— Voter Initiative —

February 15, 2007

Congressman Patrick Kennedy Wants to Expand Gambling in Rhode Island, Even Though He Is "Personally Opposed"

Carroll Andrew Morse

Congressman Patrick Kennedy will seek to use Federal law to reverse the people of Rhode Island’s rejection of an Indian casino.

But don’t worry. According to John E. Mulligan and Katherine Gregg, reporting in today’s Projo, Congressman Kennedy does not support the expansion of gambling in Rhode Island. He just favors allowing gambling to be expanded in Rhode Island, without the approval of the state legislature or the people. Hey, it’s his position, not mine....

Nearly a decade after his first high-profile effort to free the Narragansett Indians from having to secure state and local voter approval before opening a gambling hall on their tribal land in Charlestown, U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy says he is ready to pick up where he left off.

After meeting with tribal leaders and their lawyers in Washington this week, Kennedy said he will seek a congressional hearing on “the fairness” to the tribe of the so-called Chafee amendment that, in effect, made the Narragansetts abide by the same state gambling-approval laws as any commercial gambling operator….

Spokeswoman Robin Costello said [Congressman Kennedy] personally opposes the expansion of gambling in Rhode Island and voted against the Narragansetts’ proposed West Warwick casino in November, but “he feels the Chafee amendment impedes the sovereign rights of the Narragansetts.”

The Projo article also includes a sentence Rhode Islanders should get used to reading for the next six years…
New U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s position is less clear.
Mulligan and Gregg continue…
Without a specific bill in front of him, spokeswoman Alex Swartsel said Whitehouse could not speculate on his position, but he opposes the expansion of gambling and that would “guide” whatever position he ultimately takes.
Senator Whitehouse's position is remarkably similar to Congressman Kennedy's position. He is opposed to expanding gambling, but not necessarily to legislation that expands gambling. Huh? Maybe "I am personally opposed, but will take whatever position the special interest groups and the activists order me to take!" is on its way to becoming the official Democratic position on all issues. Or, noting that in the Projo article, Senator Jack Reed and Congressman James Langevin express unambiguous opposition to repealing the Chafee amendment, maybe the problem is that politicians from patrician backgrounds are more likely to disregard the wishes of the huddled masses they purportedly represent. Let the voter beware.

If nothing alse, can we at least use this issue to dispense with the argument that voter initiative is bad idea because politicans are somehow immune from special interest influence that might sway the general public?

November 25, 2006

Healey: Question 1 Results Prove Viability of Voter Initiative

Marc Comtois

Robert Healey, Cool Moose Party Lt. Governor candidate, writes in a letter-to-the-editor that appeared in Friday's Warwick Beacon (and probably in other local papers):

In the aftermath of Question 1 there is an interesting point for those who support Voter Initiative.

Too often labor and others with vested interests in maintaining the status quo of legislative access via lobbyists have indicated that the initiative process would be too easily manipulated by those special interests with money.

These opponents of initiative have already purchased their protection and see initiative as an assault on their stronghold. Thus, they argue that anyone with tons of money could use the initiative system to circumvent the process.

The vote on Question 1 is a direct confirmation that such an argument is specious. The amount of money spent in support of Question 1 dwarfed the money spent in opposition.

If, as initiative opponents state, money can buy a vote, then why was it that such did not happen?

Buying elections is still in the purview of political parties, but the reality is that because someone with money wants something it still can be voted down by an electorate after an open and public debate on the issue.

Sure, there was effort to influence opinion. Sure, there were mindless voters in the process. But, through it all, the public was heard on the issue.

So, now, just what is the argument against voter initiative? The ability to buy influence is still concentrated in the lobbying process and away from the voters, but the argument that the voters can be swayed by a corporate interest with deep pockets is no longer a realistic argument.

April 6, 2006

No Surprise, Voter Initiative Killed in Committee

Marc Comtois

As today's ProJo story said, the Senate Committee on Constitutions and Gaming Issues voted 6 to 4 against bringing Voter Initiative to the voters "after almost four hours of discussion and debate -- much of it familiar -- at a well-attended hearing at the State House." Those of us who have followed the VI debate are indeed "familiar" with the arguments. Of course, maybe not many are following the VI debate:

While supporters promoted the 20,000 voters who signed petitions supporting initiative, some lawmakers said they have not received much input from constituents.

"I don't think I've received five phone calls on it," said [West Warwick's Stephen] Alves. "Every two years at election time if the voters don't feel we are responsive they can throw us out."

The question is, was there no input because there is no voter interest, or is it because many of Alves' constituents may be confused because he is against Voter Initiative but all for bringing a casino vote to the people? I realize there is a difference between advocating for the concept of VI and advocating for a specific question. Gov. Carcieri has been taken to task for purportedly being inconsistent because he has the reverse stance of Alves: the governor supports VI and opposes a casino vote. On the face of it, it may seem that the Governor and Sen. Alves are both trying to have it both ways, but there is a difference. (And yes, I may drift into some of those "familiar arguments.")

Continue reading "No Surprise, Voter Initiative Killed in Committee"

April 3, 2006

Tocqueville on State Legislatures

Marc Comtois

Here's a historical addendum to Andrew's point about Voter Initiative and it's purported incompatibility with Representative government. Tocqueville's observations concerning the functions of each House of the bicameral state legislature's of the early 19th century seem to imply that they already were getting a bit redundant.

The legislative power of the state is vested in two assemblies, the first of which generally bears the name of the Senate.

The Senate is commonly a legislative body, but it sometimes becomes an executive and judicial one. It takes part in the government in several ways, according to the constitution of the different states; but it is in the nomination of public functionaries that it most commonly assumes an executive power. It partakes of judicial power in the trial of certain political offenses, and sometimes also in the decision of certain civil cases. The number of its members is always small.

The other branch of the legislature, which is usually called the House of Representatives, has no share whatever in the administration and takes a part in the judicial power only as it impeaches public functionaries before the Senate.

The members of the two houses are nearly everywhere subject to the same conditions of eligibility. They are chosen in the same manner, and by the same citizens. The only difference which exists between them is that the term for which the Senate is chosen is, in general, longer than that of the House of Representatives. The latter seldom remain in office longer than a year; the former usually sit two or three years.

By granting to the senators the privilege of being chosen for several years, and being renewed seriatim, the law takes care to preserve in the legislative body a nucleus of men already accustomed to public business, and capable of exercising a salutary influence upon the new-comers.

By this separation of the legislative body into two branches the Americans plainly did not desire to make one house hereditary and the other elective, one aristocratic and the other democratic. It was not their object to create in the one a bulwark to power, while the other represented the interests and passions of the people. The only advantages that result from the present constitution of the two houses in the United States are the division of the legislative power, and the consequent check upon political movements; together with the creation of a tribunal of appeal for the revision of the laws. [Emphasis added]

Of course, the irony here in Rhode Island is that we have effectively created two "aristocratic" houses in our legislature. Maybe one of the first Voter Initiative's should be for term limits?

Why Voter Initiative is Not Incompatible with Representative Democracy

Carroll Andrew Morse

In previous postings, Don has discussed some of his reservations about voter initiative. Don's reservations, however, should not be confused with the weakest argument against voter initative, the argument that VI is inherently an affront to American-style representative democracy.

In a Projo op-ed, State Representative John Patrick Shanley frets that "Voter initiative lacks the elements that representative democracy provides (for all its faults) to ensure policies and priorities for all its citizens." In the Pawtucket Times, Jim Baron quotes Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, as saying...

"Democrats are supporting a republican form of government while Republicans are supporting what has been called direct democracy.

"Voter initiative does not work," Walsh said flatly. Some initiative proposals could be "devastating to public education and other public institutions."

And at RI Future, the host of the site, in his typically overwrought style, objects that "Voter Initiative undermines democracy at its core."

They're all wrong, particularly with respect to the Rhode Island version of VI. Here's why.

The designers of the American constitutional system, believers in limited government that they were, did not create a two-house legislature because they believed that twice as much government to be twice as good. They created two houses to serve two different purposes.

One of the houses was a "Senate" whose members served long terms and were not subject to a popular vote (remember, Senators were originally chosen by state legislatures). This structure was designed to allow Senators to do what was right, even if it was not popular at the time they did it. The hope was that Senators would be drawn from an educated elite and carefully deliberate the needs of the country and the needs of the government when passing laws.

But elites are not angels. The founders understood that the elites would also have their own interests, and might use government to further them at the expense of everyone else (hmmm, sound familiar?). To guard against this possibility, the founders also created a "House of Representatives" with a structure very different from the structure of the Senate. Representatives were directly elected by the people, their terms of office were much shorter, and the whole House had to stand for election during each cycle. The hope here was that the House would be the branch of government that closely mirror and protect the interests of the common people.

For a combination of reasons -- an increasing population probably the most important, but also gerrymandering, the increasing complexity of campaign finance laws making it difficult for challengers to get started, and rules that make the House leaders very powerful statewide without being accountable to all of a state's voters -- it hasn't always worked out out as designed in state legislatures. The "lower" houses of many legislatures have become effectively insulated from the voters, and have become more likely to represent the views of elites and special interests than they are to represent the views of average people.

The final result, in Rhode Island at least, is that instead of having a government composed of a House and a Senate, we've ended up with two Senates (ask yourself, is there any difference between your civic relationship with your State Senator and your State Rep?) and, as the design considerations predict, with a legislative process with very limited checks on the power of elite special interests.

All voter initiative does is create a alternative pathway through the government where the interests of the people can be represented without being ignored by self-interested elites who have captured the legislative process. In American-style constitutional democracy, it is not uncommon for a legislative process to have multiple possible paths. Using the Federal government as an example, a bill passed by both houses becomes law with either a Presidential signature OR a 2/3 override vote. A constitutional amendment can be proposed by either both houses of Congress OR a series of conventions called in the states. Voter initiative fits into this tradition; a proposed bill becomes a law through either the legislative process OR through voter initiative.

A slightly better solution might be to have voter initiative be a process by which a bill can become law by bypassing the house, while still requiring Senate (full Senate only, no killing a bill in a single committee allowed) and Gubernatorial approval. But the current voter initiative proposal, where the people can be represented in the initative process, and our dual-chamber Senate can still act on or repeal a passed initiative, is a reasonable step towards restoring some necessary balance to state government.

March 30, 2006

Leading Opponents of Voter Initiative Show They are Implacable Foes of the Public Good

I have been clear about my skepticism regarding the Voter Initiative (VI).

Yet, consider these March 30 words from Tom Coyne about the words and actions by people firmly opposed to the VI:

Anybody who doubts that we are in the middle of a war for the future of Rhode Island should have been at the House Judiciary Commitee hearing on Voter Initiative the other night. To say that the disdain of General Assembly Democrats and their supporters was on full display would be a vast understatement. To begin with, they chose a hearing room far too small to accomodate all the VI supporters who came from all over the state to testify at the 4:30 hearing. With most VI supporters forced to cool their heels in the hallway, committee chairman Rep. Don Lally (North Kingstown and Narragansett) proceeded to let opponents of the proposal testify first...

And who was leading the opposition testimony -- with a straight face -- and waxing eloquent about the evils of the "special interest influence" that Voter Initiative might bring to our innocent Ocean State? None other than Bob Walsh, Marti Rosenberg, and George Nee. If hell has a special place for hypocrites of this high caliber, their reservations are surely confirmed. It was like watching three mafia dons defend their right to run their turf as they saw fit -- the taxpayers be damned. Sadly, the Democrats on the House Judiciary Commitee gave every indication that they shared this view -- belittling the 21,000 signatures (with accompanying addresses and emails) on the Voter Initiative petition as signifying nothing of consequence. I guess we'll see about that later this election year...

On the other hand, it was priceless to watch Rep. Amy Rice become apoplectic when Reps. Jim Davey and Larry Ehrhardt decided to aggressively question Walsh, Rosenberg, and Nee's arguments. "We'll call the Speaker," she shreiked.

Of course, it only got better after the first supporters began to testify at 8:30 pm, well after the press had left. All the predictable liberal attack lines were thrown at them -- including accusations of being racist, sexist homophobes, and anti-undocumented worker (er, illegal immigrant) to boot. It's comical to watch -- you can set your watch by how long it takes a lefty to demand that any opponent admit to being either an angry racist sexist homophobe or still in denial and in need of more therapy. In their minds, anyone who opposes their views really has only these two choices...

The most colorful part of the evening took place not in the hearing room, but out in the hallway (and in the elevators), where the insults really got personal, and almost came to blows on more than one occasion.

What are we to make of all this? We have three reactions. The first is, of course, to keep this sad spectacle in mind during the fall campaigns for the seats now occupied by the esteemed Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee. Their disdain and insults should not go unpunished.

The second is to ask a simple question: Rhode Island now has the fourth highest tax burden in the nation, in exchange for which we receive some of its worst performance in public education, social welfare and the condition of our roads and bridges. Honestly, do you think we would be worse off today if we had had Voter Initiative for the past ten years?

Finally, the arrogance and disdain of the General Assembly Democrats, as well as Bob Walsh, Marti Rosenberg and George Nee, all beg one critical question: just what do they think is the end game in Rhode Island? It was Lloyd Monroe who put his finger on this in an acrimonious exchange with Rep. Shanley. "If the voters don't like it, they can throw me out on my rear end," Shanley said. Monroe pointed out that the voting had already begun, with more and more people and businesses leaving the state. Remember, Rhode Island and Louisiana are the only two states in the nation facing revenues below rather than above expectations this year. And what hurricane hit us? Decades of failed policies imposed on the state by the Democrat controlled General Assembly, perhaps?

The key point is this: even if Walsh, Rosenberg, and Nee (and their General Assembly lackeys) win this battle, they have lost the war. Their pyrrhic victory will only accelerate the decline of Rhode Island toward an inevitable date with bankruptcy. And as anyone who has looked at our exploding welfare spending and enormous unfunded public sector pension and retiree health care liabilities knows, given our dying private sector economy that day is fast approaching. The brutal truth of the matter is this (listen up teachers and other government employees): if things don't change soon in Rhode Island, one day your pension check isn't going to arrive in your mailbox in Florida. If things don't change, your taxpayer financed Florida (no income tax!) retirement plans are toast. And the longer Bob and Marti and George and the boys and girls on Smith Hill (not to mention Charlie Fogarty and Elizabeth Roberts) keep battling to preserve the current system, the more they will hasten its demise and with it your nasty surprise. If we were in your shoes, we'd be asking our "leaders" a lot more hard questions about just how they think their brilliant strategy is going to keep all those welfare and pension checks coming. Because more performances like the other night are guaranteed to make things worse, not better -- and Amy Rice running off to tattle tale to the Speaker can't change that...

These people are greedy enemies of the public good. Their commitment to continue the failing status quo is why many of us will vote for the VI, even as we have some misgivings about it.

March 29, 2006

Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, Revisited

I have previously expressed my reservations about whether the Voter Initiative (VI) will truly fix the status quo problem of an engorged public sector. In that posting, I expressed a preference for a Taxpayers' Bill of Rights (TABOR) constitutional amendment and presented numerous links to TABOR information sources. Mark has challenged some of my thinking about the VI here.

In a subsequent conversation with Andrew, he articulated one of my concerns about the VI which I had been unable to state as well:

...I think that voter initiative supporters sometimes put too much emphasis on the purely procedural stuff and not enough emphasis on the things that need changing. The Voter Initiative Alliance should have presented the text of a bunch of laws that they would like to see passed along with their petition and then said to the legislature "prove we don't need VI by giving these a fair hearing." Then they would have either gotten some of the changes they wanted or have gotten definite issues to run on in the Fall...

Such procedural talk makes VI sound less threatening but it also does not stir any passionate commitment or convince anyone of its significance. While a bit of an overstatement, it sounds like we are going through the procedure of re-arranging the chairs on the Titanic instead of changing the direction of the ship before it hits an iceberg. And that is part of what magnifies my worries that the entrenched powers will simply develop new ways to manipulate the modified system for their benefit.

Successful political movements articulate a vision during campaigns so they can legitimately claim a clear mandate after winning. So what is the mandate VI proponents are seeking from voters? Is it to modify a process or is it to change specific policies?

I think the VI movement would be ignited if they declared that the first thing they were going to do after VI passes would be to submit a TABOR to the voters. Put a constitutional cap on government spending increases. Empower state and local officials to turn down outrageous union contracts that nobody can afford.

That kind of positioning would have immediate relevance. E.g., property tax increases are driving seniors in East Greenwich to demand a tax freeze for themselves. I think it is a bad policy decision to grant the freeze but it is merely one more example of how the high taxes in RI are making people mad enough to demand change now.

Last week's edition of the Providence Business News contains an article entitled Coalition calls for constitutional spending cap, available online to subscribers only, which notes:

Comparing their actions to the Boston Tea Party, Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, and several business leaders last week proposed a constitutional amendment to restrict future state and local expenditure growth.

The measure, inspired by Colorados Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR), Massachusetts Proposition 21/2, and other mandatory tax expenditure limits across the United States, would do two main things:

Limit the allowable growth in state spending each year to the inflation rate (as reflected in the U.S. Consumer Price Index) plus 1.5 percent.

Limit annual increases in each towns property tax levy to 4 percent, and bar the total levy from exceeding 2.5 percent of the full market value (a level that no town has reached yet, though Providence comes close).

Rhode Island currently has no cap on annual state spending growth. But it does require, per a 1992 law, that expenditures not exceed 98 percent of projected revenues. On the local side, property tax rate hikes of more than 5 percent require state approval.

I know from experience on the East Greenwich School Committee that getting a waiver on the 5% increase has become a procedural certainty, not something that leads to any challenging of the proposed increases. We need real limits.

The article continues:

Under those current rules, state spending from general revenue will have grown by about 18.9 percent from fiscal 2002 to fiscal 2007 (as budgeted by the governor), just above the cumulative growth of the Consumer Price Index for Northeast urban areas.

Local property tax collections, on the other hand, have grown by an average of 4.2 percent annually for the last 10 fiscal years, according to RIPEC.

With projected deficits averaging $135 million for each year through the remainder of the decade, however, and a history of double-digit state spending hikes as recently as 2000 and 2001, RIPEC Executive Director Gary Sasse believes tight controls are sorely needed. Rhode Islands recent history shows that "the only thing that controls the growth of spending is the amount of money available," Sasse said in an interview and that means the state gets used to splurging during good times, and doesnt save enough for tough times.

At a news conference at the Old State House, on Benefit Street in Providence, Carcieri said high taxes are overwhelming Rhode Islanders, leading the wealthy to move away and leaving the middle class to pay the bills. State revenue is lagging, but expenditures keep going up.

The article then describes the TABOR supporters:

A growing number of business and citizens groups seem to agree. With strong support from the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, RIPEC and the governor have assembled a new alliance called the "Affordable Rhode Island Coalition," which so far includes, among others, the R.I. Association of Realtors, the R.I. Manufacturers Association, Operation Clean Government, the Voter Initiative Alliance, and several chambers of commerce...

The measure also has the support of some Democrats, most notably former Senate Finance Committee Chairman J. Michael Lenihan, of East Greenwich...

Senator Lenihan has often been one of the few thoughtful Democrats in the state legislature and I am pleased to see him supporting this.

The article then notes the usual opponents:

...House Finance Chairman Steven M. Costantino, D-Providence, said he hadnt examined the details, but what he knows about Colorados TABOR which was recently amended by voters because it had devastated higher education, road maintenance and other key services makes him think such measures are "extremely dangerous."

In a written statement, Senate President Joseph A. Montalbano, D-North Providence, also cited Colorados "failed experiment," and he added that while "efficient government is a worthy goal," elected leaders "also recognize that citizens demand a government with the flexibility to repair roads, educate children and provide a health care safety net for the most vulnerable. These factors all contribute to strong economic development."

Once again, Senator Montalbano doesn't get it. We are not looking just for efficient government - even as some of us would argue that such a concept is an oxymoron given the incentives that exist in the public sector. Rather, we are looking for limited government, just like our Founders envisioned.

Here is a feature of the Rhode Island TABOR that deserves further vetting:

Lenihan and others argue that the Rhode Island proposal is better than Colorados TABOR because it includes an "escape clause" it can be overridden with a two-thirds vote in both legislative chambers and it doesnt mandate a full refund to taxpayers of state revenue collected above the proposed cap, but rather requires that excess go into a "rainy-day fund" of up to 5 percent of the budget.

Finally, another predictable opponent has these comments:

But Ellen Frank, an economist at the Poverty Institute at Rhode Island College, noted that the escape clause is to be used only in "emergencies."

The local limit also doesnt make allowances for actual growth, Frank added. (The town with the biggest average tax levy increase between 1996 and 2006, for example, was West Greenwich, because of high levels of development.) And "most disturbing," she said, because the only exception to the local limit is if state aid drops, "what this would undoubtedly mean would be that cutting state aid would be the one cut that legislators could do, knowing that the cuts could be made up at the local level."

Frank also took exception to the notion that forced limits would encourage political leaders to make smart, creative spending decisions.

"I dont think a tax expenditure limit in any state has been shown to lead to a kind of thoughtful long-term planning," Frank said. "It leads instead to a constant crisis mentality, in which the state jumps from one fiscal crisis to the next, and cuts are made at the last minute based on who is the weakest lobby."

Like we have anything close to "thoughtful long-term planning" today! Or don't live in a "constant crisis mentality" today when hefty annual spending increases result in large and perpetual budget deficits! Sometimes you just have to wonder if these people have any connection to the the real world of living within our economic means.

The really big point is one of economic fairness. As I wrote in a ProJo editorial last year:

...Even so, this debate is about more than current taxation levels and today's family budgets. It is about freedom and opportunity for all -- and family budgets in the future. The greatness of our country is that people can live the American dream through the power of education and hard work.

High taxation and mediocre public education create a disincentive for new-business formation in Rhode Island. That means fewer new jobs, and less of a chance for working people to realize the American dream. It also means people have an economic incentive to leave the state -- and the ones who can afford to do so will continue to leave.

Unfortunately, the ones who cannot afford to leave are the people who can least afford the crushing blow of high taxation and mediocre education. The status quo dooms these families to an ongoing decline in their standard of living. That is unjust...

Tom Coyne has some pithy comments worth reading in his March 14 posting.

You can also read more about the Affordable Rhode Island Coalition and related issues in articles here, here, here.

March 27, 2006

Why One Conservative Supports Voter Initiative

Marc Comtois

In his recent post, Don made some good points about the inherent problems of RI's government--it's too big--and proposed that Rhode Island was in desperate need of a TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights). Moreover, Don explained his reasoned reluctance to support Voter Initiative (VI):

Should the Voter Initiative pass, special interests will simply adjust and change their modus operandi. They will likely be no less powerful. Rather, they will simply direct their efforts in other ways, just like Guy Dufault did in the recent constitutional convention vote. Or by organizing voters who are a part of their public sector activities, like union workers.
Gary Boden also provides some evidence to bolster this position:
The idea of a more direct democracy seems appealing, but a recent action by Matthew Thomas, chief sachem of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, shows how voter initiative will be corrupted by special interests. As explained in the Providence Journal today, Thomas has requested that the V.I. Alliance "announce publicly its unconditional support of a constitutional amendment to 'let the people decide' the Narragansett Indian casino."
Both Don and Gary offer excellent precautionary tales . They are also voicing a traditional conservative--and some would say pragmatic--argument against VI. I also share some of those concerns. But last October, Andrew addressed essentially these same arguments and explained that maintaining the status quo is untenable because the status quo is largely to blame for RI's current broken political system. Thanks to a unique combination of both geographic and population size, one party-rule has established near permanence in state government. I don't think I need to go over the well-trod ground again, but suffice it to say that this has led to the killing of bills in committee and the sort of legislative obfuscation that has succeeded in making it hard for the average voter to know what is being proposed and shelved in the State House. As the official RI Voter Initiative website explains:
VI serves as a safety valve for use when the state legislature is not responsive to the needs and requests of the citizens, as has been the case all too often in our recent history. There have been many instances of corruption and foot dragging in the RI legislature, where connected and powerful legislators de-railed the lawmaking process, all for the improper benefit of a few special interests. VI is a safety valve to prevent these abuses and to expedite important reforms.
Don's characterization that VI would replace one set of special interests with another set of special interests--albeit one (hopefully) more amenable to conservatives--is probably correct. However, some special interests could be supportive of TABOR and I happen to think that the only way that TABOR would be enacted in Rhode Island would be via Voter Initiative. The current Democrat-controlled legislature would never allow such a referendum.

We need look no further than our politically similar neighbor, Massachusetts, for an example of the successful use of the voter initiative. Without the opportunity provided by voter initiative, Proposition 2 1/2--which set a cap on property tax increases in Massachusetts--would probably have never seen the light of day, much less been brought to the voters or passed. At least with VI, ideas like TABOR or Prop 2 1/2 can be proposed and--with enough public support--be brought to a public vote without having to deal with the roadblocks to reform that the RI General Assembly likes to throw up.

Would it be better if public opinion could be brought to bear on the legislators who would then place reform legislation such as TABOR on the ballot? Of course, but there is little in recent history to suggest that this would actually happen here in Rhode Island. After living in the Ocean State for a little more than a decade, I am slowly coming to believe that only through Voter Initiative do such reform ideas as TABOR or School Choice have a fighting chance.

I understand the well-reasoned conservative antipathy towards VI. I would love it if we could fix the RI government via the normal process of legislative turnover. However, I've seen no indication that such turnover is imminent and, frankly, I've come to be in favor of a more immediate solution to some of the problems faced by Rhode Islanders.

My wife and I are raising two young, school-age kids and we can't afford to wait for a slow and methodic changing of the political guard. Yes, I'll do my part to continue to help promote such change, but the reform battle can be fought on multiple fronts. As such, I think that VI can be a more immediate and effective tool in the reform process while we conservatives wait for the groundswell of voters who are amenable to our views.

Is that naive of me? Am I being too idealistic towards the hoped-for goals of VI? Perhaps. But waiting for that groundswell may be just as naive, and the political system as it stands now isn't helping my family. Even if the worst case scenario as offered by Don and Gary should come to pass, the result would be nothing more than a different version of the status quo. I'm willing to at least take a shot with the Voter Initiative.

Continue reading "Why One Conservative Supports Voter Initiative"

March 26, 2006

Will The Voter Initiative Change The Status Quo If Our Core Problem Is The Large Size Of Government?

Responding to the editorial mentioned in Marc's posting, I would offer this cautionary view about expectations expressed by Joseph Weaver regarding the Voter Initiative:

We have serious political problems in Rhode Island, due to an oversized government that tramples on nearly all aspects of our lives and taxes us to the extreme. Furthermore, Rhode Island state and local government is dominated by some very powerful special interests.

The Voter Initiative is based on the premise that its approval would allow other interests, who are currently less powerful, to have more influence over governmental processes and thereby weaken today's well-entrenched special interests.

I think this is a naive view of the world.

Should the Voter Initiative pass, special interests will simply adjust and change their modus operandi. They will likely be no less powerful. Rather, they will simply direct their efforts in other ways, just like Guy Dufault did in the recent constitutional convention vote. Or by organizing voters who are a part of their public sector activities, like union workers.

The core issue is that government plays too large a role in our state's economy. As was written here,

Government has become a huge business, which means there is a lot of money for various interest groups - of all political persuasions - to grab, some for legitimate reasons and much in the form of pork. Money flows into politics to buy influence because so much is at stake financially. While no one wants to talk about it openly, the flow of large sums of money into politics is yet another unfortunate price we pay for allowing government to become such a pervasive part of our lives. If we truly had limited government, the pressure to buy influence would be much reduced. It is nothing but foolish ignorance to seek limits on the flow of money without first reducing the structural incentives that currently give people an economic reason to buy influence.

Unfortunately, the Voter Initiative does not change the structural incentives and, therefore, assist in returning us to the Founders' principle of limited government.

An additional perspective on this issue has recently been written about in a book I read over Spring Break entitled The New New Left: How American Politics Works Today by Steven Malanga. The book was reviewed in the Claremont Review of Books, where the reviewer had these comments:

...Steven Malanga's The New New Left...premise is that competitive markets, low taxes, and entrepreneurial spirit are far better at lifting people out of poverty than are government programs, however well intentioned. ..

...For Malanga, however, power-hungry union leaders are in cahoots with cynical politicians, and brave correspondents must uncover the truth to protect taxpayers and business entrepreneurs. "Politics in America today," he holds, is a "faceoff" between taxpayers and "tax eaters." He warns that "the vast expansion of the public sector is finally reaching a tipping point, giving tax eaters the upper hand, especially in America's cities."

The most prominent element of the "tax eater" coalitionthe one to which Malanga devotes most attentionis the government-employee union. Nearly as important but often overlooked by journalists and political scientists are the "social services groups created by the War on Poverty" with their ever-growing number of "quasi-public workers." He notes that health care jobs, for instance, have grown from less than 4% of the work force in 1965 to almost 10% today. Most of the funding comes from Medicare, Medicaid, and highly regulated insurance plans.

Malanga argues that the venal motives of public-employee union and social service group leaders are cleverly disguised by another member of the "new new left," political activists with cushy university jobs. He may exaggerate the influence of those individuals (one hesitates to call them academics) working in "labor studies" programs in public universities, yet the stories he tells show how deeply some institutions of higher learning have sunk into the swamp of unabashed partisanship.

At a time when we are bombarded with newspaper articles and expert analysis about the overwhelming power of conservatives, businessmen, and the Religious Right, it is useful to be reminded that the welfare state's supporters continue to wield substantial political clout. This helps explain why a quarter of a century after the Reagan Revolution, and a decade since the Gingrich Revolution, the public sector is bigger than ever. Although many beneficiaries of government programs are not organized, those who provide government services are. Not only do they vote, but they can help mobilize all those beneficiaries who would be threatened by retrenchment of the welfare state...

More telling is Malanga's point that the new New Left's influence has grown at the state and local level at the same time that it has declined at the national level. An odd but crucial feature of American government over the past 50 years is that the number of federal civilian employees has remained constant despite the enormous expansion of the federal government's role. This is because most federal programs are carried out by state and local employees, whose numbers have grown by leaps and bounds since the 1960s. This peculiarity of our government bureaucracy reduces the power of public-employee unions at the national level, but magnifies it at the state and local level.

Malanga warns that the "tax eaters" will demand more and more of the golden goose known as the taxpayer...

The Voter Initiative does not directly address the issues raised by Malanga.

My personal belief is that the first priority for change should be a Taxpayers' Bill of Rights (TABOR)-type initiative which seeks to limit the size of government and, by default, limit the power of all special interests.

For more information on TABOR, go here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here (and then type in TABOR).

Voter Initiative: Special Interests and Voters' Competence

Marc Comtois

Another day, another letter to the ProJo on Voter Initiative, but this time arguing in favor. Joseph H. Weaver's argument echoes that given here and elsewhere, but he brought up two interesting points that warrant attention. Weaver believes that the two issues at the heart of the debate are "the role of special interests and the voters' competence to handle the situation." Concerning the competence issue, Weaver writes:

Overall, I think everyone, except our state legislators, believes Rhode Island voters can handle the responsibilities of voter initiative. It is interesting that on the issue of a casino, the legislature wants to place the issue before the voters, just as a voter initiative would place an issue before the voters. Either we are competent or we are not: Which is it, Legislators?
I'd also add that many legislators probably think the voters showed great judgement in sending them to public office! As for the special interest argument, Weaver makes the pithy point that:
And here we have to listen to our legislators with awed respect, because if anyone knows about selling out to the special interests, they do. Harrah's, CVS . . . the list is endless.

Will special interests have a role to play in a voter initiative? Perhaps. Can the voters do a worse job of controlling the special interests than have our legislators? Of course not. Actually, can anyone do a worse job than they do? I don't think so.

Finally, Weaver points out that Voter Initiative is really nothing more than a fallback to the historical precedent of the New England town meeting. As he correctly notes, the town meeting form of government became untenable "[w]hen populations and distances became too great" and the modern form of representative government developed. With technological advance, both the hurdles of counting the votes of a large population and overcoming the travelling distance to the seat of state government have been removed. Finally, I do find it a bit ironic that a conservative such as myself--who still favors the electoral college, for instance--would be all for putting more direct power into the hands of the people. The republican form of government is the very root of our political system, after all. But sometimes contemporary necessity dictates that we let go the ideal.

March 24, 2006

Voter Initiative Advice from WA

Marc Comtois

John Roskelly, a former Washington state politician, thinks that RI should steer clear of the Voter Initiative:

There are some Washington State initiatives I have personally promoted, such as I-901, which passed by 66 percent of the vote, and eliminated smoking in all public places, including restaurants and bars. But in general, the initiative process limits debate to those with money, runs government by emotion, and wreaks havoc on your local government's ability to provide necessary services. Show me a state with the initiative process, and I'll show you a state legislature that failed to do its job.
Too bad Mr. Roskelly doesn't live in Rhode Island, because then he would have realized that all of those fine points he has proferred actually explain what is currently going on in this state!!! He continues:
During my time as a county commissioner (1995-2004), I dealt with the local budgetary fallout of statewide voter initiatives. For instance, I-747 limited property-tax revenue-collections to a growth factor of 1 percent per year. As a home owner, I was pleased it passed. As a commissioner, in charge of the county's budget, I had to scramble to balance the budget, while providing the necessary services demanded by the same people who cut our purse strings.
Now, that's too bad, isn't it? What Mr. Roskelly can't appreciate is that the "necessary services" provided in Rhode Island are some of the most expensive and inefficient in the nation. However, he does save himself a bit with his last suggestion:
So, before you let this feisty horse out of the barn in Rhode Island, I would encourage you to put legislators in office who will make the tough decisions they were elected to make, and to severely limit what can be legislated through the initiative process.
Good idea, but we've been trying that, haven't we?

March 15, 2006

Voter Initiative, Checks, and Balances

Carroll Andrew Morse

In today's Projo, Senator Marc Cote (D-Woonsocket/North Smithfield), the primary sponsor of Rhode Island's voter initiative legislation in the Senate, responds to Representative John Shanley�s (D-South Kingstown) anti-voter initiative op-ed from earlier in the week...

Voter initiative threatens only those legislators who wield disproportionate power in shaping public policy, and the lobbyists and special interests that effectively advance their agendas at the expense of the taxpayers. Shifting any amount of political power from the powerful to the people is commonly resisted.
As part of his article, Senator Cote reviews the many checks and balances built into the RI voter initiative proposal. Both the Secretary of State and the courts have opportunities to prevent an issue from being put on the ballot on civil rights/civil liberties grounds...
Before petition papers are issued, all initiatives must be submitted to the secretary of state for a legal review, to ensure that the civil rights and liberties of individuals and groups will be protected. Not only are these safeguards in place, but should any person or group believe that a proposed initiative will violate their civil rights, after review and determination by the secretary of state's office, our legislation provides for appeal and an expedited Superior Court review and disposition,
And the legislature has the power to undo the results of any initiative...
Representative Shanley states in his article that "initiatives are virtually impossible to change once passed." That is true only in California. In our legislation, if a mistake has been made with an initiative (even legislators make mistakes with some of the bills they pass), the General Assembly can override or amend any initiative approved by the voters with a three-fourths vote during the first four years following the vote. After four years, a simple majority of legislators can override or amend an initiative.
This provision highlights that the value that initiative brings to the lawmaking process -- it prevents bills from being hidden in the committee system. Laws passed via the initiative process can still be killed, they just cannot be killed by a single committee. To repeal a passed initative, every legislator will have to make his or her position known.

This is a healthy thing in a representative democracy.

March 8, 2006

Voter Initiative and Special Interests

Carroll Andrew Morse

Katherine Greggs article in todays 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 voterinitiative.org 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 Islanders 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.

February 28, 2006

Voter Initiative Update

Carroll Andrew Morse

In the latest edition of the RI Republican Update electronic newsletter, Dave Talan provides a quick update on the state of Rhode Island's Voter Initiative drive

The Voter Initiative Alliance is now approaching its goal of 20,000 signatures of R.I. voters on petitions supporting this important good-government reform (which would give ordinary citizens the ability to enact needed measures when stonewalling legislators refuse to act). They will be presenting the petitions to the General Assembly the week of March 6th. On Tuesday March 7th they are planning a huge State House rally with the governor and legislative supporters - a big media event.

In the Rhode Island Senate, the voter initiative legislation (Senate bills 2478 and 2488) has been introduced and referred to the Committee on Constitutional and Gaming Issues.

According to the latest information available from the committee, no hearing has been scheduled on voter initiative, but the committee has found time to schedule a hearing on renaming the second International Engineering Program (IEP) building on the Kingston Campus of the University of Rhode Island, formerly known as the Chi Phi Fraternity, as the "Texas Instruments House" and a hearing on setting aside "the month of October annually to be known as Italian-American Heritage Month". Both bills above were introduced on the same day or after the voter initiative bills were introduced.

December 16, 2005

An Issue for Voter Initiative: Merit Selection of Magistrates

Carroll Andrew Morse

Anchor Rising is soliciting examples of reforms that explain how a voter initiative alternative for passing laws could be used to improve the state of Rhode Island. The example that follows was suggested by Operation Clean Government.

The law discussed below was proposed in last years legislative session, but killed in committee, without a vote. Consider if this is law that you believe Rhode Island should have. Then ask yourself if it is reasonable to believe that the legislature will vote on it this year, or if it is more likely that they will quietly kill it again -- if they think they can get away with it.

You may have heard in Rhode Island that we have both judges and magistrates. What is the difference, you ask? Rod Driver, from Operation Clean Government explains

In 1994, after a series of scandals in the judiciary, Rhode Island voters amended the state constitution to establish merit selection of judges. However, since then relatives of politicians have been appointed to positions with the powers and responsibilities of judges. But instead of calling them judges, they are called "magistrates" and hence not covered by the merit-selection requirement.
In last years legislative session, the Rhode Island Senate passed bill S1051, which would have closed the judges-versus-magistrates loophole and instituted merit-based procedures for selecting magistrates, similar to the procedures used for selecting judges. The reform bill died, however, in the House Judiciary committee, without being voted on.

The argument against voter initiative is that elected legislators, out of a sense of noblesse oblige, protect citizens from special interests special interests that will be left unchecked if voter initiative is passed. So here is the question to voter initiative opponents: What special interests was the House fending off when it rejected merit selection of magistrates?

And heres a question specifically to incoming House Judiciary Chairman Donald Lally (a voter initiative opponent): Will you bring merit-selection-of-magistrates up for a vote if it is re-introduced in the House Judiciary Committee this year?

Finally, heres a trick question. What are the positions of the other members of the House Judiciary Committee on merit selection of magistrates? If a majority are in favor, then its obvious that RI needs voter initiative because legislative procedures concentrate too much power in the hands of a small group of leaders able to thwart not just action on, but basic deliberation of issues. But if a majority oppose the merit selection of magistrates, it is equally as obvious that RI needs voter initiative to bypass a government establishment more interested in rewarding friends than in facilitating good government.

December 15, 2005

How the Rhode Island Legislature Failed Madeline Walker

Carroll Andrew Morse

Madeline Walker is the Providence woman evicted from her home for failing to pay a sewer bill totaling about $500. According to a report from WJAR, lawyers for the evictors are saying that proper procedures have been followed...

The law firm that handled the eviction told NBC 10 everything was done by the book and that after the eviction notice was sent in September, there was no response whatsoever from Walker or her family.
The "book", however, has a non-binding provision I have yet to see mentioned; according to section 44.9.10(d) of Rhode Island law, under appropriate circumstances, the collector is supposed to notify the state Department of Elderly Affairs in the event of a tax lien sale
In the event the person to whom the estate is taxed is listed in the records of the assessor and/or collector as having applied for and been granted a property tax abatement based wholly or partially on the age of the taxpayer, then the collector shall also notify the department of elderly affairs by registered or certified mail postage prepaid not less than twenty (20) days before the date of the sale. Failure to notify the department of elderly affairs shall not affect the validity of a tax sale.
According to a WJAR report from yesterday, Ms. Walker did have an elderly abatement on her taxes
The city of Providence told NBC 10 that Walker was given an elderly exemption on her property taxes for at least five years. The Narragansett Bay Commission said it had no record of that, and said its title search turned up no indication of Walker's age when it sold her lien.
so notification appears to have been appropriate. Was the Department of Elderly Affairs notified by the tax collector?

Here's what may be the worst part. Legislation introduced into the Rhode Island legislature last session would have changed courtesy notification of Elderly Affairs into a binding requirement. Original versions House bill H6020 and Senate bill S478 would have changed section 44.9.10(d) to read

In the event the person to whom the estate is taxed is listed in the records of the assessor and/or collector as having applied for and been granted a property tax abatement based wholly or partially on the age of the taxpayer, then the collector shall also notify the department of elderly affairs by registered and certified mail as described herein. Failure to notify the department of elderly affairs shall nullify any tax sale.
From the information available online, sometime between introduction and approval at the committee level, this legislation was amended to remove the mandatory notification provision. In the final version of the tax-lien bill passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, section 44.9.10(d) was left untouched.

The House Committee involved was Finance. The Senate committee involved was Judiciary. Shall we put it upon the Committee Chairmen -- Steven Costantino in the House and Michael McCaffrey in the Senate -- to explain why they thought removing the mandatory notification provision was a good idea? Or would another legislator like to come forward and take the blame?

December 6, 2005

Voter Initiative Update

Carroll Andrew Morse

The RI Voter Initiative Alliance has collected about 60% of their goal of 20,000 signatures in support of bringing voter initiative to Rhode Island. Voter initiative allows citizens to propose, amend and repeal laws by gathering signatures and placing issues directly on the ballot. If you haven't already, you can sign the petition online here.

The petition is just the tip of the voter initiative iceberg. Heres a brief outline of the entire process of bringing VI to RI...

Move: Voter initiative supporters will present the petition at the same time voter initiative legislation is formally introduced to the RI General Assembly in January.

Countermove: The General Assembly leadership will try to kill voter initiative as early as possible, in the Judiciary committee, with as little deliberation as possible, and without a vote. The new Judiciary Chairman Robert Donald Lally has already expressed opposition to voter initiative because "it does an end run around representative democracy as he thinks it should work".

Move: Voter initiative legislation will be introduced in 2 parts. The first part (here's a link to last year's version) authorizes the constitutional changes necessary to allow voter initiative. If that bill makes it out of committee and is approved by the whole legislature, then the proposed constitutional changes will have to be approved by a majority of voters in a referendum held during the November 2006 general election. The second part of the legislation actually implements voter initiative, assuming that the constitutional changes pass.

Countermove: If they can't kill it in committee, be wary of the RI legislature passing the constitutional changes necessary for voter initiative, but dragging their heels on fully implementing it.

Thanks to Bev Clay from Operation Clean Government for answering my questions on the legislative steps associated with VI.

November 4, 2005

Congress Begins Eminent Domain Reform

Carroll Andrew Morse

If West Warwick, or the local governments with jurisdiction over Rhode Islands other two Municipal Economic Development Zones in Woonsocket and Central Falls, or any city or town in Rhode Island plan to use eminent domain to increase their tax base, they may soon have a new factor to consider.

Yesterday, the United States House of Representatives passed the Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2005 by an overwhelming 376-38 margin. The act outright forbids Federal use of eminent domain for economic development. It then goes on to limit Federal funding to states, cities, or towns that use eminent domain for economic development...

(a) In General- No State or political subdivision of a State shall exercise its power of eminent domain, or allow the exercise of such power by any person or entity to which such power has been delegated, over property to be used for economic development or over property that is subsequently used for economic development, if that State or political subdivision receives Federal economic development funds during any fiscal year in which it does so.

For the purposes of the law, economic development is defined as

(1) ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT- The term `economic development' means taking private property, without the consent of the owner, and conveying or leasing such property from one private person or entity to another private person or entity for commercial enterprise carried on for profit, or to increase tax revenue, tax base, employment, or general economic health
Warning: the act then goes on to list a bunch of exceptions to the above.

Congressman James Langevin and Congressman Patrick Kennedy both voted in favor of prohibiting the use of eminent domain for economic development. The bill still needs to be passed by the Senate (where Senator John Cornyn has introduced similar legislation) and signed by the President to become law.

However, rather than relying on the threat of Federal defunding for private property protection, the people of Rhode Island should demand that their state government also pass state-level eminent domain reform. All the legislature needs to do is pass a bill similar to House bill 5242 (which was killed in last years session). Or perhaps the people of Rhode Island need to pass eminent domain reform themselves through voter initiative.

Finally, each of Rhode Island's cities and towns should pass local versions of eminent domain reform. The strong version of eminent domain protection proposed by Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey can serve as a model. West Warwick might be the ideal place to start the ball rolling.

October 26, 2005

The Lieutenant Governorship and Voter Initiative

Carroll Andrew Morse

I think voter initiative is a good idea. The usual objection -- that voter initiative gives undue influence to money in politics -- is not any more relevant to voter initiative than it is to the rest of the political process.

However, I also believe that it is a mistake to view political reform purely in terms of procedural reform. Procedural reform, by itself, does not create sound policy. Unless there is strong, honest political leadership, procedures, by themselves, will not guarantee that the government process is used for the benefit of the people. Fortunately, the current election cycle provides the people of Rhode Island with a chance to implement better lawmaking procedures AND to elect a leader who is willing to use those procedures for the public good.

Here is the synergy: Rhode Islands voter initiative movement should also back a candidate for lieutenant governor who declares his or her willingness to take on the role of the peoples legislator.

Now wait a second, you may be asking yourself; hasnt this website posted volumes on the subject of the worthlessness of Rhode Islands lieutenant governorship? That is true. And that is the beauty of the situation! Since the job doesnt have very many well-defined duties, the lieutenant governor is free to define the position largely as he or she wants.

1) Whether or not voter initiative passes next fall, the LG could set up a process to help citizens introduce bills at the state house. The LG would take the ideas that people have, use the resources of the office to research the technical and legal aspects of bills, and help find a legislative sponsor for citizen-created bills.
2) The LG could set up a transparent system for tracking bills. Because the LG is not beholden to the legislative leadership, he or she would be free to be honest about what the legislature is trying to kill without allowing a vote.

Finally, as an added bonus, running for LG as the peoples legislator will provide a stark contrast with LG candidate Elizabeth Roberts, who has already stated that she believes that minimal citizen involvement in lawmaking is something to be desired.

And Sen. Elizabeth Roberts, likely Democratic lieutenant governor nominee, has "grave" concerns [about voter initiative]. "Issues are decided in somewhat of a policy vacuum," she says, with voters apt to make decisions without considering all the ramifications.

October 17, 2005

The State of Eminent Domain in Rhode Island

Carroll Andrew Morse

Youve probably heard of Kelo v. City of New London. This is the eminent domain case where the Supreme Court ruled that a city government can force you out of your home and sell it to someone else -- if the someone else claims that they can increase the tax-revenue generated by the property.

Note the title of the case. Its Kelo v. City of New London, not Kelo v. State of Connecticut. If a local government can take property, a local government can restrict itself from taking property, right?

Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey thinks so. This past summer, Mayor Laffey introduced a resolution to the city council prohibiting the City of Cranston from engaging in any Kelo-like property seizures. Here is the active part of the resolution

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the City shall not exercise its power of eminent domain upon private residential property and transfer it to a private developer for the purpose of improving tax revenue or expanding the tax base or for the purpose of economic development.

NOW, BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Mayor and City Council urge that the General Assembly enact legislation that the cities and towns of Rhode Island cannot exercise the power of eminent domain upon private residential property and transfer it to a private developer for the purpose of improving tax revenue or expanding the tax base or for the purpose of economic development.

The Cranston City Council was not 100% sure that Mayor Laffey's resolution was a good idea. Several councilmen thought that eminent domain policy was a state matter, not a local one. And, when addressing the state level, the council weakened the Mayor's proposal. They changed enact legislation to form a study commission and/or enact legislation. According to the minutes of Julys meeting of the Cranston City Council
Council Vice-President McFarland stated that she does not support this Resolution for a number of reasons. One being, Representative Charlene Lima for the past two years has tried to pass this type of legislation.

Councilman Livingston stated that he feels there should be a study commission on the State level.

Councilman Lanni stated that this Resolution is a good idea, but it should be done at the State level and this issue needs further study.

On motion by Councilman Fung, seconded by Council Member Fogarty, it was voted to amend this Resolution as follows: last paragraph, second line, after the words General Assembly, add form a study commission and/or.

The Cranston City Council should clarify exactly what they believe needs study. Are there circumstances where they think eminent domain seizures for the purpose of increasing tax revenue are justified? And what are Councilman McFarlands other reasons for opposing this measure, beyond saying that somebody else should do it for her?

The City Council minutes add one other interesting tidbit

In March of this year, Representative Mumford asked for a study for eminent domain and Representative Lima recently introduced another legislation regarding this. There are three legislations currently pending that have not made it through the House of Representative.
If the House of Representatives wont pass a law banning seizure of peoples homes for the purposes of increasing tax revenue, we may have found another reason why the citizens of Rhode Island need voter initiative as an alternative way to pass laws that are in their own best interests.

Continue reading "The State of Eminent Domain in Rhode Island"

October 6, 2005

Voter Initiative: Some Basic Theory

Carroll Andrew Morse

Charles Bakst comes firmly out against voter initiative in todays Projo. He quotes Charles Fogarty, Elizabeth Roberts, and Sheldon Whitehouse as also opposed. (Is anyone surprised that Sheldon Whitehouse believes that lawmaking is solely the province of the elite?) All of the arguments expressed in the article are, in a very old sense, philosophically conservative, as are most arguments against voter initiative.

The basic argument against voter intiative is that we already had a set of institutions and procedures for making laws. They may not be perfect, but any attempt to create any new institutions and procedures might make things worse, so we should just stick with the system we already have. That is the original conservative argument, exactly the argument that was made against the whole idea of representative government; sure the king gets things wrong sometimes, but an elected parliament might get things even more wrong, so lets stick with the system we already have.

Bakst offers this alternative to the supporters of voter initiative

Former Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders, who chairs the coalition helping Carcieri and Cote, says, "We need voter initiative and referendum as a safeguard to allow the people to be heard when the normal processes of legislative and executive actions don't work."

I say: Make them work, by making your case better or by electing better officials.

Baksts challenge is not entirely unreasonable, but there is a problem -- a problem that no state legislature, nor the United States Congress has been able to solve.

Legislative leaders are quite adept at using procedural tricks to kill bills without forcing their party to express a position. A bill gets referred to a committee (chaired by a legislator who was chosen for his or her loyalty to the leadership) and then it vanishes. No vote on the bill is ever recorded. This is what happened to separation of powers in Rhode Island for several years running it was sent to committee and never came back, so that it could be killed without anyone having to openly oppose it.

This leads to a reasonable question for the opponents of voter initiative: if you dont believe the people can make good decisions on laws when the text is directly in front of them, how do you expect them to make good decisions about their legislators when the information is incomplete due to parliamentary chicanery? Or do you think its always sufficient to run government on the George W. Bush/Harriet Miers trust me, Im the leader model?

September 30, 2005

An Experiment in Voter Initiative, Introduction part II

Carroll Andrew Morse

However, I want to kick off the discussion on voter initiative from a non-theoretical direction. I am going to propose a change in the law. At the end of its recent teachers contract negotiations, the Cranston School committee gave very short public notice before voting on the new contract and apparently didnt make the exact terms of the contract public before the vote. Lets build a safeguard into the law that makes contract approval procedures more reasonably transparent

Heres a draft of the change

Amend section 16-2-9 (18) of Rhode Islands general laws to add the following:

No school committee shall hold a binding vote on approval of a contract of any kind until at least seven (7) days after the exact text of the contract has been made available to the public. The town clerk shall be responsible for certifying the date and time when the exact text of the contract was made public.

Initial questions: Is the idea behind this change a good one. If so, does the proposed text implement the change properly?

If we decide that this is a reasonable good-government idea, lets see how responsive the legislature is to making the change on their own. If they do implement something like this in response to public deliberations, maybe there is no need for voter initiative. But if a simple and reasonable change like this cant make it to the floor, then RI does need voter initiative.

An Experiment in Voter Initiative, Introduction part I

Carroll Andrew Morse

Ironically, Rhode Island is one of the least progressive states in the nation, at least in terms of its direct democratic procedures. Rhode Island lacks either voter initiative, where laws can be passed by a direct vote of the people, or voter recall, where voters can recall public officials they are dissatisfied with. State Senator Marc Cote is the legislative leader of a drive to implement voter initiative in Rhode Island, a drive actively supported by Governor Don Carcieri.

The coming year will see many theoretical arguments for an against voter initiative. The initial argument against is that voter initiative is too easily manipulated by big money special interests. So far, this argument is unconvincing. Those making this argument have yet to explain how decisions made by hundreds of thousands voting by secret ballot are more susceptible to manipulation than are votes made by a few hundred who can be punished (losing committee assignments, losing committee chairmanships, etc.) for making the wrong decision.

I know that many conservatives oppose recall on principle. I am not sure if there is a conservative position on initiative. Over the coming months, we will find out