Memo: RI constitution doesn’t allow binding PawSox voter referendum

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Rhode Island Senate’s top lawyer has issued a memo warning that he thinks it would be unconstitutional for state lawmakers to call a binding referendum on the current PawSox stadium proposal.

In a memo to Senate President Dominick Ruggerio dated Tuesday and obtained by Eyewitness News, Ruggerio’s chief legal counsel Richard Sahagian cited case law dating back to 1937 that he said reinforces a provision in the state constitution saying only the General Assembly has “the power to make and declare laws.”

“As in Rhode Island, courts across the country have also found that the power to make and declare laws is vested exclusively in the legislative body subject to those powers explicitly reserved to the people in each state’s constitution,” Sahagian wrote.

“The Rhode Island Constitution explicitly enumerates which measures must go on the ballot for voter approval. This is not one of those instances,” he continued. “As a result of the above analysis, the legislature cannot delegate this power by referring the matter to the voters for their approval.”

R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell quickly questioned the Senate memo, arguing lawmakers could make a referendum work by floating the stadium debt through a traditional general-obligation bond and noting the state held nonbinding referendums on separation of powers. Sahagian’s memo did not address those points.

The memo emerged on the same day House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello held a closed-door caucus of House Democrats to discuss the PawSox issue. Mattiello, who has been far cooler to the ballpark proposal than Ruggerio, has suggested in recent weeks that a voter referendum may be the best option to resolve the debate over the AAA team’s future in Rhode Island.

After the caucus, Mattiello said his colleagues were generally opposed to the idea of a PawSox referendum, suggesting the idea is dead for now. He said the Senate memo had no effect on their thinking.

“I think folks just believe it’s our responsibility, up or down, to make the decision,” he said.

The Senate passed a bill earlier this week authorizing state and local taxpayers to fund $38 million of the estimated $83-million cost of the new ballpark. Mattiello, D-Cranston, said the general consensus among House Democrats at the caucus was to amend the Senate bill to shift more risk to the team’s owners.

Also after the caucus, the four Democrats who represent Pawtucket in the House – Mary Duffy Messier, Carlos Tobon, Jean Philippe Barros and Raymond Johnston – issued a joint statement expressing overall support for the Senate bill while agreeing that there is further room for improvement.

“I’m certainly willing to have a conversation with the PawSox,” Mattiello told reporters after the caucus.

Conflict between the House and Senate has been on the rise since Ruggerio succeeded Teresa Paiva Weed as Senate president last spring, notably leading to a month-long standoff over the state budget. More recently, Ruggerio has accused Mattiello of blocking Senate personnel hires, and at Tuesday’s State of the State senators loudly cheered Raimondo’s call for a line-item veto, which Mattiello is wary of.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook