December 21, 2014
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My take on the news
Where the real power is in RI
Lonnie Barham

IMBALANCE OF GOVERNMENTAL POWER: Rhode Island is one of the few states in the union where one branch of government is so clearly more powerful than the other two. Of course in our little bastion of political patronage, the most powerful branch by a long shot is the legislative branch. The Speaker of the House exerts far more power than the governor or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The Senate President's power trails that of the Speaker only marginally. This has been accomplished over the years in part by the Speaker and the Senate President ensuring that judgeships are filled largely by their political friends – judges who will seldom rule against them in matters that might diminish their power over the executive branch. In essence, the legislative branch has "bought" the judicial branch in order to maintain its preeminent position in the government triumvirate.
This "imbalance of power" is being strengthened every year by the appointment of magistrates – "junior judges" who will likely be elevated to full judges at some point. Last week the Speaker's legal counsel and a former state senator were nominated for magistrate positions. This apparent circumvention of the 1994 law that intended to ensure judges are selected based on merit instead of political patronage has resulted in the number of magistrates exploding from only two in the early '90s to 21 today.
The "separation of powers" amendment to the R.I. Constitution attempted to remedy this imbalance of power among the three branches. It has met with only limited success, partly because it is hard to change old habits in the General Assembly. After all, it isn't easy to give up power. The appointment of magistrates by the legislative branch after they have been nominated by the judicial branch that is itself filled with legislative appointees, deprives the executive branch of its constitutional power to nominate judges. So much for separation of powers in R.I.

CONTRASTING EDC LOANS: One is amazed at the contrast between two EDC loans that have recently made the news. One, of course, is the ill-advised $75 million loan to 38 Studios – the company that promised us 450 jobs but is now in default and has released all of its employees. Contrast that whole saga with the courting of an energy technology company, Utilidata, by General Treasurer Gina Raimondo. Utilidata was brought to R.I. with only a $500,000 EDC loan. Not only is it successful thus far, it has already added 12 positions to our workforce and plans to add 35 more jobs with average salaries of $91,000 per year.
So, let's do the math. Seventy-five million dollars to 38 Studios for a promised 450 jobs that have now evaporated; that's $166,000 of taxpayer investment per job. Five hundred thousand dollars to Utilidata for a promised 47 jobs; that's $10,600 per job. Wow! What a difference! The $75 million lent to 38 Studios could have gone to 150 companies at $500,000 each and, if the Utilidata formula successfully prevailed, would have resulted in over 7,000 new jobs for R.I.
It just goes to show that Governor Chafee and other opponents of the huge loan guarantee to 38 Studios were right. And it shows that Gina Raimondo, a former venture capitalist, is far more capable of recognizing a company's potential for success than the collective guesswork exercised at the EDC. She should chair the EDC instead of the governor.

FISCAL COINCIDENCE: It is pure coincidence, but it is a striking one. 38 Studios declares bankruptcy, leaving Rhode Islanders to pick up the loan guarantee tab of $102 million. Coincidentally, the projected state surplus for the current fiscal year amounts to $102.7 million. So the huge ill-conceived taxpayer investment that has resulted in what appears to be a total loss wipes out the state's surplus. Just when we thought the surplus might be a harbinger of a fiscally stable future, the result of a bad loan comes along to shatter our hopes. It looks like Rhode Island just has bad juju!

VALEDICTORIANS' CAREER GOALS: Forty-six area high school valedictorians featured in last Sunday's Providence Journal indicated their career goals. The distribution of aspirations among these smartest of the smart is indicative of where our country is headed. Twenty of the 46 plan to pursue careers in medicine. This clearly follows the "graying of America" as the medical needs of an older population become greater and, unfortunately, the costs become higher. Of concern, only seven want to enter the field of business; not a good sign for an economy already losing ground on the world stage. Worse, only four want to become engineers. This is ameliorated somewhat by the seven who will pursue scientific research, but the relatively small combination points to an insufficient emphasis on science and technology in our high schools. The most refreshing revelation? Only three of the 46 want to become lawyers. In a country whose problems are greatly exacerbated by the ever-increasing number of avaricious attorneys who actively promote costly litigation, this disinterest in joining a group so infested with bottom-feeders is encouraging.

OLD GUN BECOMES YOUNG GUN: The national Republican Party has elevated Rhode Island Republican congressional candidate Brendon Doherty, former State Police superintendent, from one of 112 "on the radar" candidates to one of 21 "young guns," a designation that will likely mean much more support – both financial and organizational. More important, it indicates the national party believes that current Congressman David Cicilline will be one of the sitting Democratic congressmen most easily defeated in November. Cicilline's weakness stems, of course, from his involvement in Providence's financial mess and his dishonesty with voters about the city's financial health as he was leaving the mayor's position and vying for his congressional seat. It must make Doherty, the not-so-young guy who carried a gun for the State Police for so long, feel great to now be designated a "young gun." And it must make Cicilline, the culprit running away from his record in Providence, worry doubly now that more figurative guns are out to capture him.


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