NEW: Campaign Launched Against RI Constitutional Convention
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
“A Constitutional Convention is a significant threat to our civil rights,” stated coalition spokesman Pablo Rodriguez, who is also President of Latino Public Radio. “Across the country, issues like affirmative action, reproductive rights, gay rights, worker rights, senior citizen rights, and immigrant rights, have become fodder for expensive statewide campaigns mounted by well-funded, out-of-state special interests.”
George Nee, President of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, said, “We cannot let wealthy individuals and corporations buy our Constitution. A Constitutional Convention, for all intents and purposes, puts our Constitution up for sale. In states across the country with voter initiative, deep-pocketed special interest groups and wealthy individuals are distorting issues and hijacking local campaigns. Rhode Island does not need a constitutional convention to change our governance. Constitutional changes may be done, and have been done in the past, by questions placed on the ballot by the General Assembly. A Constitutional Convention is expensive, and our money can be better spent elsewhere.”
The coalition also announced the launch of their website, which is www.RICFRG.org.
Coalition members include RI ACLU, RI AFL-CIO, RI Alliance for Retired Americans, AFSCME, Central Falls Teachers Union, RI Commission for Human Rights, RI Commission on Occupational Safety and Health, RI Economic Progress Institute, Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, Fuerza Laboral, Humanists of RI, IATSE Local 23, Jobs With Justice, National Association of Letter Carriers, National Council of Jewish Women RI, Providence Central Labor Council, Providence NAACP, Planned Parenthood Southern New England, RI National Association of Social Workers, RI NOW, RI Pride, RI Progressive Democrats, Secular Coalition for Rhode Island, UAW Local 7770, USW Local 16031, UWUA Local 310, UFCW Local 328, UNITE HERE, United Nurses and Allied Professionals, Warwick Teachers Union Local 915, and the Women’s Health and Education Fund.
Paula Hodges, Director of Planned Parenthood Southern New England, stated, “Women should be very concerned about a Constitutional Convention because ballot measures have been used disproportionately across the country to impact and restrict reproductive rights. The 1986 Constitutional Convention in Rhode Island quickly spiraled from ‘good government’ to abortion politics. This is not the way to debate and decide these issues.”
Jen Stevens, of Rhode Island PRIDE, stated, “One year after winning equal marriage rights through our state legislature we remember our long struggle and recognize that the same groups and individuals who opposed gay rights, and funded our opposition, will wish to play a role in a constitutional convention. Every Rhode Islander should be concerned about attempts by these same organizations to leverage a Constitutional Convention in order to roll back or stifle LGBTQ and other minority rights. A Constitutional Convention cannot provide a better alternative to our current state legislature's ability to ensure LGBTQ rights. We are gravely concerned that those who would be elected in a small turn-out, special election will not reflect the wishes or diversity of the LGBTQ community. That is why Rhode Island Pride stands in solidarity with this coalition.”
Rodriguez stated, “While our opponents claim a constitutional convention could improve our governmental structure, we believe this is a red herring that will certainly serve as a vehicle for socially divisive amendments. Passage of a constitutional convention will lead to disastrous results for Rhode Islanders.”
Related Slideshow: The Ten Biggest Issues Facing the RI General Assembly in 2014
The latest report by the House Finance Committee illustrates that Rhode Island will start the next fiscal year, which starts in July 2014, with an estimated deficit of $149 million. The report shows the FY 2014 Budget contains numerous overspending problems—meaning that the General Assembly will have to cut costs somewhere.
So where will the cuts come from? Lawmakers will have to examine the state's costliest programs. According to the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, the most expensive government programs in Rhode Island are Elementary and Secondary Education, Public Welfare, Pensions, Higher Education, and Interest on Debt. Click here to view a comprehensive list of the state's costliest government programs.
The state may be two years removed from Central Falls filing for bankruptcy, but 2014 could be the year that other financially strapped Rhode Island communities follow suit—most notably Woonsocket and West Warwick.
With bankruptcy on the table in both 2012 and 2013, this year poses more financial uncertainty for the cash-strapped city of Woonsocket. Earlier this year, the city's bond rating was downgraded due to the city's numerous financial issues—including a growing deficit, increasing unfunded pension liability, and a severe cash crunch.
Similarly, the embattled town of West Warwick faces a variety of financial questions in 2014. With its pension fund set to run out by 2017, the town must address its unfunded liabilities this year if it hopes to regain financial stability. That, coupled with an increasing school department deficit, make West Warwick a contender for bankruptcy.
Look for Woonsocket and West Warwick's elected state officials to address their respective cities' financial issues in the upcoming legislative session.
With the Special Joint Legislative Commission to Study the Sales Tax Repeal set to report their findings to the General Assembly in February, the possibility of sales tax repeal in Rhode Island could become a reality in 2014.
"Our sales tax is killing small businesses, especially those in border communities," said Rep. Jan P. Malik (D-Dist. 67, Barrington, Warren), the commission's chair. "How can Rhode Island continue to compete at 7 percent, with Massachusetts already lower than us and considering reducing its sales tax even farther? How can Rhode Island restaurants compete at 8 percent? They can’t. We need to find a way to fix this, and a serious discussion of our sales tax is a discussion we need to have, now, before more small stores close their doors."
In addition to Malik, proponents of sales tax elimination include the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity and Forbes Magazine.
EDC Reorganization to Commerce Corporation
On January 1, 2014, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation will be replaced with the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation—a move which has the potential to impact to adversely affect recipients of federal funding contracts made possible currently through the EDC.
This could include the state's Broadband Initiative, Brownfields program, and other contracts made through the EDC. As a result, recipients will now be required to re-apply for federal funding as of January 1st.
The massive overhaul of the EDC was prompted by the 38 Studios debacle, which is projected to cost Rhode Island taxpayers $102 million. 38 Studios, the now defunct video game company, filed bankruptcy in May 2012 just months after securing a $75 million loan from the EDC.
With the state's marijuana decriminalization law going into effect this past April, Rhode Island may be a candidate for marijuana legalization in 2014.
Legislation to legalize marijuana has been introduced in each of the last three years, but has never been voted on. Earlier this year, Rep. Edith Ajello (D-Dist. 3, Providence), who is chair of the Judiciary Committee, introduced the bill in the House. Roughly half of the Judiciary Committee supports the measure.
The bill also has the support of the Marijuana Policy Project, an organization focusing on drug policy reform, which hopes to legalize marijuana in ten states, including Rhode Island.
Approximately 52 percent of Rhode Island voters support legalizing marijuana for recreational use, according to a Public Policy Polling survey conducted in January.
Marijuana is currently legal in Colorado and Washington.
Come November 2014, Rhode Island voters will likely be asked whether they wish to convene a constitutional convention, which involves individuals gathering for the purpose of writing a new constitution or revising the existing one.
Every 10 years, Rhode Island voters are asked whether they wish to amend or revise the constitution. Voters rejected this opportunity in 1994 and 2004. Although rare, Rhode Islanders can vote to hold a constitutional convention and in effect, take control over the state government.
If approved, a special election is held to elect 75 delegates, who then convene to propose amendments to the Rhode Island Constitution. These amendments are then voted on in the next general election.
The likelihood of this occurring highly depends on if the General Assembly does its job to ensure residents that the state is heading in the right direction financially and structurally.
Rhode Island’s last constitutional convention took place in 1986. It proposed 14 amendments—eight of which were adopted by voters.
Education Board Structure
Less than a year after the General Assembly created the 11-member Rhode Island Board of Education to replace the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education and the Board of Governors for Higher Education, there are multiple questions surrounding the structure of this newly consolidated agency.
Although lawmakers voted to merge the state's two education boards in June, the Board of Education now wants to split its agency to create two separate councils—one with the statutory authority over kindergarten to grade 12 and another governing higher education.
The Board of Education will present its proposal to the General Assembly during its next legislative session and lawmakers will once again determine how the agency should be structured.
The Board of Education currently governs all public education in Rhode Island.
Sakonnet Bridge Tolls
Rhode Island may have implemented tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge this past year, but they could be gone by 2014.
On January 15, the East Bay Bridge Commission—which was established to allow lawmakers and officials investigate various funding plans, potentially eliminating the need for tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge—will report its findings to the General Assembly. The General Assembly is then required to vote on the issue by April 1.
The commission was established in July following the General Assembly's approval of the 10-cent toll.
Located on Westminster Street in Downtown Providence, the former Bank of America Building (commonly referred to as the Superman Building) may be the tallest building in the state, but as of right now, it's just a vacant piece of property.
The building's current owner, High Rock Westminster LLC, was most recently looking for a total of $75 million to rehabilitate the skyscraper—$39 million of which would come from the state.
With the sting of the 38 Studios deal still fresh in the minds of lawmakers, a $39 million tax credit appears unlikely.
The question of what will become of the Superman Building remains to be seen.
Championed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block (while head of the RI Moderate Party), the movement to eliminate the Master Level, which allows voters to vote for all candidates of one political party with a stroke of the pen, is poised to heat up in 2014.
Despite Block's strong push to repeal the 1939 law, the measure did not get a vote in the General Assembly last session.
In October, Block told GoLocal that he believes that House Speaker Gordon Fox is responsible for the General Assembly not voting on the proposal.
“Despite the support of a majority of 42 state Representatives, thousands of emails from concerned RI voters and unanimous testimony of more than 100 people who came to the State House in person to testify that the Master Lever had to go, the Speaker personally killed the bill in the most unaccountable way possible—he did not allow the House Judiciary Committee to vote on the bill,” Block told GoLocal.
Speaker Fox has stated on multiple occasions that he believes the Master Level is a legitimate tool that many voters use.
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