Rhode Island Politics & Taxation, Part XII

This posting continues a periodic series on Rhode Island politics and taxation, building on ten previous postings (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI).
Ed Achorn of the ProJo is back with another thoughtful commentary that deserves to be shared and read in its entirety:

Last week, I sat in on a bit of a two-day symposium about “moral leadership,” sponsored by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Scholars discussed the concepts advanced by English philosopher John Locke, who inspired the values expressed in America’s Declaration of Independence.
In Locke’s view, a government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. As I sat and listened, I could not help wondering how much the people of Rhode Island really consent to the kind of government they have.
They vote, of course.
But if they truly consent, it would seem that they want to have second-rate public schools, and to pay a first-rate price for them. They want to have the nation’s fifth-highest taxes, and to drive away well-to-do people and retirees who could contribute greatly to the state in revenue and jobs. They want a national magazine to brand the state “Tax-hell Rhode Island.”
They want poor bridges and pothole-ridden roads. They want sewage flowing into the Bay, periodically killing massive numbers of fish. They want to create unsustainable government costs — even with enormously high taxes — by extending early retirements and lavish benefits to public employees. They want to pay for “free” lifetime health care for crossing guards, so that the Laborers’ Union will be happy and politicians can have more plush patronage jobs to hand out. They want Rhode Island courts to be ranked among the nation’s worst — dead last in New England — in being “fair and balanced,” according to a survey of 1,400 practicing corporate attorneys and general counsels.
They want their governor and local communities to force the public to hire lawyers and go to court to obtain public documents. They want their legislators to ram through bills before the public is any the wiser.
If most Rhode Islanders don’t consent to these things, on the other hand, then the state’s government is losing its legitimacy.
To be sure, there are structures in place that make it hard for Rhode Island citizens to get the government they want.
Public-employee unions are unusually powerful in the Ocean State. Their armies of campaign workers and piles of campaign cash regularly secure a majority of legislators who will vote in the unions’ interest, rather than the public’s. Leaders and spokesmen of these unions have become so arrogant that they often viciously denounce any citizen who would even discuss trying to shift the balance toward the public’s interest.
Rhode Island is perhaps the most Democrat-leaning state, and its voters are reluctant to turn out incumbents from their party. Freedom from fear of defeat in an election makes any politician (of any party) very complacent — and reckless.
A culture of secrecy thrives in Rhode Island government. It is often difficult for citizens to find out what is being done in their name.
This year’s legislative session is already crowded with bills filed to serve special interests, rather than the general interest:
Rep. Donald Lally (D.-Narragansett) sponsored a bill that would effectively give Rhode Island unions, through often one-sided negotiations, the power to decide the law of the land. His bill would give union contracts precedence over city and town charters — the basic governing structures and laws of municipalities.
Labor boss George Nee asked for the special legislation — and what Mr. Nee wants of the General Assembly, he often gets.
Sen. Teresa Paiva-Weed (D.-Newport), who long had a reputation as a public-spirited legislator, is co-sponsoring a bill that would bar the governor from appointing, for one year, people who had run for state or federal office and lost. This partisan bill — of highly dubious constitutionality — is transparently designed to make it harder for an opposing party to field candidates or fill positions.
Legislative leaders are trying to make independent day-care workers the equivalent of state employees, eligible to negotiate for plush benefits at a vast new expense to taxpayers.
House Majority Leader Gordon Fox (D.-Providence) introduced a bill to help a waterfront developer by removing power from Portsmouth officials and giving it to a state commission.
The question is: Do Rhode Islanders really consent to all this? Do they want their state to be run this way, or is this being forced on them?
I would argue that — even though the playing field is sharply tilted against the public interest — citizens are indeed “consenting” to the government they get. They have the legal means to change it.
They could call any legislator who is damaging the public and complain. They could run for office or raise money for honorable candidates, speak out, protest, join citizens’ organizations. They could apply a healthy degree of skepticism to the arguments of special-interest groups that feed off government. They could fight for greater openness. They could read the newspaper and act on what they see there.
Those of us who love Rhode Island, and wish to see it solve some very daunting problems, may not like this truth, but there it is: If citizens stand back and silently take what is being done to them, that is an expression of their consent.

What is the answer, Rhode Islanders? Are we truly a state filled with spineless wimps who consciously choose to accept this fate? I hope not.

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19 years ago

“If citizens stand back and silently take what is being done to them, that is an expression of their consent”
Donald, you’re so right on this post man. So right.
It seems to me that there is a paralysis among the citizenry at-large in RI. Yeah, people vote but we don’t hold our representatives accountable. Instead, we only get up in arms when there is some kind of ‘scandal’.
What do you think is the answer to overcome this type of stasis which only perpetuates more of the same type of bad government?

Donald B. Hawthorne
Donald B. Hawthorne
19 years ago

I believe the first requirement is to make more information about the workings of politics visible to the public. E.g., union contracts, bills before the legislature, etc. That means people are going to have to dig out critical information and have a way to post it on the web so everyone can see it.
Secondly, we need people to write and talk publicly about the issues that arise from analyzing the newly-public information. Only then will the public become sufficiently well-informed.
Finally, we need politically savvy organizers who can recruit alternative candidates or issue campaigns, help them raise money and run hard-hitting, competitive races.
All of this is going to require some organizational capabilities because these efforts won’t work if we can only rely on individuals here and there around the state.
No one should expect this to happen easily. It will take time to change the status quo and it is far from clear today that there is enough critical mass to pull off the change efforts.
Along the way, it will be important to have some near-term wins so people can feel like there is enough hope to make it a worthwhile fight to take on.

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