Removing the Master Lever Chips Away at One Party Domination

One of the most persistent negatives about Rhode Island is the fact of our being a one party state. We continue to elect Democrats to the General Assembly despite the poor results that we all have to live with.  Yes, we elect Republicans and now an Independent to the governorship as a brake, one supposes, on concentrating overweening power in the legislative branch, but the governorship in Rhode Island is a relatively weak position to begin with.  Being a one party state advances only one agenda, and sucks fresh air out of the room of public policy debate.

The last election was skewed heavily Democratic of course because of the presidential contest and reaffirmed Rhode Island as a super Blue State. Democrats at all levels and in all races were elected on the coat tails of Obama’s win. The feeble Republican minority in the legislature was further diminished.

For those of us who persist in the notion that Rhode Island can evolve to be a more representative and progressive state with a give and take that only a strengthened opposition can provide, the 2012 election was a wake up call, and one of the bells that’s ringing in our ears is tolling for an end to the master level option on the ballot.

Right after the election I decided that I would challenge Rhode Islanders – dare them really – to stand up and do two things. One is to take a fresh look at term limits as a means to finally end the perpetual legislators who get reelected no matter what they do or don’t do during their years in office, and the perpetual leaders who can preside over affairs on Smith Hill for years at a stretch. The other item on my “dare you” list is the master lever, also known as the “straight party option” (or the more colorful so called “shameful legacy of machine politics”), that Democrats are joined at the hip to and which guarantees the state’s one party government dysfunction.

So I was most encouraged when, as the new year dawned, one politician after another – plus the state Board of Elections – started to come out publicly in calling for an end to the master lever, a development that news media outlets jumped to support. It reconfirmed for me that I certainly wasn’t alone in wanting to knock this thing off, and that if enough people rallied around this cause it might just possibly get done – and maybe even this year. 

Then we witnessed the estimable Ken Block come out with a damning report on the master lever based on examining ballots from the last election in Burrillville, where his researchers discovered that folks didn’t even understand how to use the master lever, often cancelling out their all Democrat votes by making individual ballot choices further down in the ballot.  Now we can see that the lever is not just a tool of the majority party but a misunderstood and misused vote canceller to boot.

Further strengthening the end the master lever movement is the bipartisan House legislation -  H5072, an “Act relating to…the conduct of elections,” put up by Representatives Marcello, Newberry, Hearn, Hull and Giarrusso, and referred to the House Judiciary Committee where it now resides.  The legislation strikes the existing language that permits a voter to “vote for all candidates of one party” and also eliminates the language on the ballot to be able to do so.

The question of course is whether the legislation will ever see the light of day or get tabled in Judiciary. If it does, then it will be because the Democratic leadership won’t give it up, like a toy they’ve grown too fond of and which their parents (we voters) expect them to grow out of.  Not surprisingly, House Speaker Fox and Senate President Paiva Weed have either remained mum on the issue or, in the case of Fox, dismissed it as being a low priority this legislative year with all the new-found emphasis on reviving our economy and sparing us further national humiliation every time a new business poll comes out.

We should, however, expect the legislature to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. And, in fact, it can  - witness the marriage equality debate going on at the moment. 

The leadership needs to see that Rhode Islanders are focusing on seeing them do the right thing by the master lever and rescind it once and for all. To let them know how you feel, go to Ken Block’s www.masterlever.org, learn more, and sign the online petition. As this writing there are 1,880 signatures posted there – let’s all take a moment to grow that figure dramatically.

As for my Lookout effort, it may be time to dust its starter off and crank up a public campaign that no elected official can miss.


Moving the Needle is Not Enough

Moving the needle on the Rhode Island economy, as Senate President Paiva-Weed is calling for this legislative session, is a laudable if late recognition that something quick has be done to be move the state forward and at least spare us further humiliation in coming in close or dead last in state business condition surveys.

Everyone on Smith Hill recognizes this, and Governor’s Chafee’s bold budget proposal is a big first step in the right direction. Yes, the Ocean State is in desperate need of legislative action on tax policy, job creation and skills training initiatives, streamlining of cumbersome regulations and a whole lot more, but progress on all those fronts may not be enough to save Rhode Island in the end.

Being a big Rhode Island booster I do not mean to rain on the parade, but Rhode Island has such significant structural problems in terms of its governmental organizations, its unnecessary duplications of services, its parochial attitudes resisting change, and its one-party lock on power, that much more is going to be needed to save us from ourselves, and the forces competing with us, in the next decade. 

As examples of these challenges, let me cite just a few (I’m sure you could add your own): we have been losing population over the past decade and that may accelerate as the economy improves elsewhere; we are tied with Nevada at the moment for the worst unemployment in the nation (I’d place my bet on Nevada securing the 49th place in the country before Rhode island does): we have crumbling bridge structures across the state and lack sufficient money to fix them; we are facing increasing budget deficits (despite pension reform) in the years ahead - $169 million in 2015 and a whopping $469 million by 2018; we stand to lose $100 million annually in gambling revenue when the Bay State casinos open (a racino across our border will open in the next two years), and we just had an election that put a further stranglehold on legislative diversity by reducing Republicans to a pitiful handful.

What Rhode Island needs to really progress and survive is to make big changes  through a constitutional convention. Constitutional conventions allow states to change their constitution, as need be, by electing delegates to examine their major governing document and to recommend changes that are then taken up as referendum issues at the next election.

By law Rhode Island voters are required to ask themselves the question about holding a convention once every ten years. The last time the state held one was 1986 – voters were asked in 1994 and 2004 about holding one but rejected it each time.  Perhaps we don’t want to make a fuss by holding one in the same practiced fashion that we are so reluctant to vote against incumbents, even when we know they are doing us a disservice by remaining in office!

2014 is our next and perhaps, as I am suggesting, last chance to hold one and make some significant changes. Constitutional conventions are designed for taking up big issues that the legislative inertia can’t address – in our case things like term limits, municipal government consolidation and even regionalization (county-style government), a part-time or full-time legislature, strengthening the executive branch of state government, and better policing of legislators (because they are simply averse to doing that to themselves).

Thankfully, Senator Paul Fogarty of Glocester, a working man and not an attorney or special interest plant, has taken up the cause of a constitutional convention for the 2014 ballot by submitting legislation calling for a preparatory commission to discuss the occasion and the opportunity.  The legislative leadership should seize the chance and support the question on the 2014 ballot, and Rhode lslanders should support it when they vote. If we don’t, it will mean we don’t really want to face the kind of change we so need. Moving the needle is important, don’t get me wrong, but we have a mountain to move to get to a better future for all of us.  


Two Short Columns

Two short columns for February.

Turn Off the Lights on the Way Out
The Ocean State’s loss of population during the past decade, based on reported estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, is another negative reflection of the state’s poor economy and the lack of job opportunities here. During that period the state lost around 24,000 people, representing not just people leaving but their spending and taxable dollars too.  Many of the departures were young folks seeking better opportunities elsewhere. The 24,000 figure also includes retirees (some of them, of course, public sector retirees carrying their pensions with them) making the great Route 95 South migration to the Sunshine State.

Population loss in Rhode Island slowed during the recession years starting in 2007 because few states (other than North Dakota and Montana) were offering much in the way of job opportunities or public assistance programs as generous as Rhode Island’s, so complete was the recession across the nation. As the economy recovers, however, other areas of the country will become attractive once again as destinations for those willing to relocate, and then we could see an uptick in population migration as Rhode Island remains stuck in its economic doldrums.

Losing our young people to other states is a serious threat to our future. It could even impact our representation in Congress. Imagine Rhode Island losing a Congressional seat because of its declining population. Is there anything that spells out trouble in a more dramatic way than that? Perpetual dismal national rankings and now census data on population loss should be wake-up calls to our politicians that there is no greater or more urgent priority than to do what it takes to reform the state’s economy, which brings us to the next column.

Change is Hard to Come By in RI
With the start of the new year our political leaders are in chorus about the need to help our economy get moving again. It’s the top item on just about everyone’s agenda for the new legislative session. But that doesn’t mean that much will actually be accomplished to get the wheels turning. Are business regulations and taxes still a  hindrance?  Of course they are, despite acknowledgement of these problems for a long time now. Not much changes. Should such a small state regionalize for greater efficiencies and cost savings? Yes, but have you seen much of that actually happen?

The state suffered a serious blow in the 38 Studios fiasco, one that called into question the very structure and priorities of the EDC. Studies and recommendations for reform emerged from a number of sides, but where are we today on taking up any of the ideas to restructure the EDC?  Pretty much where we were before, with Governor Chafee not in any great hurry to make real changes. He’s even elevated an EDC career bureaucrat to head the agency, hardly the kind of shakeup that many people were expecting. Hopefully, the leadership in the General Assembly won’t let that be the last word on that subject.

And then there’s the pension reform court battle, just a little more than a year after passage of the historic legislation that was seen as the one thing that our small state could hang it’s hat on. Court ordered mediation demonstrates the power of the public employee unions and their hold on the branches of government. It’s been said before that there could come a time when the only people remaining in Rhode Island will be those who just can’t move away and the public employee unions.

The clock is ticking down on Rhode Island’s future. There’s still time to wind it up again but only if we act decisively – and without any more delay.