PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo has embarked on a push to enact three proposals she argues will bolster “good government” in Rhode Island after umpteen political scandals.
The proposals, which Raimondo rolled out in a newspaper article Sunday, are to randomly audit 25% of campaign accounts, and disqualify candidates who fail to pay Board of Elections fines; to place a question on the 2018 ballot giving the governor line-item veto authority; and to require recipients of legislative grants to disclose ties to lawmakers.
“I’m putting these in because Rhode Islanders deserve to have confidence in their government, and it’s the right thing to do,” Raimondo, a Democrat, told Eyewitness News on Monday. “It’s also good for the business climate – we’re trying to attract businesses here, and they want to know they’ll get a fair shake, that it’s about what you know, not who you know.”
“These are just good-government reforms that I think will make Rhode Islanders feel better about their government,” she said.
Democratic legislative leaders offered little response on Monday.
“These are issues that are being looked at internally, and there are similar bills that have been introduced by House members,” Larry Berman, a spokesman for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, said in an email. “Speaker Mattiello’s attention and primary focus is on eliminating the car tax and giving the citizens the relief they deserve.”
Greg Pare, a spokesman for Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, said she and Mattiello are already discussing whether to establish a joint House-Senate commission to study the line-item veto. “The Senate president looks forward to working with the governor as the legislation goes through the public committee hearing process,” he said.
All three of Raimondo’s ideas will be familiar to those who follow Rhode Island politics closely.
Raimondo noted it was a review of former House Speaker Gordon Fox’s campaign account that revealed he was taking money out and spending it on himself, which helped trigger the Providence Democrat’s downfall. Fox is now in federal prison.
“What we’re trying to do here is change the culture, to have it be more open, more accountable, better government,” Raimondo said. “And if everyone knows that they may be audited in any given year, it gives everybody the incentive to always follow the rules.”
The issue of unpaid fines has also been in the news because of the Providence City Council. Luis Aponte, the council’s president, and Kevin Jackson, who was its majority leader until he was arrested last year, both owe significant amounts of money to the Board of Elections for failing to file their campaign reports.
Common Cause Rhode Island’s John Marion backed the governor’s campaign-finance proposals wholeheartedly, saying audits and disqualification for unpaid fines are long overdue. “Rhode Island has struggled with instances when sitting officeholders have completely ignored our campaign finance disclosure laws,” he said.
But Steve Brown, executive director of the ACLU’s Rhode Island chapter, urged lawmakers to reject Raimondo’s proposal for disqualifying candidates if they haven’t paid their fines. He said the authorities already have the power to police campaign-finance violations, but don’t make enough use of it.
“People deserve to be concerned about candidates who flout campaign finance laws,” Brown wrote in a blog post. “But instead of passing legislation like this, using the remedies already on the books would be a more effective deterrent and would better respect the electoral process.”
Raimondo disagreed with Brown, though she also noted her proposals will be subject to legislative hearings on the merits.
“It’s important that everybody follows the rules, and that you have to follow the rules if you want to stand for election,” Raimondo said. “These are not overly burdensome – these are the bear minimum. So this is not a concern that I have.”
Marion also pushed back at Brown’s argument, noting that the enforcement mechanisms cited by the ACLU rely on the attorney general’s office to bring charges. “If AG action not timely then what?” he asked on Twitter.
Giving the governor a line-item veto – meaning the ability to veto specific spending items in the budget without vetoing the entire tax-and-spending plan – has been discussed for years, with many noting Rhode Island is one of just a small number of states that do not have it.
The issue has picked up steam in recent years thanks to the vocal advocacy of former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block and the Providence Journal editorial page, though legislative leaders have often sounded cool to the idea, which would limit their own power.
“Our state has a long history of lack of balance between the legislative and executive branches,” Marion argued. He suggested adding a line-item veto would be “another step in providing much needed balance in our system of government.”
The final proposal – requiring recipients of legislative grants to disclose ties to lawmakers – would require Assembly leaders to change their own internal procedures. The grants program has often come under fire over the years as an instrument used by leadership to reward loyalty and offer photo ops for rank-and-file members. But supporters argue it directs money to worthy organizations who might otherwise be overlooked.