the administration has moved the Health System Transformation Project into capitation and other very aggressive payment structures that encourage providers to stint on care. I think it should get back to its original goals and focus on social determinants of health instead of capitation.”

Samuel Bell

UpriseRI: You mentioned the Governor’s reopening plan earlier, and you think it might be a little hasty. Tell me what changes would you make to the Governor’s reopening timeline.

Senator Bell: I thought that given the numbers we were seeing we needed to wait at least another week before reopening. But the reality is that it’s hard to project because you have to make the decision based on the numbers that you’re seeing at the time. You have to make a responsible epidemiological decision. If you said a week and the numbers didn’t come down by that point, you really have to watch until the number of cases, the number of deaths, has gotten low enough that it’s responsible to reopen. So it’s based on the data that we see rather than I think a specific set timeline that pretends you can perfectly predict the future, which of course you never can.

UpriseRI: Of course you can’t. And I think the Governor’s been pretty open about that. What about complaints from some within our Latino, Black and immigrant communities, that the reopening is happening too fast and puts their lives at risk?

Senator Bell: That’s a hundred percent true. The community I represent is one of the most affected by by this pandemic. The zip code 02909, where I live and a large part of my district, has had the most cases. COVID-19 disproportionately affects people of color and I think it’s very easy for people to ignore the devastation it’s wreaking in communities of color and low income communities. So often our policies leave behind communities of color and I think that’s a huge systemic challenge for our state and something we need to be better about.

UpriseRI: One story I hear repeatedly is that with the economy reopening, people are going back to minimum wage jobs, losing that $600 unemployment bonus and putting themselves and their families at risk. They don’t feel that there is adequate PPE or adequate pay for the risks. If people get sick, they get a hospital bed, but they don’t get any protection from the virus.

Senator Bell: I agree. The Executive Orders are largely worker protections. I advocate for workers and very often the interests of workers are left behind. We hear a lot of propaganda at the State House that argues that the problem is that people have pensions and the problem is that people have sustainable wages and protections in their contract and that’s a systemic problem. Many people in positions of great power would make that case. They say, for instance, that the Providence Teachers’ contract is too beneficial to workers.

I think that’s a hundred percent wrong. I think that it’s actually a very restrictive contract. It’s so restrictive and so not beneficial to the workers. The starting pay is low and the protections against capricious firing are so weak that we fail to recruit an adequate supply of teachers. There’s a huge teacher shortage and we look at that shortage and still want to make it even less favorable to teach in Providence. I think it’s really important that we push back against this anti-worker rhetoric and we understand that you have to treat people humanely in the workplace. Because if you don’t, people won’t want to work in that workplace and their lives will be worse because workplace abuse is one of the things that causes the most misery in people’s lives. It’s so important that we fight back against that.

UpriseRI: What have been some of you accomplishments in office?

Senator Bell: When I look back on my tenure in the Senate, the things I’m really happy about are some of the wins. I’m very happy to be one of the senators who voted for the Reproductive Healthcare Act, narrowly getting it through the Senate. That was a huge reason why I ran, a big part of my last race and something I was very, very proud to have played a very small part in.

One of the big divides we’ve had at the Senate is over LGBTQ equality issues. One of the things I’m proud of is that I made the successful motion to stop the practice of segregating marriage solemnizations, a practice that people within the LGBTQ community have felt is very discriminatory. And I’m very proud to have made that motion. I think that we’ve made real progress in the Senate and at this point the last Democrat to vote against marriage solemnizations for people of the same gender identity is Senator Metts.

I’m also hopeful that we can start moving forward and changing the conversation around gun control, which has been dominated by the NRA for far too long.

So those are some of the things I think are really good successes and it’s important that we celebrate those successes as well as talk about the places where we need to do much better, on the kind of basic pocketbook economic issues that really matter for the families I represent.

Sam Bell