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Lame Duck Governor, Vacant Speakership: Is RI Rudderless?

Monday, March 24, 2014


Rhode Island at the crossroads - who will lead the state forward?

A lame duck Governor coupled with the Speaker of the House stepping down - is Rhode Island facing a void in leadership?

"It is going to be challenging to move forward because there are different factions and it will be hard to reconcile them after a new Speaker is chosen. It will take a while for the new leader to consolidate his power and get things done," said Darrell West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "I don't see this being a very productive session. Things will drift until the session ends."

With the resignation of Speaker of the House Gordon Fox on Saturday, who had served at the post since 2010, Democratic contenders to replace Fox have been vying to secure the backers necessary for when a vote comes before the full House.

"One can never rule out bold legislative moves with a change in leadership, but ordinarily when there are mid-term changes, the best that one can hope for is someone to steady the helm," said Valerie Endress, Professor of Communications at Rhode Island College. "At this point it's unclear whether the new speaker will serve for 3 months or for subsequent years, only adding to the uncertainty."

Endress continued, "Opportunities for legislative innovation are best orchestrated with committee chairs in place and the opportunity to build or reinforce coalitions. There's little time for that in this session. This situation is likely to be a setback for a state that can ill afford it."

New House Leadership

"Whether the new speaker will be able to set and accomplish an agenda depends a lot on how much bitterness emerge over the contest for the speakership. Coupled with personality, apparent closeness to the outgoing Speaker, and how swiftly the new speaker can make it apparent that he has an agenda--these factors will all come into play," said veteran political pollster Victor Profughi. "In short, so very much will be determined by how much the legislature suffers from the fall out associated with Fox's departure and the appears/reality of impropriety."

Last year, the 2013 General Assembly session saw landmark same-sex marriage legislation approved under the leadership of Fox.  Following last Friday's FBI and State Police raid of the Speaker's office and Fox's subequent resignation from the post, both the impending election of new leadership as well the direction of the 2014 session is uncertain.

"The change in Speaker does not change the fact that 2014 is an election year and that will mean that the General Assembly will be as efficient as possible to get the legislature's business done," said former Director of Administration Gary Sasse. "The Governor's lame-duck status does not change with the election of a new Speaker. Rhode Island's biggest deficit is a lack of effective and visionary leadership. The future direction of the State will be determined by who win the 2014 election."

What will be accomplished during the remainder of the 2014 General Assembly session?

Profughi acknowledged the situation did present opportunity, however -- especially for the Governor's role.

"Given the combination of lame duck status and very low ratings among voters, it is difficult to see how Chafee can be credible in any effort to fill the political vacuum. Given the structure of power under the current constitution, relatively weak formal powers of the governor, and the arrival of a new speaker, a focal point for action may difficult to identify and/or emerge," said Profughi.

Profughi continued, "Seems to me that the current situation sets up a strong argument for a constitutional convention that could produce a constitution that could weaken somewhat the concentration of power in the legislature and strengthen the hand of the governor, at the very least creating a public forum for debate over various reform ideas e. g. term limits for legislators, the line item veto, legislative districting, etc."

Potential for Economic Development?

While Rhode Island's unemployment dipped to 9% in February - down two-tenths of a percentage point from January, and down 0.5 percent from February 2013 -- the Rhode Island still ranks at the top of states with the highest unemployment. The national average for February was 6.7%.

"In many respects, the timing couldn't be worse. We don't know how far or how deep this investigation will go. Although a new House speaker will be elected shortly, the investigation will be a distraction at a time in which effective leadership is especially needed for this state," said Endress. "Even the succession battle is likely to create new divisions in the House and hamper the legislative process."

Endress continued, "Given that we have a lame-duck governor and an election around the corner, whomever is elected will need to take the training wheels off very quickly and have a laser-like focus on the legislative agendas in process, the usual end-of session flood of bills, not to mention the lingering issues of pension reform, tax reform, and unemployment. This is truly "trial under fire" for the new speaker, often viewed as the most powerful perch in the state."

"The controversial legislative issues are well known. They include the tolls, 38 Studios, pension settlement and the budget. A new Speaker should take a fresh look at the options and not be wed to the previous Speaker's position. I do not know if that will happen," said Sasse. "The major differences may be over how the Speaker deals with the members and his style of getting information, managing debate, setting priorities and staffing." 


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