This op-ed of mine was printed in the Providence Journal on August 16, 2010 (click here for original). At this point in time no one has taken up the idea of forming a coalition, but I hope something happens after the election.
Lincoln Chafee? Frank Caprio? John Robitaille? Victor Moffit? Ken Block? Todd Giroux? It won’t matter a quahog’s burp who is elected Rhode Island’s next governor — or who is elected to the General Assembly — unless dramatic structural change is made to our executive and legislative branches.
Why do we need structural change? Well, why, historically, is it that so few reform-minded Republicans, Democrats and independents run for office in this state? I think that the biggest reason is that most believe that even if they win, they will have little influence in changing the state of this state.
It’s encouraging that so many have taken out papers to run this year, but it will mean little unless major governmental reforms are made. And good people alone will not change anything. (Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t win any NASCAR races driving a Yugo.) The way to begin to get Rhode Island’s government reformed is to re-engineer the structure of the current system. And the way to get to that point is to get reform-minded citizens and groups of all stripes organized in a coalition to push for these changes:
1. Give the governor the line-item veto. Forty-three states have some form of line-item veto for the governor. The power lets the chief executive veto parts of a bill without nullifying the rest. With the line-item veto, one of the most egregious practices of General Assembly leaders — doling out legislative grants — could be ended. Over the years, millions of taxpayer dollars have been given to a variety of organizations in the legislative districts whose senators and representatives are closely aligned with the Senate and House leadership. Because these grants are part of the larger General Assembly annual appropriation, which is part of the state’s general budget bill, governors have not been able to eliminate them. With a line-item veto, governors could do so.
2. Require two-thirds override for vetoes. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, along with the people of 36 states, according to “The Book of the States 2009,” thought it wise to require a two-thirds vote of legislators (either present or elected) to override a governor’s veto. In Rhode Island, only a three-fifths vote of those legislators present is needed to override. A change would give a minority party or a minority wing of a majority party at least some chance of influencing what happens in the General Assembly.
3. Restore the governor’s ability to place non-binding resolutions on the ballot. A few years ago the General Assembly stripped the governor of the power to put nonbinding questions on the ballot. It was through these nonbinding resolutions that the Rhode Island voters embarrassed the legislature into putting a constitutional amendment on the separation of powers before the electorate for their subsequent overwhelming approval. We need it back.
4. Eliminate the “master lever” for straight-party voting. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are only 16 states that still have some form of straight-ticket voting. The state Board of Elections and 23 town and city councils have endorsed this bipartisan reform. When there were the old voting-booth machines in Rhode Island, using the straight-party lever was easy to understand. However, since the adoption of the scan ballots, it has made this bad practice also quite confusing and some voters may not realize what they are doing when they use it.
5. Reform the redistricting process. This would include establishing a truly independent nonpartisan or multi-partisan redistricting commission. All deliberations would be conducted in public and the commission could not use political or personal considerations in creating a plan. Just as importantly, a constitutional amendment should be passed to mandate “nested districts.” Some states draw their legislative district lines in a manner that lets two representative districts fit precisely within the boundaries of one senatorial district. These “co-terminus” or “nested” districts afford certain advantages.
For one thing, this additional constraint decreases (albeit does not end) the ability to gerrymander districts. Secondly, it ends “voting pockets,” in which additional polling places need to be established to accommodate the overlap of Senate and House district boundaries. Thirdly — and this would be a “hopefully” — these “General Assembly delegations,” with two representatives and one senator from the same area, could work for more regional answers to our state’s problems. To achieve this reform, the current House could be reduced from 75 to 74 and the Senate from 38 to 37.
6. End election of the secretary of state and assign that office’s duties to the lieutenant governor.* Let’s be honest: The lieutenant governor position (regardless of who holds it) exists mostly to provide a stage — at taxpayers’ expense — from which its holder runs for higher office. (That and, of course, waiting around for the governor to — well, you know . . .) And yes, many political positions are stepping stones to offices that demand greater responsibilities; the difference with this position is that the lieutenant governor can pretty much create his or her own agenda.
Voters can look at General Assembly members voting records; the governor’s executive decisions, and the remaining general officers’ management of their respective departments, but the lieutenant governor has very few prescribed duties. If the lieutenant governor were to additionally assume the duties of the secretary of state (as in Alaska and Utah, while in Arizona and Oregon, the elected secretary of state performs the duties of the lieutenant governor), at least we could judge that officeholder on how he or she ran that important department. In addition to savings from the consolidation of the two offices, public campaign funds could also be saved. So, to turn upside down what some reformers are calling for today, I say, don’t eliminate the lieutenant governor, just give her or him something to do.
7. Put General Assembly members under the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission. The Rhode Island Supreme Court’s recent decision in William V. Irons vs. The Rhode Island Ethics Commission necessitates a constitutional amendment to make clear that legislators’ conduct falls under the jurisdiction of the commission.
So how can these proposals become real? We need a state-wide, nonpartisan, independent alliance (not unlike the successful RIght Now! coalition of the early ’90s that helped eliminate legislators’ pensions and downsized the General Assembly) of government-reform groups, businesses, labor, citizen-activists and more that will mount a concerted campaign to demand that all legislative and general office candidates sign a pledge to vigorously push for these changes if elected. Once the candidates are elected, the coalition would keep the General Assembly’s feet to the fire until the reforms were enacted.
When these reforms become law, I will feel as I think most Rhode Islanders will — happy as a clam.
James E. Fayal lives in Providence and blogs at jamesfayal.wordpress.com.
*[Addendum to published op-ed: I failed to include my long-held belief that voters should continue to be able to elect the lieutenant governor separately from the governor.—JEF ]