In November, Rhode Island voters will have the chance to profoundly reshape their state's government. They are expected to approve a constitutional amendment that will block legislators from serving on state boards and commissions.
Rhode Island has about 70 executive branch boards and commissions with authority over everything from universities and sewer systems to water and pensions. Since colonial times, legislators have taken a leading role in these functions--a lack of separation of powers that has led to numerous conflicts of interest and was a root cause of the state's notoriously lax ethical culture.
A majority of members of the state's ethics commission had to recuse themselves from investigating a recent scandal involving a state House Speaker because of their close ties to him. He fell from power anyway and his downfall, along with a pair of state Supreme Court decisions, finally pushed the legislature to act, placing a constitutional amendment before voters this fall. Since voters easily approved nonbinding resolutions in both 2000 and 2002, they are expected to embrace the amendment.
"The amendment basically ends the ability of legislators to appoint other legislators to serve on boards that execute state law," says Phil West, of the state branch of Common Cause. "We're really reversing legislative domination of the state government."