Friday, February 21, 2014

A Constitutional Convention for Rhode Island?

Along with the League of Women Voters, Roger Williams University School of Law, and the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University we are proud to present a one-day conference on the possibility of a Constitutional Convention in Rhode Island.  Please join us on Saturday, March 29th from 8:30-1 at Bryant University.  You can register here.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Now is the time for a People's Pledge

As we begin 2014, and the campaign season kicks into full swing, it's a good time to consider how to improve the quality of our elections.  In an era of Citizens United increasingly our elections are dominated by negative advertisements from outside special interest groups.  Just this week the secret donor behind an almost half million dollar last minute ad buy was revealed in the Boston Mayor's race. 

The most successful recent effort to deal with this problem is the People's Pledge that Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren used in their 2012 election.  That's why we're proposing one for the 2014 Rhode Island gubernatorial contest.  You can read more about it from our Providence Journal op-ed yesterday.    

A study by Common Cause Massachusetts found many benefits from a People's Pledge, including:

  • A more positive campaign featuring fewer negative outside advertisements
  • Less undisclosed money from outside Super PACs and other "dark" money groups
  • More small dollar donors
We know that Common Cause members back a variety of candidates in the upcoming election.  No matter who you support, encourage them to negotiate a People's Pledge.  You can contact them here (listed in alphabetical order):
Rhode Island deserves an honest debate about the issues facing this state.  We need to take back our elections.  That's why we need a People's Pledge. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Join us for our 43rd Annual Meeting!

On Wednesday, October 16th we will be celebrating our 43rd Annual Meeting at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet.  We will be welcoming Professor Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas at Austin to talk about his latest book, "Framed: America's 51 state constitutions and the crisis of governance." 

We will also be honoring for Excellence in Public Service, Leadership Rhode Island and for Distinguished Service, Doree Goodman and Helen Buchanan.

For information about purchasing tickets please call Tracy Miller at 861-2322 or purchase them online here.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Beware, the end is near

Ted Nesi of was on vacation and was nice enough to lend us his blog for the day.  He asked us to weigh in on the mad rush to the end of the session we are about to see in the next three or four weeks.  The very fact that we cannot tell you when things will end is one of the problems we identify.  Please take a look at what we wrote and feel free to let us know what you thing.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Merit selection should mean just that

There has been a lot of talk lately about the recent nomination by Governor Chafee of former Senate President Joseph Montalbano to the Superior Court.  We’d like to take a minute to explain why this nomination is problematic.  Back in 1994 the voters of Rhode Island created a merit selection system for picking judges in our constitution.  This came after two consecutive Chief Justices of the Rhode Island Supreme Court faced impeachment hearings, and two lower level judges were convicted of crimes related to their positions on the bench. 

The merit selection system consists of an “independent non-partisan” Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) that solicits and screens applicants for judicial vacancies.  The JNC holds public hearings on, conducts public interviews of, and holds a public vote that results in a list of 3-5 names being submitted as part of “a list” to the Governor.  The Governor has 21 days to nominate someone off that list and submit it to the Rhode Island Senate for Advice and Consent. 

That’s how the system works in theory.  In reality the JNC has filled with, among others, lobbyists and former political party officials.  The General Assembly has passed a “look back” law allowing the Governor to look at any list for a position on that court (Superior, District, Family, Traffic, Workers Compensation) from the last five years.  And Governors regularly take more than 21 days, sometimes years, to pick from those lists.

In the case of Mr. Montalbano he was not on a current list from the JNC, and his appointment was made many, many months after the JNC had finished its business.  Furthermore, he is currently a judicial magistrate, a type of judicial officer that whose ranks are often filled with close political allies of the Assembly (the three most recent appointees include the Speaker’s legal counsel and two former Senators) and that often serves as a farm team for judicial picks. 

Separating the General Assembly from the judicial branch was one of the explicit goals of reformers back in 1994.  This system clearly has not worked as anticipated because none of the principles are performing their assigned tasks as envisioned by those who had a hand it its design.  Those who aspire to sit on the bench and dispense justice on behalf of the state need to know that they have a fair shake at being appointed to a judgeship.  If Rhode Island is going to outgrow its reputation as an “I know a guy” state we need to fix this.  

Monday, April 29, 2013

Transparency in government doesn't just happen

We're not usually ones to seek a lot of credit, but we're going to make an exception this time.  The Providence Journal published an article titled "Officials disclose travel expenses" on Monday, April 29th in which they write, "The state Ethics Commission added that requirement last year after The Journal raised questions about who financed some recent state lawmaker trips."  They were referring to a new question on the financial disclosure form that elected and select appointed officials are required to file in Rhode Island.  The question is there because of a rule-making process the Ethics Commission engaged in during 2012 and requires disclosure of any out-of-state travel worth over $250 the public official took that was provided by a third party. 

That rule-making began because Common Cause Rhode Island sent a letter to the Ethics Commission requesting adoption of such a rule.  It took six months time, repeated testimony on our part, and the voices of dozens of Common Cause members to get this rule passed.  We're excited to see the new transparency this rule will bring, but would like to make sure you know, transparency in government doesn't just happen. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A quick refresher on Separation of Powers

I joke sometimes that instead of Common Cause our organization should be called the Separation of Powers Legal Defense Fund.  Here’s why:

Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of Separation of Powers being enshrined in the Rhode Island Constitution.  Prior to the constitutional amendments of 2004, in the words of our Supreme Court, “Rhode Island’s history [was] that of a quintessential system of parliamentary supremacy.”  A key change made to our Constitution in 2004 was Article IX, Section 5 which vests sole authority to appoint “all members of any board, commission or other state or quasi-public entity which exercises executive power” with the Governor.

Every year, like returning mosquitoes, we find legislation proposed in the Assembly that would violate that part of our Constitution and thus run afoul of the principle of Separation of Powers.  At Common Cause we see it as our role to swat down those efforts by reminding lawmakers of the boundaries on their authority created by Separation of Powers. 

Today’s example comes courtesy of Representative Patricia Morgan in the form of H 5316.  This legislation, being heard before the Committee on Health, Education and Welfare today, would create a six-person commission to review all mandates required of health insurance plans sold in Rhode Island.  The commission it creates would be appointed by legislative leaders and would create a list of insurance mandates that are “not essential” in the view of the commission.  The Department of Business Regulation would enforce that plan unless the General Assembly overrides the decisions of the Commission.

While reducing the number of mandates may be a laudatory goal, we have no position on issues of health care, this attempt to do so is unconstitutional on its face.  Quite simply, the General Assembly can no longer make executive decisions by appointing people to boards and commissions.  If the General Assembly wants to repeal health care mandates (mandates the General Assembly itself created by statute) they can simply repeal them.  Creating a separate legislatively controlled commission to direct the executive branch to do so just can’t be done.

Almost ten years after an overwhelming majority of voters in Rhode Island voted to put Separation of Powers in our guiding document it’s scary that legislators still can’t find the boundaries between the three branches of our government.