Harriet Lloyd: A Bloated Legislature Isn’t Healthy for RI

Thursday, August 09, 2012


There ought to be advantages to being the smallest state. Amid recent reports that Rhode Island has failed miserably to compete nationally in nearly every important measurable category, isn’t it ironic that the tiniest state isn’t more nimble, lean and efficient?

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In Rhode Island, governmental power rests in the General Assembly, so it seems likely that the state’s ill health begins there. The size of the state Legislature, in proportion to the population it serves and when compared to other states, shows that Rhode Island has a bloated legislative body that needs slimming down. Do we really need 113 legislators - 75 in the House of Representatives and 39 in the Senate?

Nine cities in the United States have populations larger than Rhode Island’s 1,052,567. The largest is New York City with 8.175,338 citizens; Chicago, with 2,996,016 inhabitants, is the third largest. Each has City Councils of 51 and 50 members, respectively. The second largest city, Los Angeles, has a Council of only 15 members. The remaining six major cities govern with Councils ranging in size from 9 to 15 members.

Of the 50 states, Rhode Island ranks 43rd in population. The legislatures of the next ten more populous states range in size from 49 members in Nebraska to 424 in New Hampshire. Both are unusual in that Nebraska is the only State with a unicameral (one house) legislature, and New Hampshire still operates under a system developed in colonial days allowing every city, town, village or other governmental entity representation in the Legislature. Among the remaining eight states, legislative membership varies between 63 In Nevada and 186 in Maine.

Compare the ratio of legislators to the population served. Rhode Island has one legislator for every 9,523 people. Again, looking at the 10 more populous states ahead of Rhode Island, it is interesting that, excluding New Hampshire and Nebraska for the reasons above, only Maine, with a legislature of 169 members, has a lower ratio than Rhode Island, one legislator for every 8,180 residents. The ratio of the remaining seven varies from 1:13,610 (Idaho) to 1:38,330 (Nevada). The average ratio in this group of states, excluding New Hampshire, is 1:18,872. Including New Hampshire would still result in a higher ratio of 1:13,968 to that of Rhode Island’s 1: 9,5232.

There are a number of proposals to make the Rhode Island Legislature more efficient and less costly by reducing its size. One is to lower representatives from 75 to 39, one for every town and city in R.I., and to reduce the Senate from 39 to 15 members elected at-large; a total of 54 legislators. A case might also be made for a unicameral legislature for such a small state.

As RI faces its greatest fiscal challenges, Sen. Rhoda Perry admitted that Economics is not her area of expertise. Her statement supports the view of U.R.I.’s economic expert, Prof. Leonard Lardaro, that professional staffing is crucial for the development of quality legislation and is vital to legislators who must rely on others for technical information beyond their personal experience or training. Competent, capable staffing would more than compensate for downsizing by producing better legislation, identifying unnecessary and duplicative bills, and ridding the books of outdated and ineffective laws, thereby making it possible for a smaller legislature to produce a better product.

Other suggestions to streamline and strengthen the legislative process include: term limits; a cap on the number of bills a legislator may introduce; enactment of a precise schedule for when and how legislation is introduced; a schedule for how legislation is moved through the committee process; public notice of every bill voted upon at least 48 hours prior to a vote; provision that no vote is allowed on any bill not circulated to the membership at least 48 hours before a vote is taken; and, above all, no “midnight express” bill passage.

Rhode Island’s present financial, educational, social and political problems are due in large degree to a puzzling system that, over time, has discouraged citizen involvement. The result is the disarray in which Rhode Island finds itself today and acceptance by many citizens that it will always be thus. If Rhode Island is to survive, prosper and attract quality commerce, it must demonstrate that its government, particularly its legislature, is a modern, efficient and effective place in which to do the people’s business.


Harriet Lloyd is President of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition (RISC) www.statewidecoalition.com


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