Line-item veto gains momentum

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The House leadership will sponsor a resolution to create a commission to study giving the governor what 44 other governors already have – the power of the line-item veto of the budget approved by the legislature.

“There is no legislation in the House,” Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, said Friday when asked if lawmakers would address the issue of the line-item veto in this session. But, he went on to add, “the speaker would like to have a commission or study done.” To that end, he expected a resolution backed by the House leadership would be introduced shortly.

Greg Pare, spokesman for Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, said Monday, “She is supportive. She is looking to put together a task force to look at the way various states handle line-item vetoes. Different states do it different ways.”

Meanwhile, Ken Block, who unsuccessfully ran as the Republican nominee for governor in 2014 and is chairman of DogwatchRI, is focusing attention on the line-item veto in the wake of felony charges brought against the former chairman and vice chairman of the House Finance Committee.

The issue is gaining momentum. Mayor Scott Avedisian and Allan Fung favor the line-item veto.

In a letter sent yesterday to the governor and leaders in the House and Senate, Avedisian writes, “By having the ability to exercise the usage of a line-item veto, I believe it will add the needed transparency to the state’s budget process. Moreover, it is my shared feeling that once a governor has the ability to veto budget items, it strengthens the entire process, as well as provides ownership over the entirety of the budget before it is delivered from the legislature. Additionally, one of the best aspects of a line-item veto is that should the governor decide to strike a line from the budget, the General Assembly can always override the veto. I believe this is a desperate and necessary check and balance needed in Rhode Island.”

Block sees no reason for a study commission, saying the trend across the country for this check and balance is clear and the issue is whether it is a strong or weak form of line-item veto.

Also, while implementing a line-item veto would require a constitutional change and hence voter approval in a general election that at earliest won’t occur until 2018, Block sees no reason to postpone legislation.

“Why in God’s name would you delay it? You have a population screaming for it…we can’t afford to wait another minute let alone another year,” he said in an interview Sunday.

Berman envisions a commission that would give the line-item veto “a comprehensive look” whose membership would include constitutional experts.

Berman is also sensitive to those who would say creating a commission is a means of killing the proposal. He said that wouldn’t be the case.

Block led the charge on removing the master lever from the ballot that enabled voters with a single checkmark to vote for all candidates from a single party on the ballot at one time. Legislators eventually signed on to a bill introduced by then freshman Warwick Representative K. Joseph Shekarchi, who is now House Majority Leader. The bill, backed by the House leadership, passed and the master lever came off the ballot in the November 2016 election.

Block said with removal of the master lever the “under votes” increased by 2 percent. The “under vote” are those candidates listed lower on the ballot who don’t carry a party designation such as candidates for school committee. The 2016 ballot also saw an increase in independent candidates for office.

In an opinion piece published in today’s Beacon, Block says 74 percent of the population favors the check and balance of the line-item veto.

“The way things stand now, when the General Assembly places a line-item in our budget it becomes a done deal – there is no effective way for anyone [including the governor] to do anything about a bad spending item or any other type of non-spending issue that gets snuck into the budget bill.”

Asked about a budget veto, which is an existing option, Block pointed out the governor may not want to “jeopardize a budget” in the billions of dollars over an appropriation that could be as small as $2,000.

“It’s not an effective check and balance; all kinds of games can be played,” he said.

As an example of games, he cites the “surprise” $20 million bond for ProvPort added at the very end of the session in 2016. He said most legislators didn’t know of the bond or what it was for.

As for studying the options of line-item veto legislation, Block has looked at other states and produced a comparative chart. Among his findings are that 34 states with a line-item veto require that 66 percent of elected legislators (whether present for the vote or not) to override a line-item veto; that 12 states allow for a governor to reduce a line-item expenditure as opposed to an all or nothing elimination; that 34 states allow the governor to eliminate funding for an entire program or agency and that states with line-item veto are about equally divided on giving the governor the power to veto budget footnotes.

Block called a study commission a “delay tactic” and a “prelude to a debate over a weak or strong line-item veto.”

He also charged that the legislative leadership is “playing a punting game” and that by relegating the issue to a study, rather than moving ahead with legislation, enables them to say they have addressed the issue knowing that with time it won’t have the attention it does now.

In response to an inquiry, the following statement was released by the governor’s office: “The Governor believes that Rhode Islanders deserve to have faith in their government and trust that their elected leaders will never use their public position to enrich themselves. The recent string of charges brought against state lawmakers puts that faith at risk and requires all of us in public service to reaffirm our commitment to the public trust. The Governor is and always has been a strong supporter of the line-item veto, and is open to working with the General Assembly to propose legislation that will improve ethics and transparency in Rhode Island.”

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