Advocates: 78% in RI back ballot question to empower Ethics Commission

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Supporters of restoring the R.I. Ethics Commission’s original authority over General Assembly members have the wind at their backs heading into the fall, based on a survey they commissioned that shows overwhelming support for the move.

The poll conducted by Fleming & Associates on behalf of the Rhode Island Coalition for Ethics Reform found 78% of Rhode Island voters say they would vote to approve Question 2 on the November ballot, which would amend the state’s constitution to undo a 2009 R.I. Supreme Court decision that restricted the Ethics Commission’s ability to police legislative conflicts of interest.

The coalition released the survey results Monday as they launched the Yes on 2 campaign to rally support for the ethics question. “Passing this referendum will put the cop back on the beat and restore the power of the Ethics Commission to police complaints against state legislators,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island and the coalition’s president.

The campaign is so far largely bankrolled by former Hasbro Chairman and CEO Alan Hassenfeld, whose $25,000 donation makes up the lion’s share of its initial resources, according to a filing with the R.I. Board of Elections. Also contributing small amounts were Common Cause, Operation Clean Government, the League of Women Voters, and CleanRI.

No organized effort to fight the ethics question has emerged so far, though it has some high-profile individual opponents, including House Minority Leader Brian Newberry. “I think people have a right under the First Amendment to speak their minds,” he told Providence Business News last week. “I don’t think people should be restricted in what they say by an ethics bill.”

After resisting pressure for six years, the General Assembly’s Democratic leaders this spring abruptly announced they would agree to put the Ethics Commission question on the ballot.

The move came in the wake of a high-profile scandal involving former state Rep. Ray Gallison, who resigned in May due to a law-enforcement investigation, as well as former House Speaker Gordon Fox in 2014. State Rep. John Carnevale also gave up his re-election bid after a Target 12 investigation triggered the loss of his voter registration.

Fleming’s survey for Yes on 2 suggests those headlines have made an impact on voters, 53% of whom said Rhode Island is on the wrong track when it comes to “ethical government.” The vast majority of voters – 83% – described ethical government is very important “to Rhode Island’s reputation as a good place to live and work.” (Fleming also conducts polls for WPRI 12.)

The survey also found strong support for two other measures that good-government groups support, with 66% of voters agreeing the governor should be given line-item veto power and the same number saying Rhode Island should authorize early voting at polling places for up to two weeks prior to an election.

Fleming’s poll of 400 likely voters was conducted Sept. 6 to 8 by landline and cell phones. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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