Rhode Island Politics & Taxation, Part XV

This posting continues a periodic series on Rhode Island politics and taxation, building on fourteen previous postings (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV).
Sometimes certain news events do not need a lot of commentary because they speak for themselves. This posting on the latest developments in the implementation of Separation of Powers is about such a news event.

Nicholas Gorham, Rhode Island House Minority Whip, wrote an editorial in today’s ProJo. Here are some highlights:

…Last fall, after 150 years of struggle for change, the people of Rhode Island made separation of powers an integral part of our state government. By more than a 3-to-1 margin, the people served an eviction notice to the special interests and insiders who had controlled state government for so long, for the benefit of so few, at the expense of so many.
Now it is time to implement separation of powers. This requires the indulgence and cooperation of the General Assembly. Under our constitution, as amended, the governor appoints and the Senate must give its “advice and consent” to some of the people chosen (for the more important posts) in the executive branch. Only the governor chooses who, exactly, will help him steer the ship of state.
To comply with separation of powers, the General Assembly must rewrite some laws. The new laws must reflect how executive departments are to be run (and how much money they need), but no more.
For decades, the leaders of the General Assembly and their special-interest constituencies have controlled the state’s boards and commissions. Now, the General Assembly must yield this power to the governor, who will be under public scrutiny to keep it free from the special interests and insiders who have been part of it for generations….
But in Rhode Island, legislation that has been advanced by the General Assembly leadership tells the governor not only whom he may appoint. It also requires that applicants either be a member of or receive a “recommendation” from special-interest groups.
And what groups are we talking about? Here’s a sample “catch” from pending legislation coming to the floor of the House:
The International Association of Fire Fighters, the Alliance for Social Service Employees, the Rhode Island Medical Society, the Rhode Island Health Center Association, the Hospital Association of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Building Trades Council, the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, the Gray Panthers of Rhode Island, the vice president of Brown University’s Division of Biological and Medical Sciences, the president of the Rhode Island Funeral Directors Association.
These are just a few. Under the leadership’s legislation, all of them have either direct appointment power to boards and commissions (using the governor as nothing more than a conduit, to make the appointments seem gubernatorial) or “gatekeeper” status as an organization that “recommends” whom the governor shall appoint, and the governor must give “due consideration” to the special interest’s “recommendation.”
Many of these organizations actively lobby in the General Assembly, spending many thousands of dollars to protect their special-interest initiatives, and making campaign donations to senators and representatives — the perennial hearty harvest from the sea of Rhode Island politics. If the General Assembly’s leadership has its way, the waters in and around the State House will remain infested with the same dangerous and hungry species as before separation of powers…
Legislation passed by the Rhode Island House and Senate should, as under the federal constitution, require the governor to give nothing more than “due consideration” to real qualifications for potential nominees — not special-interest “recommendations” and membership. The integrity of the appointment process must remain intact, so that the governor can appoint free-thinking people to help run the government…
If the leaders of the General Assembly allow this, maybe it is time to take a long, hard look at their fitness and qualifications. If the General Assembly is more interested in feeding sharks than getting to shore with the constitution intact, maybe it’s time for a sea change in the General Assembly.

To read what all of us have written on the topic of Separation of Powers issue, go here.
The balance of power today means that leaders of the General Assembly will “win” most, if not all, of these battles. However, what these power-hungry politicians do not grasp and/or accept is that their non-democratic actions undermine the very legitimacy of the government in the eyes of the citizenry. If our leaders show no respect for the rule of law and for the Founding principle that the power of government is derived from the consent of the governed, then there is no reason to expect the citizens to show respect for the rule of law either. That is a pathway to political chaos and, eventually, to tyranny.
Tom Coyne, our friend at RI Policy Analysis, expresses these concerns in a more blunt fashion in his April 14 commentary:

The Democratic leaders of the General Assembly have introduced legislation requiring that their favored special interest groups either approve or recommend all gubernatorial appointments to state boards and commisssions. This is a direct, in your face challenge to everyone who voted for Separation of Powers. Let me be blunt and crude: they are giving the finger to every citizen who voted to approve Separation of Powers reform in Rhode Island.
In light of this proposed legislation, can anybody realistically believe any more that Democratic General Assembly leaders care about the best interest of the state, the health of our private sector economy, or raising real household incomes for all but their favored few? Can you really say, with a straight face,”maybe they just don’t get it?” Doesn’t the “Curley Effect” theory make more sense every day? How much more evidence do people need, in addition to all the other legislation that has been introduced this year to further entrench and enrich the Democrats favored special interest groups?

Unfortunately, I believe Tom’s assessment is an accurate one and therein lies the challenge to Rhode Island citizens. Many of us are deeply troubled by the polarization occurring in the American body politic. Many of us are committed to debating our beliefs in a forceful but civil fashion in order to improve the quality of political discourse in America. But there is no room for reasoned political debate when facing a foe who acts like either the neighborhood bully or a dictator.
Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, Rhode Island citizens are engaged in an epic power struggle against an opponent who knows no ethical boundaries. It is about battling an enemy of liberty who doesn’t give a damn about your rights as an American citizen living in Rhode Island.

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