John Perilli: Don’t Axe the Lieutenant Governor

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


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The Lieutenant Governor's office is worth keeping, believes John Perilli.

Would Rhode Island be better off without a Lieutenant Governor? Absolutely not.

But the wrongheaded idea that we should abolish the state's Second Office just will not seem to die. In 2010, the Cool Moose Party's candidate for Lieutenant Governor, Bob Healey, ran on the sole position that he would eliminate the office once elected, and got nearly 40 percent of the vote. Now, as Rhode Island nears a possible vote on a Constitutional Convention in 2014, the proposal has surfaced again. And it's just as bad an idea as it's ever been. We might pinch a few pennies off the budget, but we would lose so much more.

Old office, new critics

Rhode Island has had a Lieutenant Governor––or in olden times, a "Deputy Governor"––ever since we became a chartered colony in 1663. Under our state Constitution, adopted nearly two centuries later in 1843, the only specified duties of the Lieutenant Governor are to wield "executive power" along with the Governor, and to succeed the Governor in the case of a vacancy.

Expanding the power of a weak executive branch? Check. Ensuring a stable transition in the event of the Governor's departure and preventing a succession crisis? Check. Even from the bare text, the Lieutenant Governor already fills two important roles.

But for critics, this is not enough. Accusations abound against the Lieutenant Governor's office: It's a waste of money, a do-nothing job, and only acts as a springboard for insiders who want to be Governor someday. In some states, the Lieutenant Governor also serves as the President of the State Senate, but in Rhode Island that duty was eliminated in 2003. Especially since this change, the critics say, the Lieutenant Governor is no longer necessary.

Her Excellency

However, we cannot just talk about the position in theory. We must consider it's occupant: Cranston Democrat Elizabeth Roberts, a singularly capable and competent public servant who has held the post since 2007. As a testament to her success, some critics of her office are forced to make what I call the "Elizabeth Roberts exemption": The Lieutenant Governorship is a pointless position, aside from her.

But this is exactly where their arguments break down. Why should we eliminate the office precisely when we're being shown that it can do so much?

The fact is that Lt. Gov. Roberts has more power than we give her credit for. Her statewide constituency gives her greater influence than an appointed czar, and more flexibility than a fractious legislative committee. She has been instrumental in expanding the power of Rhode Island's weak executive branch over matters such as small business development and healthcare reform, and has achieved numerous policy successes.

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Where is the problem here?

Sure, Lt. Gov. Roberts could sit around and do nothing. But so could any politician. If we eliminated every political office in this country in which it is possible to sit and do nothing, we'd be left with very few elected officeholders indeed. On the contrary, it is in Roberts' interest to be active. If she ever returns to the voters and asks them to support her for Governor, she'd better have some accomplishments to boast about.

Consider what is perhaps Lt. Gov. Roberts' signature policy achievement: the creation of Rhode Island's health insurance exchange, HealthSource RI. In 2011, Roberts was appointed chairwoman of the Rhode Island Healthcare Reform Commission , a state task force created to address the new federal healthcare laws.

Under Roberts' leadership, the commission laid the framework for HealthSource, which got up and running and became an independent organization in early 2013. Then, this past October when all the exchanges across the country opened for business, Rhode Island's was one of the best, working much more smoothly than the crash-prone federal website. Thousands of Rhode Islanders gained access to affordable health insurance plans, and enrollment continues at a brisk clip.

It's an honest-to-goodness Rhode Island success story. What politician wouldn't be proud of that?

A question of value

Of course, Roberts' unique competence and health care expertise come at a cost. She employs a staff like any other statewide elected official, besides being a full time worker herself, and her office costs taxpayers around $1 million each year.

Now wind the clock back to 2010. Say Bob Healey had won, and the Lieutenant Governorship had become a piece of Rhode Island history. We'd have saved $1 million each year, but we'd have potentially derailed HealthSource RI, and many other accomplishments along with it. Healey supporters insist that the money is a waste, but in hindsight, I think we spent our money well.

Yes, $1 million is no small sum. But it's important to recognize that it's a drop in the bucket compared to our $8.2 billion budget (or $8,200 million, for comparison's sake), and that not every dollar we spend has equal value. If you're looking to trim the budget, you might want to start with the $1 million bone we threw Newport Grand this year, and other such eleventh-hour budget projects. For my money, though, I'm glad to keep footing the Lieutenant Governor's bill. Even though Lt. Gov. Roberts is term-limited in 2014, she has proved that her position is not necessarily a do-nothing job, and has set a high precedent for whomever holds the office in the future.

Alternative proposals

Even if you still think that Rhode Island overpays for the Lieutenant Governor's office, there are other solutions besides just eliminating the office altogether. Some have seen wide enough support to be introduced as bills, while others are purely speculative. Here are two middle-ground ideas that have at least an outside shot of passing:

1. Have the Governor and Lieutenant Governor run as a single ticket: This would ensure that Rhode Island's two highest-ranking elected officials are from the same party, cutting back on infighting and making the Executive Branch more powerful. Democratic State Rep. Stephen Ucci of Johnston and Cranston introduced this as a bill in 2011, but it never gained any steam. Is it due for a revival?

2. Create specific legal or constitutional responsibilities for the Lieutenant Governor: This would ensure the Lieutenant Governor has defined duties, and can be held accountable even by those who fear the office is for nothing.

However you stand on keeping or eliminating the Lieutenant Governor's office, consider this in closing: It is a serious thing to take away a representative in government from the voters of Rhode Island. We would probably never get it back. Only a grave, systemic problem should force us to alter the very structure of our government, and in the Lieutenant Governor's case, I do not believe these high standards have been met.

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John Perilli is a native of Cumberland, RI and a junior at Brown University. He is the Communications Director for the Brown University Democrats. The opinions presented in this article do not necessarily represent those of the organizations of which John Perilli is a member.


Related Slideshow: New England Communities With the Most Political Clout 2013

The Sunlight Foundation, in conjunction with Azavea, released data maps this week showing political contribution dollars to federal elections dating back to 1990 -- by county.

GoLocal takes a look at the counties in New England that had the highest per-capita contributions in the 2012 election cycle -- and talked with experts about what that meant for those areas in New Engand, as well as the candidates.  

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25. Merrimack County, NH

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $9.86

Total contributions: $1,447,713

Merrimack County is named after the Merrimack River and is home to the states capital, Concord. Merrimack County has a total area of 956 square miles and a population of 146,761.

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24. Cheshire County, NH

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $9.88

Total contributions: $759,209

Cheshire is one of the five original counties in New Hampshire and was founded in 1771. The highest point in Cheshire County is located at the top of Mount Monadnock, which was made famous by the poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

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23. Rockingham County, NH

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $9.96

Total contributions: $2,965,530

Rockingham has 37 communities and has a population of 297,820. Rockingham County also was home to the famous poet, Robert Frost

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22. Belknap County, NH

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $10.02

Total contributions: $604,512

Belknap County is one of the ten counties in New Hampshire and has a population of 60,327. It is located in the center of New Hampshire and the largest city is Laconia.

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21. Hampshire County, MA

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $10.41

Total contributions: $1,664,077

Hampshire County has a total area of 545 square miles and is located in the middle of Massachusetts. Hampshire County is also the only county to be surrounded in all directions by other Massachusetts counties.


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20. Barnstable County, MA

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $10.90

Total contributions: $2,348,541

Barnstable County was founded in 1685 and has three national protected areas. Cape Cod National Seashore is the most famous protected area within Barnstable County and brings in a high amount of tourists every year.

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19. Berkshire County, MA

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $12.49

Total contributions: $1,624,400

Berkshire County is located on the western side of Massachusetts and borders three different neighboring states. Originally the Mahican Native American Tribe inhabited Berkshire County up until the English settlers arrived and bought the land in 1724. 

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18. Essex County, MA

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $13.22

Total contributions: $9,991,201

Essex is located in the northeastern part of Massachusetts and contains towns such as Salem, Lynn, and Andover. Essex was founded in 1643 and because of Essex historical background, the whole county has been designated as the Essex National Heritage Area.


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17. Chittendon County, VT

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $13.86

Total contributions: $2,196,107

Chittenden has a population of 158,504, making it Vermont’s most populated county. Chittenden’s largest city is Burlington, which has about one third of Vermont’s total population.

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16. Lamoille County, VT

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $14.82

Total contributions: $369,854

Lamoille County was founded in 1835 and has a population of 24,958. The county has 464 square miles, of which 461 of them are land.

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15. Addison County, VT

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $15.49

Total contributions: $569,299

Located on the west side of Vermont, Addison County has a total area of 808 square miles. Addison's largest town is Middlebury, where the Community College of Vermont and Middlebury College are located.

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14. Newport County, RI

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $16.02

Total contributions: $1,214,26

Newport County is one of the five Rhode Island Counties and was founded in 1703. Just like Connecticut, none of Rhode Island counties have an any governmental functions.

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13. Cumberland County, ME

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $18.33

Total contributions: $5,205,507

Cumberland County has a population of 283,921 and is Maine’s most populated county. The county was named after the William, Duke of Cumberland, a son of King George II.

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12. Windsor County, VT

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $20.57

Total contributions: $1,156,149

Windsor County is the largest county in Vermont and consists of 971 square miles of land and 5 square miles of water.

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11. Bristol County, RI

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $20.91

Total contributions: $1,027,472

Bristol County has a population of 49,144 and is the third smallest county in the United States. Bristol County was originally apart of Massachusetts, but was transferred to Rhode Island in 1746.

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10. Grafton County, NH

Contributions, per capita, 2012 :$20.95

Total contributions: $1,868,739

With a population of 89,181, Grafton County is the second largest county in New Hampshire. Home of New Hampshire’s only national forest, White Mountain National Forest takes up about half of Grafton’s total area 

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9. Carrol County, NH

Contributions, per capita, 2012: 2012: $22.81

Total contributions: $1,012,10

Created in 1840, Carroll County has a population of 47,567. Carroll County was also named after Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the United States Declaration of Independence.

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8. LItchfield County, CT

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $22.86

Total contributions: $4,286,143

Although it is Connecticut’s largest county, Litchfield has the lowest population density in all of Connecticut. Since 1960 all Connecticut counties have no county government.

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7. Middlesex County, MA

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $32.81

Total contributions: $50,432,154

Middlesex County has a population of 1,503,085 and has been ranked as the most populous county in New England.  The county government was abolished in 1997, but the county boundaries still exists for court jurisdictions and other administrative purposes.

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6. Nantucket County, MA

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $33.41

Total contributions: $344,021

Nantucket County consists of a couple of small islands and is a major tourist destination in Massachusetts. Normally Nantucket has a population of 10,298, but during the summer months the population can reach up to 50,000.

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5. Norfolk County, MA

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $35.87

Total contributions: $24,459,854

Named after a county from England, Norfolk County is the wealthiest county in Massachusetts. As of 2011, Norfolk was ranked the 32nd highest income county in the United States. 

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4. Dukes County, MA

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $36.32

Total contributions: $618,960

Consisting of Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands, Dukes County is one of Massachusetts’ top vacation spots. Originally Dukes County was apart New York, however it was transferred to Massachusetts on October 7, 1691.

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3. Suffolk County, MA

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $40.73

Total contributions: $30,323,537

Suffolk County has a population of 744,426 and contains Massachusetts’s largest city, Boston. Although Suffolk’s county government was abolished in the late 1900’s, it still remains as a geographic area.

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2. Knox County, ME

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $45.89

Total contributions: $1,820,410

Knox County was established on April 1st, 1860 and was named after American Revolutionary War General Henry Knox.  The county has a population of 39,668 and is the home of the Union Fair.

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1. Fairfield County, CT

Contributions, per capita, 2012: $55.65.  

Total contributions: $51,970,701 

In a population of 933,835, Fairfield County is the most densely populated county in Connecticut, and contains four of the state's largest cities -- Bridgeport, Stamford, Norwalk and Danbury.


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