March 8, 2006

Voter Initiative and Special Interests

Carroll Andrew Morse

Katherine Gregg’s article in today’s Projo about the presentation of the 20,000-signature voter initiative petition at the state house sums up what will be the controlling dynamic of the voter initiative debate...

Governor Carcieri's words filled the State House rotunda yesterday: "Let the people decide."…

He was talking about the years' long drive by a group that now calls itself the Voter Initiative Alliance, to give both ordinary citizens -- and big-monied interest groups -- the power to get proposed laws and constitutional amendments on the ballot, by petition, without having to go through the General Assembly...

Most of the commentary yesterday -- and on the Web site -- centered on the suggested need for a way to end-run legislators who "do not represent the interests of the citizens" because they are in the thrall of "special interests."

"I think we all know who that probably is," said Thompson. "I think we have unions now who definitively have a big influence over our General Assembly. What I am saying is: Who represents the people?

Opponents will argue that VI will make the system too susceptible to special interests. Proponents will have the harder job, as the party trying to change something and not just obstruct something, usually does. Voter initiative proponents have to make the case that the system has already been so corrupted by special interests that a change is necessary. This will mean moving beyond pure process arguments and giving meaningful, substantive examples of bad legislation that has been passed, or good legislation that has failed to pass due to special interest influence.

Here is an example from the good legislation that has failed to pass category. Well before the government forced Providence resident Madeline Walker out of the house she owned for failing to pay less than $1,000 of sewer charges, legislation that would have helped ameliorate her situation was introduced to the RI legislature. However, the provisions that would have protected Ms. Walker were stripped out of the bill by a small group of legislators who decided that protecting the power of government to enrich itself was more important than protecting the rights of individuals.

Tax-lien reform is considered by the House Finance Committee and the Senate Judiciary committee. In House Finance, the legislation can be killed or gutted by just 10 legislators, in Senate Judiciary, by just 5. And if your legislator is not on the relevant committee, then you have no voice in the decision.

Although most Rhode Islanders had no representation in the deliberations, a gentleman by the name of Patrick Conley apparently did. According to another Katherine Gregg article from the January 13, 2006 Projo...

[Patrick] Conley has also figured -- and is likely to figure again this year -- in State House efforts to rewrite the state's ever-controversial tax-sale laws.
Mr. Conley by himself qualifies as a "special interest". He receives direct financial benefits from Rhode Island's tax-lien laws...
One of the busiest players in this field, Conley recently estimated having bought titles to 8,000 pieces of tax-delinquent property in Providence since 1979. About 5,700 were redeemed by their owners.
Mr. Conley also donates campaign money to the Democratic leadership.

Since the RI leglislature is unlikely to change its rules to create a system where representatives of all Rhode Islander’s have input on important legislation and is likely to continue to allow special interests special access to the process of lawmaking, voter initiative is a reasonable alternative for passing laws that serve the public interest when the legislature refuses to consider them.

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Great post!

I was at the VI rally so I may have a slight bias, but it truly was interesting to look up to the second floor of the rotunda and literally see lobbyists leaning over the railings! I like to think that they were witnessing the end of their strangle-hold on state government, but it will only be through continued citizen activism that we will be able to see VI passed.

If you haven't already, visit and get involved with this important issue

Posted by: johnb at March 9, 2006 5:05 AM

I signed the VI petition a few months ago myself with a few hesitations, many of which are echoed in a column today by South Kingstown Rep. John Patrick Shanley. As Shanley says, VI is a "quick fix". In my opinion, it is not the ideal of getting things done via the harder process of voting in like-minded legislators, but at this point, I'm not sure if we can wait for that process to play out. Much of the argument against VI--as Andrew pointed out--is based on the plausible explanation that special interests will control the process, which Shanley shows to be true with a few examples. However, as has also been said, the rejoinder to that argument is that special interests of a different sort control the process NOW--public employee unions being the most prominent. For me, it is a case of political pragmatism vs. conservative idealism. In this instance, pragmatism wins. I'd rather have special interests on my side for a change. Or at least not on the side of those who have formed the habit of reaching into my wallet.

By the way, Patrick Conley is also a paid Harrah's consultant who has argued that there is no RI constitutional basis for preventing a casino in RI.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at March 10, 2006 4:58 AM

I am the executive director for the Voter Initiative Alliance and coordinator of the petiton drive. A high percentage of people who were asked signed the petition and thought it made sense for Rhode Island. Some remembered back to 1996 when an advisory question for voter initiative passed but was ignored by the General Assembly. Since that time the bill's sponsors continued to refine the legislation every year and resubmitted it. In all that time it has never been voted out of committee for a vote on the floor of either chamber. So much for representative government. One of the big arguments against VI by the opposition is that it will do away with out republican form of government.
We need to have balance in government and VI is a way to get it and involve people in the workings of state government. But this is an uphill battle. The leadership and the special interests who keep them in power love the status quo. They get the goodies, and we the taxpayers foot the bill. This is a grassroots movement, and it is the people who will make voter initiative happen. A hearing for the VI legislation before the House Judiciary Committee will be held on Tuesday, March 28th at 4:30 pm in the State House. A big crowd will show that the people mean business. Phone calls to the leadership are also important asking them to put VI on the ballot to let the people decide. Make Voter Initiative happen in Rhode Island . Call Speaker Murphy at 861-1142; Senate President Montalbano at 222-6655; Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Donald Lally,Jr. at 792-9090. And come to the State House on March 28 to take back our government from the "special" interests.

Posted by: Sandra Thompson at March 23, 2006 11:00 PM