October 25, 2014
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Constitution Convention offers opportunity to address major issues
John Hazen White Jr.

Moving the needle on the Rhode Island economy, as Senate President Paiva-Weed is calling for this legislative session, is a laudable if late recognition that something quick has be done to be move the state forward and at least spare us further humiliation in coming in close or dead last in state business condition surveys.

<*d0*p(0,9,0,10.427,0,0,g,"U.S. English")>Everyone on Smith Hill recognizes this, and Governor Chafee’s bold budget proposal is a big first step in the right direction. Yes, the Ocean State is in desperate need of legislative action on tax policy, job creation and skills training initiatives, streamlining of cumbersome regulations and a whole lot more, but progress on all those fronts may not be enough to save Rhode Island in the end.

Being a big Rhode Island booster I do not mean to rain on the parade, but Rhode Island has such significant structural problems in terms of its governmental organizations, its unnecessary duplications of services, its parochial attitudes resisting change, and its one-party lock on power, that much more is going to be needed to save us from ourselves, and the forces competing with us, in the next decade.

As examples of these challenges, let me cite just a few (I’m sure you could add your own): we have been losing population over the past decade and that may accelerate as the economy improves elsewhere; we are tied with Nevada at the moment for the worst unemployment in the nation (I’d place my bet on Nevada securing the 49th place in the country before Rhode island does): we have crumbling bridge structures across the state and lack sufficient money to fix them; we are facing increasing budget deficits (despite pension reform) in the years ahead - $169 million in 2015 and a whopping $469 million by 2018; we stand to lose $100 million annually in gambling revenue when the Bay State casinos open (a racino across our border will open in the next two years), and we just had an election that put a further stranglehold on legislative diversity by reducing Republicans to a pitiful handful.

<*p(0,9,0,10.411,0,0,g,"U.S. English")>What Rhode Island needs to really progress and survive is to make big changes through a constitutional convention. Constitutional conventions allow states to change their constitution, as need be, by electing delegates to examine their major governing document and to recommend changes that are then taken up as referendum issues at the next election.

By law Rhode Island voters are required to ask themselves the question about holding a convention once every ten years. The last time the state held one was 1986 – voters were asked in 1994 and 2004 about holding one but rejected it each time. Perhaps we don’t want to make a fuss by holding one in the same practiced fashion that we are so reluctant to vote against incumbents, even when we know they are doing us a disservice by remaining in office!

<*p(0,9,0,10.219,0,0,g,"U.S. English")>2014 is our next and perhaps, as I am suggesting, last chance to hold one and make some significant changes. Constitutional conventions are designed for taking up big issues that the legislative inertia can’t address – in our case things like term limits, municipal government consolidation and even regionalization (county-style government), a part-time or full-time legislature, strengthening the executive branch of state government, and better policing of legislators (because they are simply averse to doing that to themselves).

Thankfully, Senator Paul Fogarty of Glocester, a workingman and not an attorney or special interest plant, has taken up the cause of a constitutional convention for the 2014 ballot by submitting legislation calling for a preparatory commission to discuss the occasion and the opportunity. The legislative leadership should seize the chance and support the question on the 2014 ballot, and Rhode lslanders should support it when they vote. If we don’t, it will mean we don’t really want to face the kind of change we so need. Moving the needle is important, don’t get me wrong, but we have a mountain to move to get to a better future for all of us.


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