|A “Q-and-A” with R.I. Senator Joshua Miller|
|By Arthur C. Norman|
|Thursday, 31 January 2013 22:56|
|Taxes, tikkun olam on the table|
PROVIDENCE – Josh Miller, re-elected to his fourth term as Rhode Island state senator, represents constituents in parts of Cranston and Warwick. A successful restaurateur and longtime community activist, he can often be spotted riding his motor scooter around town, a testament to his commitment to a cleaner environment.
Sen. Miller spoke with The Jewish Voice & Herald on a wide range of issues, from balancing the demands of family, career and politics (his iPhone is key) to the inner workings of the Rhode Island Senate to prospects of passage of proposed legislation. Excerpts from that conversation follow.
Q: Sen. Miller, you’re one of two Jewish senators in the Rhode Island General Assembly, the other being Gayle Goldin. In thinking of two Jewish guiding principles – tikkun olam, repairing the world, and tzedakah, charity – how does your Jewish background inform your acts and duties as a legislator?
A: When I was first sworn in, in 2007, then-Senate President Joseph Montalbano gave a speech on the first day of the session and used the quote of [the late United States Senator] Hubert Humphrey where [Humphrey] talks of how a society or a country is defined by how it treats its children, its elderly, the poor, the sick and the handicapped. And even though Humphrey was not a Jew, it’s totally compatible with the role in which Jews have traditionally been cast in respect to their priorities and guidelines.
I have the actual quote slipped under the glass of my desk at the Statehouse. That year was the beginning of tougher times for our economy when we had to deal with budget cuts that impacted those people that we were tasked to protect. Jewish teachings tell us to protect those groups so I see my role to be consistent with those principles.
Q: Can you give an example of how those teachings have affected you or guided you?
A: Going back to 2007, one of the first issues we dealt with was cutbacks to RITE Care (Rhode Island’s Medicaid managed health care program); it wasn’t necessarily one of my bills, but several other people and I made it a priority to make sure those cutbacks were not as deep as proposed. We made some progress on the budget in that regard and, as a result of our effort, they weren’t [as deep].
Another example – consistent with our Jewish tradition – included affordable energy issues concerning the poor.
There was a bill that became very important to Sen. [Donna] Sosnowski and me that would prevent utility shutoffs if there was someone younger than 2-years-old [in the household]. We got a commitment from all the key players on the House and Senate sides that it would be fine and, on the last night of the session, we still hadn’t seen the bill. Sen. Sosnowski and I were the quorum on the Corporations Committee, where the bill was coming out, and we actually boycotted the committee to prevent a quorum for the remainder of the night until the bill appeared.
We didn’t know, and nobody was telling us, where the bill was. It may have been intentional and we’ll never know, but with our boycott late at night on the last day, it finally did appear.
Those efforts early in a career help define who you are as a legislator and [that] you are here to represent: people of all denominations, economic status and physical abilities.
Q: Senator, you’ve been involved in the issue of marriage equality since your very first term in the General Assembly. A bill to sanction civil same-sex marriages has never made it to the floor for an up or down vote. The House seems to have sufficient support and, although personally opposed to same-sex marriage, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael McCaffrey have both said that the Committee will vote on the same-sex marriage bill. Is this the year for same-sex marriage legislation in Rhode Island?
A: It seems like this is the session; I feel it in my bones. Sens. Paiva Weed and McCaffrey are both publicly committed to moving the bill to the Senate floor. The committee, as currently reassigned, is about 50/50 [pro and con], according to their historical positions, but that doesn’t mean they will oppose allowing a full floor vote. Several factors [are] in play in the Senate that haven’t been in play before.
If the House bill remains intact and reflects the views [of same-sex marriage advocates] and passes with overwhelming House support and early in the session, it gives senators time, even if they would otherwise be opposed, to define their role in this session on issues other than marriage equality and to accept the inevitability, nationally, [of same-sex marriage and to] leave that issue behind them. To me, it means they will allow the full chamber to vote on the issue.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: After this interview was conducted, the House voted 51 to 19 on Jan. 24 to approve the same-sex marriage bill.)
Q: Where does Rhode Island stand in regard to Iran and our investments in that country? Is there any pending legislation that deals with this issue?
A: I had a meeting a few weeks ago with Anne-Marie Fink, Rhode Island’s new chief investment officer who works under [General Treasurer] Gina Raimondo. [Newly-elected Sen.] Gayle Goldin, [newly-elected state Rep.] Mia Ackerman, and and I met with the treasurer’s office. [It is] in the process of setting up, based on last year’s relevant, but failed, legislation, an internal governance policy [on investments] that would cover the same ground as the proposed legislation.
The internal governance policy would review all the state’s investments in Iran, and adhere to strict, transparent standards to divulge, and dispose of, our investments in any Iranian asset.
Also, Marty Cooper, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, has been a major help in bringing the importance of divestment and a nuclear-free Iran to Rhode Island’s [political leaders]. We are waiting as long as we can to introduce legislation.
A clear governance policy that we are confident the treasurer’s office will abide by is the desired outcome; [then] there [would] be no need for us to introduce bills. But if we don’t see that, the General Assembly calendar has a deadline of the end of February for introducing legislation and we will act.
Another encouraging [fact] is that the attorney general’s office is involved with a national initiative on Iran divestment and contracting – an effort by every [state] attorney general to examine this issue – again, with the outcome of operating under the same type of restrictions and guidelines that obviate the need for legislation.
Q: Any aspirations for higher office at this time?
A: Every office holder thinks of higher office. I recently watched MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell opine with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick about [Patrick’s] desire to be named interim [United States] senator if [Sen.] John Kerry is confirmed as secretary of state. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Kerry was confirmed by the Senate Jan. 29.] O’Donnell, who served as a senior staffer for two powerful congressional committees, made the case that, no matter which state, no matter how junior [a senator may be], there is nothing more powerful than being a United States senator.
So, though I don’t seriously consider it, I think the “what ifs” of statewide or federal [office] run through any state senator’s mind at some point. But I don’t foresee it. I don’t like campaigning enough and I hold my nose, very tightly, at fundraising.
Q: Sen. Miller, you’ve served as chair of the Senate Corporations Committee and, now, you’re the new chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. You’ve seen legislative victories as well as defeats. What would you consider a successful legislative session? A failure?
A: I think that every session I’ve been involved in has had a little bit of both – successes and failures. It’s a matter of arranging priorities so that they are … ambitious, but also realistic. It’s important to build on the successes and learn from the failures. Every session has components of both, whether it’s successful pension reform or domestic energy initiatives, or the failure, until now, of getting a marriage equality bill to the floor for a vote.
I can’t think of a session that didn’t have both successes and failures, but I would rather define a particular session by its successes than by its failures.