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Roach: When the Assembly Doesn’t Listen, Rhode Islanders Must Act

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


It’s time to test a theory. The theory I’m testing is this – Rhode Islanders give a rat’s behind about what their legislators pass and/or kill at the State House. If you’re reading this, you’re already a part of this experiment whether you continue reading or not or whether you take the action I am going to ask you to take. Either way, we will both soon have a very good understanding if Rhode Islanders care.

If I was a betting man, given what I said last week, I’d bet that there isn’t enough concern amongst Rhode Islanders to do something, but I’m feeling optimistic this week for some reason. Maybe it was the nice weather over the weekend. Maybe I’m just a fool believing that change will come someday. Or maybe after I present my case to you, you will be as disgusted as I am and take action. I’m hoping that’s the case.

With the setup out of the way, I am calling on you Rhode Island to sign this Master Lever change.org petition. The petition calls for the elimination of the use of the master lever during our elections. If you’re not sure what the master lever is, let me give you a brief overview. The “master lever” allows for voters to select a straight-party option. For instance, if voter X would like to cast all of her votes for the Democrats she has the option to do so without casting a specific vote in every race on the ballot. There are three problems with this as I see it.

First, in Cranston and other communities there are a number of non-partisan races. We have the school committee so selecting a straight party means that all of those folks’ opinion on the organization the doles out a significant portion of the city budget directly impacting our children’s lives are never counted. The master lever is not omniscient and can’t read people’s minds. This leads to under voting and is silly in the 21st century.

Second, many times people actually cast a vote even though they’ve selected the straight party option. Essentially, this is voting more than once in the same race if the selection isn’t the same party pulled as on the master lever. Just this alone should be reason enough to eliminate the master lever. But there’s more.

Lastly and perhaps most embarrassingly is the prospect of pulling the master lever for a party when that party doesn’t even have a candidate in the race. Moderate Party founder, Ken Block, has been talking over the past year about the over 8,000 voters who pulled the master lever for the Moderate Party during the 2012 races even though there were only 3 – yes, 3 – candidates listed as Moderates. Now that’s just ridiculous and it’s mind boggling how this archaic tool is still in existence today.

But, that’s where you and I come in. Sign this Master Lever change.org petition and let’s tell the State House that they need to address this issue. Just so you know, last week the Senate Judiciary held a hearing on a bill that would eliminate the straight party option. Do you know how the committee voted? They held the issue for further study , effectively killing the bill this legislative season. Yes, they feel that more analysis needs to be done on the bill because the Master Lever is just a new 2014 issue.

If you’re not seeing the sarcasm in my last sentence, this must be the first column of mine you’ve read. You see in 2013 this same committee held this bill for further study. And it seems that over the past year, they’ve either learned nothing new about the master lever or the study they began last year hasn’t completed. Either way, they want more analysis.

Come on, we’re not that dumb. But, if we want to hold the Gotta Study Six (Metts, Lombardi, Jabour, Lynch, Goodwin, & Nesselbush) accountable for holding this bill for further study, then we must sign this petition. So here’s what you need to do.

Sign the Master Lever change.org petition and then tell at least one friend in Rhode Island to also sign it. My goal – 5,000 signatures. That’s a bit crazy but we can do it, if you sign the Master Lever change.org petition and tell a friend. When you tell your friend, ask them to tell one of their friends and so on. I believe that there will be enough people who believe as I do that we need to get rid of this thing, that we should be able to reach the goal of 5,000 signatures. The only reason we won’t reach this goal is because you do not care if our General Assembly makes boneheaded decisions.

Yes, holding this bill for further study falls into the “boneheaded” decision category given the exhaustive discussion and analysis on this issue over the years. And, as I continue to say, if we elect people who make bad decisions over and over again, we only have ourselves to blame when they continue to make poor decisions. Yet, today I want to give you an opportunity to do something different.

Please, I beg you to sign the Master Lever change.org petition and let’s tell the State House that the days of boneheaded decisions without public recourse are over. I’ll post the results of this little experiment next week. Don’t let me down Rhode Island!

Don can be reached at [email protected] . Don is on twitter at @donroach34.


Related Slideshow: The Ten Biggest Issues Facing the RI General Assembly in 2014

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The Budget

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.

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Bankrupt Communities

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.

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Sales Tax

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.

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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.

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Marijuana Legalization

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.

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Constitutional Convention

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.

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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.

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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.

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Superman Building

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. 

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Master Lever

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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