Cogent issues and our cumbersome government
This legislative year, the General Assembly and the administration are facing a myriad of issues that will have lasting effects on the citizens of the Ocean State. The eternal problem with our government is its uneven distribution of power between the executive branch of government and the legislative branch, and the ill-fated processes of the assembly itself.
As a result, the Speaker of the House who was elected to his seat representing a district in the City of Cranston by a handful of votes is arguably the most politically powerful person in the state. This inequity relegates the executive to being a purveyor of philosophy rather than an enactor of real policy.
With substantial issues like reducing the car tax, legalizing marijuana, campaign ethics reform, the line-item veto, revealing the remaining investigative records of the 38 Studios debacle and a free public college tuition program; a balanced and proficient government is needed to serve the will of the people adroitly.
Unfortunately, here in Rhode Island, we end up with public wrestling matches between the administration and the assembly in which expansive egos eclipse the mission of responsible public service.
Early in the legislative session, various bills are submitted many of which are of a ludicrous nature. In the past, bills regarding penalizing neighbors who do not adequately rake their leaves, canines being permitted to accompany diners in restaurants with outdoor seating, pets being considered as children in divorce proceedings, naming an official state drink, and naming squid as an official state appetizer are merely some of the absurd bills offered by offbeat representatives. So much time is consumed with nonsense that it deters the attention of the elected from the important and the significant.
Consequently, at the end of each legislative session an avalanche of bills flood the chamber with no time for studious review. A budget is established with undue lobbying influence and for the most part the hierarchy of the General Assembly leads the excluded and ill-informed members down a blind garden path of supporting bills that they have a minimum of knowledge about. This dire disjointed process of lawmaking is not what the framers had in mind and it does not serve Rhode Islanders sufficiently.
Second to Texas, Rhode Island has the weakest governor’s chair in the nation. The bulk of the power resides in the General Assembly, or more specifically in the House of Representatives. The State Senate is essentially a superfluous body the exercises pomp and circumstance and ultimately rubber stamps the proffers of the House.
In order to better balance the deficit of power of the executive, Governor Gina Raimondo has proposed the passage of the Line Item Veto into law. This executive device is available to 44 governors in our nation. It enables governors to strike a particular item in a budget without having to decline signing the whole plan into law. Albeit clearly logical and practical to have at an executive’s disposal, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has responded by saying he would consider forming a commission to study the idea. That is political speak for “No way, Governor, I will never permit you to have that power!”
Perennial candidate for governor former Moderate and current Republican Ken Block believes the time is ripe for this empowerment of the governor’s chair, “This is the time to get reform done, while the former chair and vice-chair of the finance committee defend themselves from criminal charges.”
Further, the governor offered reforms of our often dark and questionable political environment. She suggested that 25 percent of all candidates for office who raise or spend more than 10,000 in an election cycle be audited. Also, anyone with overdue unpaid campaign fines should be barred from running for re-election. Raimondo claims she was propelled to act after last year’s cluster of malfeasance from former House Finance Committee Chairman Raymond Gallison, former Representative John Carnevale, Representative Peter Palumbo and Providence City Councilman Kevin Jackson.
Raimondo stated, “We have been thinking about it. What is the thing? What is the right reform? And while there is no magic bullet, these steps will go a long way in helping improve the system and give people more confidence”.
The governor is correct about the stigma of generational corruption Rhode Island suffers from. Our state is commonly referred to as “Rogue’s Island” throughout the country. Whether this reform, if enacted, will strongly stem the disdainful perception of our politics elsewhere in the nation is speculative. Although her efforts here are laudable, Rhode Island’s legacy of indictments, convictions, and dirty patronage are long rotting barnacles difficult to scrape off the ship of state.
Also on this year’s legislative burner is the ongoing battle to legalize marijuana. Rhode Island’s Doobie Brothers, Representative Scott Slater and Senator Joshua Miller, have once again spearheaded the effort to make pot as purchasable as beer. Spurred on by tax garnering successes in Colorado and Washington State, Slater and Miller believe this legislative session may be the most opportune thus far. According to the Doobie Brothers, 25 out of 75 reps in the House have signed on in support as have 15 out of 38 state senators.
Thwarting their efforts is Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. The AG has taken his show of anti-Mary Jane derision on the road with presentations of reefer madness using a phalanx of data to dissuade those who wish to reap the revenue rewards of legalization. Senator Miller takes issue with the AG’s ammunition, “I warned him (the AG) that the data they’re using is inaccurate. I feel that his presentation to cities and towns have veered off from being totally accurate on what the legislation intends to do.” The senator was speaking to the fact that in the legislation the individual municipalities retain the right to prevent pot sales by referendum.
The AG’s office countered with the claim that their facts were correct: “properly cited from legitimate and widely regarded expert sources.”
Kilmartin has also remained intractable on his stance of holding back the remaining investigative records of the 38 Studios investigation. In an attempt to countermand the AG’s intransigence, Deputy Speaker Representative Charlene Lima has presented a bill to make the remaining investigative records public. The state senate is currently inert on the issue.
While the governor has petitioned the presiding grand jury justice to release the documents involved. Both Lima and Raimondo are righteous in their pursuit of this exposure of the truth.
Where the governor is off track is her idea about providing two years of free college tuition at Little Rhody’s public colleges and university. Mimicking Governor Cuomo of New York, this move seems more like a political ploy to pad a future campaign resume than a real attempt at improving our citizen’s futures. Pell Grants, subsidized student loan programs, academic and sports scholarships and institutional internal scholarships already help the earnestly ambitious and academically proven to attain their educational goals. To provide free tuition to those who will not appreciate the opportunity at taxpayer’s expense is a bad idea.
Lastly, reducing or hopefully eliminating the burdensome car tax is broadly on the agenda of the speaker and the governor. In a steel cage match of conflicting methodologies, Mattiello wants to phase out the car tax over the next five years with a start of a $40 million reduction for 2018, whereas, Raimondo wants to reduce the tax value of cars by 30 percent immediately. A full phase out would reduce tax revenue by $221 million per annum. Look for the speaker’s proposed system to prevail in the schematic of the final bill. This situation is just one example of the governor’s philosophy being trumped by the speaker’s actual power.
In the fantasy of an egalitarian Rhode Island government, the executive branch would have coequal power with the legislative. The governor would have the line-item veto and greater administrative power by executive order. We would have a unicameral full-time legislature of a much smaller size. Bills could evolve slowly and carefully. They could be studied by every voting member of the assembly and all members could have input in honing and crafting of our future laws. I realize that this notion is a utopian pipe dream. Instead, we will continue to have a haphazard, special interest driven, bloated and excessively lobbied legislature that serves the objectives of the few supported by the taxes of the many. Additionally, the executive will continue to be a glorified philosophical figurehead with limited actual power. As a result, our state will still reside at the bottom of every national list sadly showcasing our high regulation and taxation and lackluster goods and services. Real important issues need to be resolved this year and we just do not have the proper format of government to achieve the best outcomes.
In the Ocean State, mediocrity and inequity will continue to reign supreme.