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Some want to curb the R.I. Legislature’s power, but the proposals face a steep climb

Advocates are pushing for an independent redistricting commission and the line-item veto for the governor, but Democratic leaders are opposed

Republican lawmakers at the Rhode Island State House are pushing two measures that would reduce legislative power.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE -- Both proposals would take power away from Rhode Island’s legislative leaders, and both proposals face an uphill battle on Smith Hill.

Nonetheless, advocates are pressing to let voters decide whether the governor should get line-item veto power and whether an independent redistricting commission, not the legislature, should redraw political boundaries based on new census data.

In her State of the State address on Jan. 14, Democratic Governor Gina M. Raimondo called for putting the line-item veto on the November ballot, and it’s part of her budget proposal.

“As we tackle these defining issues of our time, we need reforms that ensure citizens and businesses have confidence in their leaders,” she said. “That means it is time to pass the line item veto.”


And in his “Republican State of the State” address, House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi said Republicans have long called for empowering the governor to use a line-item veto.

“Legislative leaders don’t want to give up power, whether it’s redistricting power or whether it’s budgetary power,” Filippi said in an interview. “I think you need to have so much pressure from the outside that they don’t have a choice.”

Ken Block, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate who has founded a nonprofit called Watchdog RI, has created a website to press for the line-item veto, saying Rhode Island is one of just six states without some form of line-item veto. He said the proposal would have the biggest impact on the House, which largely controls the state budget.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a bill that would put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to create such a body, stripping away legislators’ power to redraw political boundary lines.

“It’s always an uphill battle to win structural reform, particularly the kind that takes power away from the legislature,” said John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “But we have been surprised in the past when big change has happened, and we remain optimistic.”


Common Cause is trying to draw attention to the redistricting issue with a new website. “We have a gerrymandering problem here in Rhode Island," it says. “Those in power who draw districts tend to do so to favor themselves, their political allies, and their political party.”

Filippi, a Block Island Republican, also backed an independent redistricting commission, saying the House would contain 18 Republicans -- double the current number -- “if we had properly drawn legislative districts.”

The current system “has been working beautifully for the establishment,” he said. “It hasn’t been working for the people who don’t have fair representation.”

But the legislature’s top Democratic leaders are opposed to both measures.

At a Boston Globe event last month, both House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio said they oppose giving the governor a line-item veto.

In an interview earlier this year, Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, questioned why the state would want political maps to be drawn by people who aren’t elected by the voters.

“Please explain why,” he said. “You want to pick someone else that the public doesn’t like as well?”

The current system appears to work well, Mattiello said. “I didn’t hear one complaint about the last redistricting,” he said. “Are we always looking for a solution to what’s not broken because someone else wants access to power?”


Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, agreed, saying he doesn’t see what value an independent commission would bring to the redistricting process. “Redistricting is a political process,” he said.

But Common Cause’s Marion contended that legislative leaders have often had redistricting plans challenged in court over the past half century. He said they’ve had to redraw district boundaries and they’ve spent $1 million defending unconstitutional districts. “So there is increasing evidence that an independent commission would do a better job of drawing maps that are upheld in court,” he said.

Advocates for both measures say another factor could be in play: The whiff of scandal swirling around Mattiello.

The State House is buzzing about a grand jury probe of an audit that Matiello ordered of the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority after a friend of his who headed security at the center was suspended -- raising questions about whether the audit was an act of retribution.

Mattiello has denied it was meant as retaliation, but he has since called off the audit.

In addition, Mattiello may have to testify in a money-laundering case brought against political strategist Jeffrey T. Britt in connection with Mattiello’s 2016 re-election campaign.

Although both investigations have nothing to do with these specific proposals, advocates say it often takes a scandal to spur change.

“Good-government reform, unfortunately, only happens post-scandal in Rhode Island," Block said. "We are in a unique period where the leader of the House -- the Speaker -- is totally jammed up. If there was ever a time for legislators who are inclined to do the right thing but don’t because of fear of a powerful speaker, this is the time for them to man up, or woman up.”


Marion, of Common Cause, noted that Rhode Island has seen a variety of “structural reforms” helped along by political scandal.

For example, he noted, the state adopted a merit-selection process for choosing judges after a series of scandals in the court system, the state downsized the Legislature and took away legislative pensions following pension scandals, and after a scandal involving former House Speaker John B. Harwood, voters approved a “separation of powers” constitutional amendment, which curbed legislative influence over boards and commissions.

“You have to have the right combination,” Marion said. “You have to have the policy teed up and in the public eye, with sufficient pressure. And then sometimes scandal tips the scales, forcing the legislature to relinquish power.”

Minority Leader Filippi said past scandals helped propel measures such as the restoration of full Ethics Commission jurisdiction over state legislators.

“So who knows?" he said. "Maybe we are one scandal away from getting the reform we need.”

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.