7 Referendum Questions

What should you do about the referendum questions on this year’s ballot? Rhode Island voters have a history of approving bonds because they seem like free money: buy now, pay later – with interest, from future tax revenue. They often may be for a good cause, but they run the state further into debt. We recommend breaking that habit a little bit and keeping in mind while in the voting booth that eventually, bonds need to be repaid. Here’s a somewhat informed opinion. We did our research, but in RI you never really know what pitfalls were brewed up behind closed doors.

1. Casinos

The owners of the existing Twin River casino lobbied against expansion of gambling a few years ago because they wouldn’t own those facilities, but of course they support this expansion because they would own the new casino in Tiverton. Gambling can be considered a tax on the mathematically challenged and, unfortunately, it also preys on addicts, but there’s little evidence that it fosters the kind of crime opponents get worked up about. It does create jobs. The location in Tiverton is intended to draw gamblers from nearby Massachusetts where that state’s first casinos are cutting into business at Twin River and threatening a substantial part of RI tax revenue, but it’s an uphill battle against the not-in-my-backyard folks because gambling expansion must be approved separately by majorities in the state and in the Town of Tiverton.

Recommended vote: We’re resigned to gambling in RI, but we think it’s moot because Tiverton voters are unlikely to approve. Sketchiness meter: 60%

2. Restoring Ethics Committee jurisdiction over General Assembly members An Ethics Committee was created by constitutional amendment in 1986 with authority to look into conflicts of interest by government officials including legislators, but a 2009 Supreme Court decision ruled that legislators were exempt from Ethics Committee jurisdiction for specifically legislative acts. The “Speech in Debate” immunity clause of the constitution was intended to prevent coercion of legislators by the governor or through the courts, but in practice the most likely source of improper influence is money. We would like to add even more teeth to some ethics reform – but for now, we can’t think of any good reason to oppose this. Because RI has no provision for popular initiative, the only way to get this onto the ballot was for the very legislators who would be regulated to vote for it, so it took seven years to get this far and we may not get another chance.

Recommended vote: Resoundingly, yes. Sketchiness meter: 0%

3. $27 million for construction and maintenance of a veteran’s home The state already had authority to borrow $94 million and obtained federal funding that reduced its borrowing to $33.5 million, but the federal money came with conditions that required a change in design, and meeting the more stringent requirements requires this $27 million. In the end, the state would borrow only $60.5 million to complete a project already underway that was expected to cost $94 million.

Recommended vote: Yes. Sketchiness meter: 10% (construction in RI always has a
little bit of a sketch factor)

4. $45.5 million for URI The first $25.5 million is for renovations of Bliss Hall, a building so old that it was originally constructed without women’s bathrooms because they weren’t needed for the study of engineering. A later retrofit alternated restrooms between floors for men and women. The remaining $20 million is to go to new innovation campus collaborations, funding a brand new project will invest in new companies – guidelines as to just where that will go don’t exist yet. It is known that URI will be working with RI Commerce Corp, the twisted minds who enabled Schilling-gate and fostered our Cooler-Warmer marketing campaign. This could be a gateway to another debacle or to the kind of incubator our state really needs, but, unfortunately, there’s no way to tell.

Recommended vote: Yes – but remember you did, and check back in on what they’re doing with that $20 mil for innovation. Sketchiness meter: 45%

5. $70 million for port improvements We like $50 million for the port in Quonset, but not $20 million for Port of Providence infrastructure that is really to purchase the gigantic scrap heap off Allens Ave and then clean it up the way the current owners should have. Too bad we don’t have a line-item veto on this. Quonset Point is one of the productive economic spurs in the state and has come a long way in the last 20 years. While it would be great to see that tract of land in Providence cleaned up, it’s less clear that this should be a state responsibility and it reeks not only of waste, but of bailout.

Recommended vote: Reluctantly, no. Sketchiness meter: 75%

6. $35 million for green stuff We support park improvement, conservation, remediation of environmentally contaminated land and improved bike paths. We think re-grants to local programs are more resistant to abuse. We like the heavy encouragement of matching funds. There is potential for abuse and cronyism, especially in the $8 million designated for purchasing conservation easements on private property that can produce state-funded windfalls for land owners. We don’t like borrowing money instead of pay-as-you-go even for this worthy cause, but this may be the best we can get in RI.

Recommended vote: Yes. Sketchiness meter: 30%

7. $50 million for affordable housing This one’s tricky, as we couldn’t get too much specific information about where the money would go. Affordable housing is certainly a worthy investment in principle, and studies are finding that it’s far more affordable to create housing than to warehouse the homeless even temporarily. We worry that the definition of “affordable” will be stretched beyond reason and that a lot of this money will end up flowing to private developers and landlords, subsidizing for-profit construction at taxpayer expense, but we haven’t abandoned hope. We also believe this should be a part of the budget, not an endless string of bonds – but bond-funded is better than not at all, and those are likely the options we have to live with for now.

Recommended vote: A grudging yes. Sketchiness meter: 30%

Official RI voter handbook, with the full text of each question: http://sos.ri.gov/assets/downloads/ documents/VoterHandbook-2016-ENGLISH.pdf

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