Politics

Rhode Island and Reform: Still an Oxymoron?

Legislators balk at giving up power.
by | April 2005
 

Voters in Rhode Island have handed legislators a rare opportunity to open up the state's notoriously insular political culture. So far, they aren't rushing to embrace it.

November saw the passage of a ballot referendum to create a real separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches for the first time in the state's history. Up until now, legislators have been allowed not only to create but to serve on the boards and commissions that play a central role in matters ranging from bonds and waterfront construction to universities and pay rates for senior government employees.

This arrangement worked out well for legislators--except when they became excessively greedy and got caught taking bribes for granting executive largesse. It wasn't as great a deal for those interested in accountable, efficient government. "A lot of these boards and commissions have become little fiefdoms for patronage and things of that nature," says state Representative Nick Gorham.

No one is accusing current legislative leaders of corruption, but they are having a hard time adjusting to their diminished role in the new scheme of things. Knowing that the referendum was sure to pass-- the public had twice previously approved nonbinding separation-of- powers measures--the state Senate last year approved three bills that would have prepared the boards and commissions to answer to new, non- legislative masters. But the House refused to act.

Even now, months after passage of the ballot measure, House leaders still seem to be in denial. Speaker William Murphy suggested just after the election that legislators could still serve on some panels-- notably the state lottery commission, which last year handled $281 million worth of profit and is at the center of a battle over locating a big new casino in Murphy's hometown. A loud public outcry made it clear that Murphy's idea wouldn't fly. But at the lottery board's scheduled meeting in February, three state House members on the board tried to take their seats nonetheless.

Governor Don Carcieri had already tried to replace them with nominees of his own, but the Senate hasn't acted to confirm them. The legislature clearly hasn't made up its mind what it's going to do. On the opening day of this year's session, some House reformers tried to re-introduce last year's Senate bills codifying the separation of powers, but Murphy refused to grant them recognition.

Stripped of legislative members, many boards and commissions can't even make a quorum, let alone any decisions. In March, the House finally started considering bills to address some of the most prominent boards, but the restrictions legislators wanted to impose on the type of people who could be appointed to serve instantly drew a veto threat.

For the time being, Rhode Island government has taken on a Marx Brothers quality, with no one clearly in charge over much of the chaos that has ensued.

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