Shared from the 2016-12-11 The Providence Journal eEdition

EDITORIAL THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL EDITORIAL BOARD SERVING THE PEOPLE THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

Two reforms for R.I. in 2017

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Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s near-death experience in last month’s election — he won by a mere 65 votes — was one of many signs of citizens’ growing dissatisfaction with the status quo in Rhode Island.

Poor public schools and the sluggish pace of job creation are at the top of the list, but citizens are also dismayed with what we have called “the culture of rot” at the State House.

This year, The Providence Journal reported that House Majority Leader John DeSimone habitually failed to pay his taxes on time. House Finance Committee Chairman Raymond Gallison resigned amid a federal investigation. House Finance Committee Vice Chairman John Carnevale evidently lied to voters about where he lives. Meanwhile, a whopping 48 members of the legislature failed to file accurate financial disclosure reports, even under the penalty of perjury — and, when caught, some denounced the public for raising questions. “I am ashamed of this journalism stuff that's going on in this state,” Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence, famously said.

Recent events have shaken things up a bit. Representative Gallison is gone, and Messrs. DeSimone and Carnevale soon will be. A new House majority leader, Joseph Shekarchi, seems more attuned to the public’s interest.

But to further the fumigation, Speaker Mattiello, as part of his fight for a stronger Rhode Island economy, would be wise to take up two key reforms next year that would benefit citizens and minimize the potential for corruption at the State House.

The legislature should put a strong line-item veto on the 2018 ballot, and it should eliminate legislative grants.

A line-item veto would permit the governor to strike out individual items in a budget. At present, he or she can only veto the entire budget, an unwieldy process that puts the state’s well-being at stake.

Using such a veto, a governor could strike out special-interest measures that fail to serve the common good. It would be one more check against corruption in Rhode Island. The legislature could override the veto if it saw fit.

Some 44 states enjoy the benefit of a line-item veto, and three-quarters of Rhode Island voters support the measure. Thousands of citizens have petitioned for it. Speaker Mattiello should recognize the time for change has come, and permit the state’s voters to consider such a change to the Rhode Island Constitution.

Similarly, the time to end legislative grants has come.

As we have pointed out, under this system, politicians extract money from taxpayers and use it as a slush fund to promote their reelection campaigns. Though all state taxpayers are required to support the program, the interests of the state as a whole are ignored; all that matters is how powerful politicians wish to spend the money to benefit themselves politically.

Mr. Mattiello gorged on this system, securing more than $125,000 in legislative grants for his own district — more than twice the amount of any other legislator. The criminal conviction of Daniel Doyle, whose Institute for International Sport received $5 million from state taxpayers, some of it through this system (before Mr. Mattiello’s time as speaker), underscores the dangers of these grants.

Spending requests should originate in the executive branch and be properly scrutinized before appearing in the budget. The interests of the state as a whole should be weighed. Then these requests should go before legislators.

The speaker would remain immensely powerful — still the most powerful politician in the state — if a line-item veto were passed and legislative grants were gone. What would change most profoundly is the culture at the State House. Reform would indicate that Rhode Island is willing to take a fresh approach. That is a message the state desperately needs to send.

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