Senate Needs to Act on Master Lever Issue

Every now and then long-suffering Rhode Islanders can smile and say “Way to go!” at an action taken by our legislature. I’m referring to past actions such as  simplifying the tax code, passage of pension reform, and approval of same sex marriage as examples. Because such actions by the legislature don’t happen that often, it’s even sweeter when they occasionally do.

Such is the case with the swift and stunning House actions to not only vote the long imprisoned master level bill out of committee but then to bring it to a full vote, where it passed unanimously.

Rhode Islanders have been complaining and agitating about the master lever for years now, but to no avail. It’s come to personify our elected leaders’ intransigence and unwillingness to listen to public opinion. As a result, the master lever is but one more symbol of why Rhode Island doesn’t work: politicians of the dominant party and their special interests own the playing field and they are not going to let go. For years the master lever benefited Republicans; for a long time now it’s been a tool of the Democrats.

Last year the anti-master lever movement finally found its voice, yet once again the bills to abolish this relic of machine politics never saw the light of day in either chamber. As an employer and concerned public citizen who spent his own money to rouse Rhode Islanders and address the Democrat legislative leadership on this issue in 2013, it was dispiriting to see the total lack of reaction.

Despite my efforts and Ken Block’s website that garnered over 5,000 petition signatures, it was like confronting a brick wall. But Ken and I, along with the state’s major paper and good government organizations, obviously did make an impression and gave hope to our fellow citizens that the fight had to continue.

With the issue revitalized, a fresh leadership change in the House suddenly and unexpectedly broke the chains that had been placed on the call to abolish the master lever. Now the issue moves to the Senate where the Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 last month to hold it for further study, which is tantamount to killing it once again. Now all focus is on the Senate to see if the House’s passage of its version of the bill will change the dynamic. Now that the issue is finally in motion, it certainly should. It does not require any further study. The Senate Judiciary Committee should revisit the master lever bill and let it be voted out of committee. Once that is accomplished a swift vote by the Senate should follow.

One thing that recent debate on the master lever has forced some Democrats to reveal is why they have so steadfastly preferred to ignore the will of the people by clinging to the straight party vote: former state Senator Joanne Giannini (who now supports abolishment) liked the option when she was in office because she “liked when people voted straight Democrat.” Of course she did, they were voting for her.

State Senator Howard Metts has written that the master lever is of assistance to people in a hurry on election day. And State Senator Donna Nesselbush, who voted to hold the master lever bill for further study and then tried to explain that she was actually in favor of getting rid of it, let the cat out of the bag by confessing that almost half her total votes came from use of the master lever. In fact, more than 23 percent of total voters used it in 2012 with the vast majority of them voting straight Democrat. That’s nearly one-quarter of all voters!

The only thing worse than not voting at all, is voting the straight party option. It’s long past time to level the elections playing field and acknowledge that voters in this state can – and should – be called upon every two years to weigh each candidate individually and take the time to vote their way through the ballot, and not just make a line on the ballot to elect all candidates from a single party.

House Speaker Mattiello is of the opinion, even while voting to abolish the master lever, that doing away with it is a largely symbolic act. Opponents of the master lever beg to differ, for not being able to rely on the lever option could make the difference in some contests. People considering to run as Republicans would take heart in knowing that their opponent – usually an incumbent – could no longer rely on the lever to coast to reelection, and thereby decide to get in the race and run. And fewer votes would be wasted by voters selecting the straight party option, and then invalidating their ballot by making contrary selections.

The master lever has been an impediment to fair elections for way too long in this state, and in service to Democrats it has stoked a sense of arrogance in them as they went about ignoring the will of the people. Now, in an election year no less, the Democrats in the House have demonstrated that they are listening. Now it is time for Senate Democrats to show us they also care about what the public wants.



Potholes Reflect State's Poor Image

Every Rhode Islander rightly hates potholes because every Rhode Islander has banged through so many of them. As we all know, they’re everywhere this time of year, and to make matters worse, a lot of them reopen after being “fixed” by road crews. But no one in the Ocean State hates them more than Karl Wadensten. To Karl, they represent more than just holes in the road. To the owner of VIBCO in Wyoming, Rhode Island, they are a symbol of this state’s failings, and a reflection of our own cynicism about our state. It’s as if we console ourselves with the thought, Of course we have potholes and terrible roads and bridges – this is Rhode Island. 

Karl, however, is not a resigned Rhode Islander. On the contrary, he loves his state and wants to see it succeed. He abhors our passivity and tolerance of things the way they are. If you haven’t yet heard of Karl Wadensten, he’s the only board member of the former RI Economic Development Corporation to have sized up 38 Studios for the risky venture it was and to have voted against it.

Karl’s refusal to go along with the rush to throw money at 38 Studios made him an instant white knight to all Rhode Islanders who care about honesty and accountability in our government.  He still serves on the board of the newly formed RI Commerce Commission, guarding the taxpayers’ interest against another pie-in-the-sky insider deal (don’t think it can’t happen again).

He also has a solution to the pothole problem that he wants every city and town in the state to take advantage of. Karl’s company is a manufacturer of industrial vibration equipment. His 100 employees produce equipment that vibrates everything from concrete to chocolate.

VIBCO manufactures a pothole patch roller that he is offering free to every Ocean State community’s public works department to help fix its potholes. And not just temporarily, as happens using the traditional “throw and go” method, which often results in the pothole opening up again – sometimes in the same season – but to stay fixed for years. While using a VIBCO Pothole Patcher takes a road crew a bit longer to repair than the conventional method, it costs less. A VIBCO patched pothole stays patched.

To date less than half of Rhode Island communities have taken up Karl’s offer,   but the company keeps plugging away in its zeal to fix the state’s pothole problem and demonstrate pride of place. If a community accepts one of VIBCO’s rollers it can expect a request to have the mayor or town manager come out and watch the pothole roller in action; Republican gubernatorial candidate Mayor Allan Fung actually worked the machine on a Cranston street as Karl stood by. With the job completed, the crew and the mayor chanted, “Rhode Island No 1. Rhode Island No. 1!”

Karl outspokenness and enthusiasm for fixing Rhode Island has naturally led people to ask him to run for governor. Recently, he said no. I get asked this question too. Voters tired of professional politicians see successful, activist business leaders as outside change agents for good. If they have a long enough memory they remember Bruce Sundlun, who turned out to be a very good governor. CEOs know how to get thing done, but that doesn’t mean that they also have good political instincts, which is why so few throw their hat – and every shed of privacy along with it – into the ring. Besides, we have companies to run.

Politics is not business, as much as some of us on the private sector side of the equation would sometimes like to see government be run like a business. The two are different realms of thought, action and responsibilities. But business leaders are vital to the political process because they have a lot of skin in the game. Businesses large and small all want the same things: clean and accountable government, with less unnecessary government interference, and more focus on trying to do things differently once in a while, rather than filling potholes with a public sector indifference as to how long they will stay that way. 


Pay Attention to Ken Block

Ken Block has a plan to “fix” Rhode Island. The software engineer, entrepreneur and political maverick held a press conference last week at Taco to roll out his ideas to the media. Calling himself an outside “fix it” agent for change, he outlined a serious of concrete steps to lower the cost of government, make the Ocean State more competitive, and return money to every Rhode Islander. It was an impressive presentation and it challenges his opponents in the governor’s race to be as specific in their own behalf. (Block says, being traditional establishment politicians, they lack such detailed plans.)

Better on his feet responding to a peppering of questions than in his opening remarks, it also became clear that Ken Block is a going to be a formidable debater. The guy’s very smart; asked about whether he would support a call in a constitutional convention for county style government for Rhode Island, he said he would prefer to focus on less sweeping but more realistic changes like reforming the crazy patchwork of fire districts and then proceeded to demonstrate how much he knew on that arcane subject.

He is proposing to decrease the car tax, reduce the corporate tax, eliminate the annual minimum corporate tax of $500 for new businesses in the first two years of operations, reform the estate tax by increasing the tax exemption threshold, and improve the capital gains tax exemption by exempting any capital gains realized on new investments in RI-based businesses.

He proposes cutting the costs of the state’s wasteful TDI program by half, saving $80 million annually, and reforming the deficit-ridden unemployment insurance system by refining the definition of seasonal employment. He claims we can save money and improve efficiencies at the DMV by simply eliminating old-style employee paper time cards. He even wants to experiment with lowering the sales tax by creating a reduced sales tax zone in a border community.

Block supports holding a constitutional convention, which voters will be voting to authorize or not come November, as a means to rebuild fairness and trust in government. Specifically, he wants to enhance the chief executive’s power through the grant of a line-item veto. He wants to re-empower a weakened Ethics Commission and abolish the master lever, which he and I advocated last year, as did many others, to no avail.

The backdrop to Ken Block’s agenda, and the reason for his urgency, is of course the woeful state of the state. He describes Rhode Island as a state “slowly going out of business” and more pointedly – are you ready? – the “national hall of shame” because of the scandals and mismanagement that’s gone on. Whether Rhode Islanders, who can’t help themselves when it comes to reelecting the same politicians who have so ill-served them in the past, accepts his bluntness will be tested in the campaign ahead. He could get labeled as the negative, half-empty candidate. 

But I think he’s right and we need to heed his call for bold actions. This state is a like a plane that is gradually losing altitude and our leaders are not alarmed by the alerts going off; the governor says things are getting better every day and the House Speaker says the agenda on Smith Hill is to keep things steady as they go. Block mentioned Detroit in his opening remarks; it’s not inconceivable that Rhode Island could land in the same situation when we start losing $100 million or more a year to Massachusetts’s casinos and a nearby Plainridge slot parlor, on top of everything else that’s dragging us down. 

I was not endorsing Ken Block by providing him space in my building to present his plan nor I am endorsing him in this column. But I do think he’s a very substantive candidate who voters need to get acquainted with and take seriously. We could use a governor with entrepreneurial ideas and experience. We could use a governor who is not willing accept the status quo as our options dwindle in front of us.

Back in 2002 I hosted a gubernatorial debate at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick with all the candidates (a race that Don Carcieri eventually won), so I have a record of providing a forum for the presentation of candidates’ ideas. Before Ken Block presented his proposals at Taco, Allan Fung announced his candidacy in the same room. Likewise, if any of other candidates would like to use our space to present their ideas on how to save Rhode Island we’d be happy to host them as well. In the interest of informing the public about the most important issues facing the state, I’m an equal opportunity promoter. 

To see a full presentation of Ken Block’s Let’s Fix RI plan, go to www.kenblockforgovernor.com.