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Rhode Island May Change Power Structure

July 19, 2003

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ Through the American Revolution and a 19th-century armed rebellion, Rhode Island clung to a royal charter that gave state lawmakers extraordinary powers. This year, lawmakers finally let go.

Lawmakers last month caved in to mounting pressure from reform groups and approved legislation allowing voters the chance to create a greater balance of power between the state’s executive and legislative branches.

No one is quite sure what the end result will be, but many say it can only help the image of a state known for corruption and political dealmaking.

``There is a perception you have to be connected to a legislator to get anything done in Rhode Island,″ Brown University political science professor Darrell West said. ``This move breaks the game of inside politics.″

Rhode Island’s system of government is like no other in the nation.

Lawmakers serve on and make appointments to the more than 400 boards and commissions that oversee everything from waste management to the state lottery _ and control billions of dollars in state assets. If voters approve the change next year, lawmakers will be stripped of that power.

Critics believe the current system has encouraged political patronage and rampant dealmaking.

In one case, former state Sen. John Orabona capitalized on pension loopholes and applied for $106,000 in combined pension benefits from the state and city of Providence. He settled in 1996 for just over half that amount. His lawyer said at the time he was only doing what had been done before him for years. The case led to reforms in the state pension system.

Thomas Wright was fired in 1996 from his job as head of a waste management company overseen by a board that included three lawmakers. He claimed he was fired for opposing patronage hirings, including a job candidate who was a convicted felon. The board claimed he was doing a poor job. Requests to look into the case were ignored.

``We’ve had a legislative branch that has been overbearing for centuries, people have been afraid to combat that power because they thought it would never change,″ Common Cause state director Phil West said.

The issue of legislative power in Rhode Island is not a new one.

In 1842, bayonet-carrying citizens marched through the streets of Providence, driven by demands that more than just property owners be allowed to vote. They won that right in the 1842 constitution but failed to prevent lawmakers from serving on boards and commissions.

``The initial (1842) constitution was designed to change as little as possible from the charter form of government,″ former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Weisberger said.

Lawmakers kept much of the power given them in the 1663 charter, which today is prominently displayed in the Statehouse in a protective case outside the Senate’s chamber.

A vote for separation of powers will essentially end the document’s functioning role in state government.

A string of scandals helped fuel voter dissatisfaction with the status quo. Chief Justice Thomas Fay resigned in 1993 after pleading guilty to misusing funds. Former Gov. Edward DiPrete pleaded guilty to bribery in 1998 and spent a year in jail.

Last year, longtime Providence Mayor Vincent Cianci Jr. was sent to prison for racketeering conspiracy. While Cianci was on trial, House leaders refused to allow debate on legislation that would take some power away from lawmakers.

The issue became hotly debated in the fall elections, when voters approved a nonbinding referendum question that convinced lawmakers to scrap the current system.

And this year the new Republican governor, Don Carcieri, and Democratic legislative leaders made separation of powers a centerpiece of their agendas.

``This will have profound implications, though no one can predict what they all will be,″ Roger Williams University law professor Carl Bogus said. ``This is about avoiding a concentration of power in one governmental department, and about checks and balances among the branches.″

Not everyone believes state government will change dramatically.

``Separation of powers is merely one little peg in the changes that are necessary,″ said former GOP Gov. Lincoln Almond, who wrote the nonbinding referendum question last fall. He believes a line-item veto is also needed.

Almond, who served eight years, said separation of powers won’t help solve another problem _ the single-party dominance of the Legislature. Republicans hold 15 percent of the seats.

``If people want to see a dramatic change in government there has to be more political competition,″ said Darrell West, the Brown professor. ``The real parties have been insiders and outsiders.″

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