2016 Ballot Question “Voter Guide”



Time for Rhode Island to Exercise Fiscal Restraint… Like Families Do

Rhode Island cannot afford to sink any deeper into debt by passing unnecessary, wasteful, and costly new bond measures. Voters should keep in mind that ballot bonds are not a popularity contest, but rather, by approving any of the five state bond offerings in 2016 (questions # 3–7), voters will be putting the State of Rhode Island into even greater debt.

Ocean State taxpayers already are suffering from the largest “interest on debt” burden of any state in New England, with interest around $550 per year for every man, woman, and child in the state, compared with a $300 average for all states. Since 2005, related interest payments have increased by 90% in Rhode Island, with Connecticut at 25%, and New Hampshire at 10%. The three other New England states actually saw decreases.


Nationally, the average increase is just 25%, while Illinois, considered by many to be the most fiscally troubled state in the nation, saw a 45% increase.

By these measures, Rhode Island’s 90% increase in debt-interest payments dwarfs other states. This level of fiscal irresponsibility by our state’s political class should not be worsened by voters in 2016.

Rhode Island families, who rank just 48th on the national Family Prosperity Index, have long had to tighten their belts when it comes to spending and debt. Approving any of these bond measures would place a future debt burden on our own children!

It is time for the State of Rhode Island to show similar restraint. On November 8, it is up to voters actually to do the tightening by voting to reject state questions #4–7. These bonds, totaling $200,500,000 in new debt — over $321,000,000 including interest payments — will also advance the controversial RhodeMap RI agenda as well as more 38 Studios–style corporate-welfare programs as recommended by the discredited Brookings Institution report.

It is a myth that advancing smart growth and sustainable development boondoggles such as campus innovation centers, subsidized affordable housing, green infrastructure, and government land acquisition programs can produce a positive return on investment. The reality is these programs merely increase the level of government intervention in our lives, while costing millions to taxpayers.

Summary: Voters should decide their own priorities, of course, but for the reasons described below, the Center can clearly recommend to approve only one ballot measure: #2, asking for “ethics reform” approval. Of the five spending bonds, as discussed below, only #3, $27 million for veterans homes, should be given any serious consideration by voters.


#4: Higher Education Bonds

Principal: $45,500,000
Total estimated cost: $72,937,126
Discussion: Not only does this bond increase Rhode Islanders’ debt burden, but it also puts taxpayers, the state government, and college students in bed with private, for-profit companies. The money wouldn’t just invest in new buildings, but it would also fund a new program that helps private corporations use public resources to develop “products, services, and businesses.”

#5: Port Infrastructure Bonds

Principal: $70,000,000
Total estimated cost: $112,210,962
Discussion: This new debt would not only move business costs off of the private businesses that use the ports in Quonset and Providence, but it would also hand 25 acres of Providence real estate over to the government and a non-profit company acting in its behalf.

#6: Property Takeover and Development Bonds

Principal: $35,000,000
Total estimated cost: $56,105,481
Discussion: Of all the bonds on the ballot, this one teaches most clearly the lesson that bonds are not just borrowing for infrastructure, but are policy decisions. Of the total, $8,000,000 will go toward the direct government purchase of land or property rights, some of it for resale or lease at heavy discounts to preferred individuals and businesses. When the Center began investigating the new practice of the state’s purchasing farmland, officials pointed to a bond on the 2014 ballot that had authorized such action. These bonds allow the state government to buy up even more open space, recreation land, and farmland while also creating a windfall for private construction companies and non-profits.

#7: Affordable Housing Bonds

Principal: $50,000,000
Total estimated cost: $80,150,687
Discussion: These bonds would feed what has become an affordable housing industry in Rhode Island, with overlapping interests of construction companies, non-profits, politicians, and government agents. Burdening Rhode Islanders with yet more unaffordable debt is not the way to help us pay our housing bills.


#1: Tiverton Casino

Discussion: The first question on the ballot will essentially allow the state government, acting through the private Twin River Management Group, to construct and operate a casino in Tiverton, on the border of Fall River, Massachusetts. (Tiverton residents will also have to pass their own local ballot question.)

The Center’s emphasis on freedom would generally lead us to support the right of individuals to engage in activities such as gambling if that is what they want to do. On the other hand, our preference for a very limited scope for government leaves us wary of creating a monopoly market for government to enter as if it were some sort of organized crime syndicate. The case for gambling on principles of freedom weakens to the extent that Americans are only able to gamble under the watchful eye — and for the direct profit — of the government.

However, this ballot question does not create that dynamic. Indeed, one could characterize the Tiverton casino not so much as a new operation, but as a new location for Newport Grand, which would be closed if Tiverton opens. Granted, a Tiverton casino will be an expanded casino, but voters may reasonably see the difference as minimal and balance it against an expected relief of pressure to increase Rhode Island’s already-high taxes.

#2: Ethics Commission Authority over the General Assembly

Discussion: A member of our staff recently received the intriguing question of whether giving the unelected Ethics Commission authority over the elected General Assembly contradicts the Center’s preference for smaller, less-intrusive government. To the contrary, our state and our nation are constructed so as to ensure a balance of powers, and in the case of legislators’ immunity to Ethics Commission investigation, the legislature is dramatically unbalanced.

In offering this assessment, we would stress our skepticism of the Ethics Commission’s execution of its role. With members’ terms extending into decades, even though state law is supposed to limit them to five years, and with the commission’s decisions sometimes seeming to float between arbitrary and abstruse, we aren’t confident that this renewed oversight power will make a great deal of practical difference.

But these are pragmatic considerations, whereas the ballot question would be procedural. A future governor and legislature appointing a different sort of commissioner, with greater turnover, will do the state government more good if those commissioners can address corruption among legislators.

#3: Veterans Home Bonds

Principal: $27,000,000
Total estimated cost: $43,281,371
Discussion: As a baseline judgment, we oppose any and all new debt for the state government of Rhode Island at this time. Too often, it seems, voters see bonds as a way to access free money for projects that the profligate spending of the government precludes.

Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the sacrifice and dedication of America’s veterans or the unacceptable treatment that they have received so visibly from our government in recent years. Voters should therefore weigh the practice of borrowing and the implicit boon to labor unions that it represents with the value of developing infrastructure for the benefit of those to whom we owe our freedom.

Media Alert: RI Falls Back to 48th in August JOBS & OPPORTUNITY INDEX (JOI)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 23, 2016
Drop in August “Prosperity” Drags RI Back to 48th on national Jobs & Opportunity Index

Providence, RI — Due to an increase in the ratio of tax dollars paid as compared with personal earnings, the Ocean State dropped back to 48th place in the August Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI), a multi-data metric developed by the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity. 

Based on the release of new state and local tax collection data from the U.S. Census, Rhode Island lost ground on the national JOI metric, remaining – as it has for years – in the bottom five among all states. JOI is a broader and more accurate measure of employment and well-being than the traditionally cited and highly narrow unemployment rate, which has fluctuated more dramatically in recent years for Rhode Island, but which is not an accurate barometer of economic prosperity.

“Political leaders want us to believe that conditions are improving for families and businesses, but JOI shows this just isn’t true,” commented Research Director for the Center, Justin Katz.  “Based on August data, our Ocean State remains worst in New England for each of the three JOI factors that measure employment, income, and independence. Lawmakers must adopt broad-based reforms that can make Rhode Island a state where all Rhode Islanders, not just government and targeted special interests, can truly prosper.”

The Ocean State’s second-quarter increase in taxes collected over the first quarter compared with New York’s decrease made the difference by decreasing its “Prosperity” factor, leading Rhode Island to lose ground against the U.S. and New England averages.

Supporting the conclusions from the JOI metric, Rhode Island also ranks 48th in the Family Prosperity Index, the broadest national measure of family well-being.

For the JOI homepage, click here.

For a description of JOI and its three sub-factors, click here.

Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI), August 2016: State and Local Taxes Drag RI Back to 48

With the release of new state and local taxation data from the U.S. Census, Rhode Island fell back to 48th for the August Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI). The Ocean State’s second-quarter increase in taxes over the first quarter compared with New York’s decrease made the difference, leading Rhode Island to lose ground against the U.S. and New England averages. In all, six of 13 datapoints are new the August report.

In Rhode Island, employment was up 1,275 from the previously recorded number, labor force up 1,770, and RI-based jobs down 100. (Note that these are calculated with pre-revision data for the prior month.) Medicaid enrollment increased by 1,243, while SNAP decreased by 711. As mentioned above, second-quarter state and local taxes were up $179 million from the prior quarter.

The biggest shift in the first chart, showing the six New England states in the national race, is Vermont’s big fall to fifth in the region (from 19th to 44th in the nation), above only Rhode Island. The reason is a large increase in Vermont’s state and local taxes, which were up by a factor of three, suggesting an issue of timing that might reverse for the next quarter. Although not as dramatic, New Hampshire has seen similar fluctuations, and returned to 1st in the nation, from 3rd last month. Thanks to Vermont, Connecticut is now third in New England, which is 33rd in the country (up three slots). Maine slipped a bit, to 20th in the nation, from 17th, while Massachusetts gained two spots, hitting 35th.


The second chart shows the gap between Rhode Island and New England as well as the United States, which expanded this month. By contrast, Rhode Island’s gap shrunk on the unemployment rate (third chart).



Results for the three underlying JOI factors were:

  • Job Outlook Factor (measuring optimism that adequate work is available): RI moved forward two slots to 36th place.
  • Freedom Factor (measuring the level of work against reliance on welfare programs): RI remained at 39th.
  • Prosperity Factor (measuring the financial motivation of income versus taxes): RI moved up two spaces to 44th.
Livestock farm, herd of sheep

The 2016 “Sheeple” Index: Alarming Number of Lawmakers Vote in Lock-step with Leadership

Despite polices that have caused the Ocean State to suffer the 50th ranked business climate, the 48th rank in Family Prosperity, and the 47th rank in Jobs & Opportunity, our new 2016 “Sheeple” index demonstrates that there is scant dissent among Rhode Island lawmakers who vote for such policies.

This index ranks how often state Representatives and Senators voted in lock-step with leadership. Even with the 2016 General Assembly scoring a dismal (-54.1) on the Center’s 2016 Freedom Index, there was little opposition as more than half of all lawmakers voted with the House Speaker or the Senate President over 95% of the time.

The 2016 “Sheeple” index is a collaboration between and our Center.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: Lawmakers who were not present and missed votes are artificially credited in this “sheeple” index as having not voted with leadership. Please refer to the “missed votes” (or Walker) index here to see how many votes any particular lawmaker incurred.

Of the 2016 House’s 489 bills examined, excluding resolutions and solemnizations: 24 Representatives voted at least 98% of the time with the Speaker, with the worst-five “sheeple” offenders are:

  • John DeSimone (99.8%)
  • Ray Johnston, Jr (99.8%)
  • Michael Morin (99.6%)
  • Brian Kennedy (99.39%)
  • Lauren Carson (99.2%).

Of the Senate’s 487 bills, 11 Senators surpassed the 98% sheeple threshold, the five least independent when it came to casting votes in lock-step with the Senate President are:

  • Susan Sosnowski (99.6%)
  • Dominick Ruggerio (99.2%)
  • Erin Lynch (99.2%)
  • Steve Archambault (98.8%)
  • Hanna Gallo (98.6%)

“In a healthy democracy, there should be a rigorous debate of diverse policies. Sadly, and conversely in Rhode Island, it seems that when leadership authorizes bills to move forward, legislators feel compelled to automatically support them,” commented Mike Stenhouse, CEO for the Center. “The statistics in this report present an alarming pattern of elected officials blindly following the leader. Voters this November must decide if this is how they want their government to be run.”


How Does Your Delegation Rank On The 2016 RI Freedom Index?

Based on the 2016 individual floor-votes of each city’s & town’s entire delegation of General Assembly House and Senate lawmakers on bills appearing on the Center’s “Freedom Index”,  a ranking of the 39 municipalities is provided below.

See the 9/16/16 media release here … 

EXETER’s top-rated score of +19.37 by its delegation, consisting of Representatives Price and Costa, and Senator Morgan, was higher than the General Assembly’s overall score of negative (-54.1). Conversely, NEWPORT’s score of (-68.5) by its delegation of Representatives Carson and Abney, and Senators Paiva Weed and DiPalma, was worst in the state.

TOP-3, BOTTOM-5. Joining Exeter as the only 3 towns to achieve a positive score was Richmond and Charelestown. In addition to Newport, the bottom five towns were Pawtucket, East Providence, Providence, and Jamestown, all of which are part of the 16 cities and town that scored below the average General Assembly score.

How Does Your City/Town Delegation Rank?

  1. Exeter  (+19.37)
  2. Richmond  (+18.65)
  3. Charlestown  (+1.20)
  4. West Greenwich  (-4.48)
  5. Hopkinton (-9.57)
  6. Foster (-10.95)
  7. Coventry (-15.96)
  8. East Greenwich (-15.97)
  9. New Shoreham (-28.70)
  10. Portsmouth (-29.86)
  11. North Kingstown (-30.68)
  12. North Smithfield (-34.58)
  13. Scituate (-37.85)
  14. Westerly (-38.28)
  15. West Warwick (-41.62)
  16. Bristol (-42.70)
  17. Burrillville (-42.80)
  18. South Kingstown (-43.86)
  19. Glocester (-48.10)
  20. Tiverton (-51.08)
  21. Cumberland (-52.17)
  22. Narragansett (-53.43)
  23. Lincoln (-53.44)
  24. Warwick (-54.27)
  25. Middletown (-54.35)
  26. North Providence (-60.14)
  27. Cranston (-61.04)
  28. Woonsocket (-62.82)
  29. Central Falls (-63.83)
  30. Smithfield (-64.67)
  31. Johnston (-64.98)
  32. Barrington (-66.00)
  33. Little Compton (-66.20)
  34. Warren (-66.33)
  35. Jamestown (-67.30)
  36. Providence (-67.30)
  37. East Providence (-67.91)
  38. Pawtucket (-68.04)
  39. Newport (-68.85)

NEW “WALKERS” REPORT: How Many Votes Did Your Lawmaker Miss?

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 12, 2016
Legislative “Circus” Main Culprit in Missed General Assembly Votes

About one in eight lawmakers missed over 20% of votes; three over 40% in 2016

Calls for legislative action to limit votes in a single day or week

Providence, RI — The annual General Assembly ritual of an “all-night spasm of deal making and lawmaking” is the primary culprit as to why so many elected officials miss so many votes, according to Ken Block, the two-time gubernatorial candidate, who’s group teamed with the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity to produce a report on missed votes since 2014.

Often referred to as “walkers”, thirty members of the 2016 General Assembly failed to adequately represent their constituencies by failing to cast votes on over 10% of all non resolution or solemnization bills.

However, both the Center and WatchdogRI point out that legitimate family, personal, and business emergencies, illnesses, or conflicts often play a role in preventing lawmakers from being able to attend some General Assembly sessions. When such conflicts coincide with the annual all-night circus of voting on hundreds of bills in a single all-night session, voters can begin to understand why so many of their senators and representatives miss so many votes, according to Block, who penned a Providence Sunday Journal opinion piece yesterday on the topic.

Nonetheless, the Center and WatchdogRI compiled a full report of the voting records of all incumbents over the past three years, which included an analysis of 615 votes in the House and 532 votes in the Senate for 2016.

In the House, the top 10 legislators with the most missed votes in 2016 were: Thomas Palangio, D-Providence, 536; John Carnevale, D-Providence, 356; Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence, 263; Jared Nunes, D-Coventry, 221; Joseph Trillo, R-Warwick, 209; John Lombardi, D-Providence, 202; Robert Jacquard, D-Cranston, 157; Edith Ajello, D-Providence, 142; Nicholas Mattiello D-Cranston, 126; and Dan Reilly, R-Portsmouth, 105.

For the 2016 Senate, the top 10 legislators with the most missed votes were: Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston, 138; Donna Nesselbush D-Pawtucket, 130; Edward O’Neill, R-Lincoln, 118; Frank Lombardo, D-Johnston, 115; Leonidas Raptakis, D-Coventry, 107; Nicholas Kettle, R-Coventry, 92; James Doyle, D-Pawtucket, 91; Elizabeth Crowley, D-Central Falls, 89; Joshua Miller D-Cranston, 77; and William Walaska, D-Warwick, 77.

Senator John Pagliarini R-Portsmouth, did not miss a single vote, joining 15 other senators who missed fewer than ten votes. Representatives Robert Phillips, D-Woonsocket, and Raymond Johnston, D-Pawtucket, each missed only one vote, joining 23 other representatives who missed fewer than 10 votes.

CALL TO ACTION: In response to pushback to Block’s oped by lawmakers who feel they may unfairly be listed on the ‘walker’ top-10 lists, both the Center and WatchdogRI challenge all lawmakers to go on record in support of reform to the cattle-call vote process that is the root cause. The oped suggests that the legislature should consider a daily or weekly bill-vote limit, with no floor votes occurring after a specified evening hour. Such reform would clearly enhance a more transparent and representative governmental process.

EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES? There are at least four known instances where extenuating circumstances may have prevented individual lawmakers from taking votes. In the case of Representatives Palangio, Corvese, and Nunes as well as Senator Lombardi … a personal illness, a death in the family, a child-birth, and a pre-arranged family vacation respectively caused these elected-officials to miss all of the votes on the final “cattle-call” late-evening into early-morning of bill passages. In the spirit of fairness, responses from other lawmakers will be accepted at and will be posted and regularly updated at

To view a PDF of the full report, go to:




Farmland Acquisition in Rhode Island: Stealing the American Dream?

At the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s (DEM’s) second of three workshops to publicly review new rules by which the state agency will buy and resell private farmland, the overwhelming majority of the audience had serious concerns about the state’s plan. A few farmers actually walked out in protest. The only apparent supporters were would-be farmers who would benefit from the plan — in typical RI political fashion, gaining off the backs of others.

While the goal of preserving state farmland may be noble, the means by which the DEM plans to accomplish it are anti-free-market and were exposed as not being well considered. According to one farmer who spoke out, the government’s land-grab scheme is anti-American. Paraphrasing his comments: “The government acquiring private farmland is like communism; the state is stealing the American Dream!”

He may be right. Did you know that this farmland acquisition plan is derived from Rhode Island’s own five-year strategic plan, called “A Vision for RI Agriculture”? Joseph Stalin’s five-year collective plans in the darkest days of the U.S.S.R. were an abject failure and economic disaster.

Another person from a local town council inquired: “What economic qualifications does the DEM have to venture into the business of buying and selling farmland and managing private citizen’s money?”

Distrust of DEM and of Government

Many others pointed out that the DEM itself historically has not been a friend of the small business and the farming community, and that government-run projects also have a history of failure and cost overruns. Farmers pointedly commented how the DEM and state government have made it so difficult for many parcels of land to be purchased and profitably farmed.

There are win-win free-market and other alternatives that will not intrude on private business and risk the financial security of current farmers in the Ocean State.

Years ago, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity warned Rhode Islanders that the RhodeMap RI scheme, in ways unforeseen at the time and still, would eventually infringe on the rights of property owners and on the sovereignty of local governments. With the establishment of new statewide mandates and the ceding of authority to unelected federal or regional bureaucrats, our long-cherished rights and local ways of government would be incrementally undermined and eroded. Further, we argued that related mandates would lead to adverse economic consequences.

Redistribution of Land

Once again, our warnings have materialized in the government’s attempt to “preserve” RI farmland.

One primary objection stems from the belief that it is not a proper role of government to determine how private property should be used, and that it is certainly not a legitimate role of government to become an owner and lessor of formerly private property. This type of centrally planned, one-size-fits-all governmental interference in the free-market system has a devastating track record and has historically led to unintended and adverse consequences from an economic and personal rights perspective. Just look today at the suffering in Venezuela and Brazil.

Socialism is defined as government control over the means of production. Buying and selling land that complies with a government-created comprehensive plan is exactly what these proposed rules contemplate. That the government further contemplates the leasing of land to private farmers — and, by the way, only to those who will do with it as the government wants — is a reminder of yet another failed and outdated economic system: European-style feudalism.

Regardless of the feel-good rationale and warm-and-fuzzy terms, why would anyone believe we can escape such historical lessons here in Rhode Island?

Make-Believe Economics

Another major objection stems from the stunning lack of economic analysis. At the meeting, dozens of farmers expressed a multitude of economically related concerns, from increased taxes, to reduced farmable acreage, to oppressive land restrictions, to reduced local municipal revenue, to legal expenses.

When the state’s Commerce Corporation weighed in, requiring this program to conform with local comprehensive plans, it was mandating compliance with the so-called “economic development plan” from 2014 called RhodeMap RI, which the Center proved was not an economic development plan at all.

I specifically asked the DEM team if there was any economic study, research, or analysis serving as the basis for their program, and the answer was, “no.”

When the larger RhodeMap RI agenda was unanimously rubber-stamped by the Division of Planning commission years ago (including, by the way, the director of the DEM), not one commission member raised his or her hand when asked who had a background or degree in economics. When I inquired if anyone on the DEM working group that put together this program actually had a background in economics, the answer was once again was, “no.”

Given this lack of relevant inquiry, the Center would like to raise a few legitimate economic concerns about potential unintended consequences of the DEM’s farmland acquisition scheme:

  • According to state law and a September 6, 2016, Providence Journal article, as well as the language of proposed DEM rules, the state will buy farmland at market value and resell it at deeply discounted prices. Necessarily, it seems, the program will incur a transactional loss by the government, with the tab of course being picked up by other RI families and businesses. For how long and for how much hard-earned money can taxpayers be expected to absorb this kind of financial hit? Like all sustainable development schemes, this farmland acquisition plan is not economically scalable or sustainable.
  • Also we ask, by what economic rationale does the state claim that it is in the best overall interests of Rhode Islanders for certain levels of farmland to be maintained? We believe that such determinations must be market based and determined by the owners of the land. But even those who believe that government experts can make decisions at least as well as the market can should be concerned that there has apparently been zero economic analysis of this program. That is not wise policy; it is arbitrary government fiat. Who’s to say that a specific parcel of land might not be developed more profitably than for farming? If some other legitimate business venture for that land might produce two or three times more jobs and more taxable economic activity and profits, why is this not better for the public good, or for the farmers themselves? Perhaps other land in another part of a town or the state would be better suited for farming than where it is currently conducted or zoned. Government restrictions and mandates preventing the mechanisms of the market from settling such questions have dragged down the Rhode Island economy. In America, is it not the right and responsibility of land owners to seek the most productive and profitable use of their land and property?
  • Similarly, if farming can be profitably conducted in our state, then the free-market itself would adjust, with more land naturally partitioned for and converted into farmland to meet that demand — without the need for heavy-handed, centralized government planning. If, however, RI farmers cannot effectively compete with larger regional or national producers, then government mandates that force unsustainable farming can only lead to economic degradation, creating calls for more taxpayer subsidies. A basic lesson of economics is that when supply exceeds demand, prices drop. If they drop too far based on government meddling, farms could go out of business.
  • The unintended consequence of this intrusive government program could be to reduce the value of other farmers’ land. When the government maintains excessive supplies of farmland (beyond demand levels) — or sells farmland at artificially reduced prices — again, it is basic supply-and-demand economics that such interference in the market could cause other farmland to be reduced in value. Even farmers in Rhode Island who are not part of this DEM program may be forced to absorb this land value hit! One of the more stunning comments from the DEM team in response to concerns that land values could decrease — a response that drew an audibly negative response from the crowd — was that the “state would control the value of the land it acquired.” Similar government rent-control attempts have led to destructive interference in markets wherever they’ve been tried. Again, as one farmer inquired, by what qualifications can the DEM be trusted to engage in such economically risky activity?
  • Similarly, selling some farmland at below-market prices to some farmers will also create an unfair playing field and disrupt productive free-market competition. With an artificially low cost of entry into the agricultural industry, farmers who buy land cheaply from the government will have an unfair advantage over other farmers who have been forced to deal with the higher costs of doing business over the years. This kind of market disruption can also lead to adverse consequences for established farmers who are not even part of the program.

Why do we continually do this to ourselves? This type of intrusion of government centralized planning into the private sector is why the Ocean State has the 50th ranked business climate, why we rank 48th on the Family Prosperity Index, and why we rank 47th on the Jobs & Opportunity Index.


WIN-WIN Solutions

If our government truly wants to preserve farmland and encourage agricultural farming, rather than compounding risky interference, officials should consider freeing up the industry (and the economy more broadly) instead of putting further restrictions on it. It should consider broad-based, free-market reforms that will help all farmers be more profitable and more likely to pass down, and maybe even expand, their farming businesses. Reforms like:

  • Elimination of the estate tax (recent reforms have not gone far enough) so that succession planning will not be so costly and destructive to farmers
  • Repeal or reduction of the sales tax to reduce the cost of doing business and to increase consumer power by leaving more money in Rhode Islanders’ pockets
  • Rolling-back mandates and other regulations that specifically affect farmers and farming, such as certain wetlands restrictions and potential chicken-coup dimension mandates

Some of the farmers at the meeting also offered an interesting idea. The state could put into play public and land-trust lands. Instead of preserving farmland levels by the state’s acquiring and redistributing new property, why not authorize the state to release and sell for private use some of the public land it owns and petition private land trusts to similarly make available lands they own and on which they currently do not allow development of any kind.

Loss for Farmers and RI

There are alternatives to meet the stated goals of the acquisition program. However, the program’s designers apparently have little regard for the failed global history of government control over the means of production. They apparently also believe that, magically, this particular plan can defy the basic laws of economics. Rhode Islanders and Rhode Island farmers live in the real world, not in some utopian land where make believe economics prevail.

This glaring disconnect raises the suspicion that this program is not about good economics and a true concern for Rhode Island farmers. Indeed, the intervention of the Commerce Corporation, demanding that purchasing farmers comply with the RhodeMap RI–inspired state guide plan, is evidence that this land-grab scheme is about politics and advancing a federal sustainable development agenda, in which the government increasingly controls the rights to more and more land.

Even if the Department of Environment Management follows through with its promise — made at the meeting — to amend its proposed rules so as to remove the “state guide plan” requirement from this program, the public cannot have confidence that the promise will have any effect.  After all, Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello promised that RhodeMap RI would “sit on the shelf.” The insidious nature of creeping government means that the only real protection is explicit laws against infringements on the people’s rights or, better yet, no laws enabling government agencies to begin such programs in the first place.

Property owners’ right to do with their own land as they wish, their right to keep or sell it at their sole option, and their right to realize full economic value for the fruits of their labor are clearly at risk. RhodeMap-style impositions aside, farmers can have no confidence that the farmland acquisition scheme will remain a purely voluntary program. What does it mean, for instance, when the language of the DEM’s proposal states that the agency “will purchase farmland in danger of converting to non-agricultural use”? What if the land is planned to be converted and the property owner does not volunteer to sell it to the state?

Rhode Island law currently states that eminent domain can be used to confiscated land from one private party and give it to another private party if that transfer complies with a local (comprehensive) plan. In a chilling echo, the very rules proposed by the DEM state that the contemplated government reselling of farmland must meet local comprehensive planning.

When pressed at the meeting, DEM staff promised — in writing — to amend the rules so as not to authorize eminent domain or condemnation powers to be used for this program. Again, however, in the absence of regulations or (preferably) statutory language explicitly forbidding the use of eminent domain, it isn’t clear that new authorization is even necessary. Moreover, eminent domain isn’t the only mechanism for making sale of farmland to the state compulsory, in effect if not in law.

For example, a 2010 “FarmRI 2.0” document — an obvious forerunner to this proposal — contemplates language placed in easements that would give conservationists a right of first refusal at the agricultural value of land. In other words, farmers seeking to sell their land wouldn’t be able to sell to the highest bidder if a “conservation organization” wants it at a steep discount.

But even if the government itself does not exercise eminent domain powers or otherwise compel landowners to sell, recent history has shown that the courts may so. Once laws and agency rules are established, a growing trend finds that third-party lawsuits can force local governments and private property owners to comply with local plans or federal mandates by giving up their property in order to meet the government’s sustainable development agenda. Look no further than the Supreme Court’s Kelo v. New London decision and the experiences of Darien, Connecticut, and Westchester, New York, for prime examples.

This farmland acquisition scheme and these associated rules put Rhode Island on a slippery slope and create a government program ripe for abuse, fraud, and cronyism. The only adequate solution is to halt the encroachment of the government upon the private sector and the federal and state governments’ encroachment upon local authority.

At the state level, we know that the Brookings Institution plan for our state, called RI Innovates, also recommends that the state acquire an inventory of “pad ready” land for use for so-called investment in “advanced industries.”  This is the context in which new programs must be reviewed: an aggressive government, with key decisions made by unaccountable boards and quasi-publics, seeking out new pretenses to take over land and usurp the rights of individuals. Where does it end? Rhode Islanders should fear that the U.S.S.R. and Venezuela answer that question in the long run.

In conclusion, Rhode Islanders do not want their lives managed by a centralized government plan, whose authors and executors think they know what’s in our best interests. This state-run farmland acquisition program will lead to economic decline, infringe on the rights of property owners and the sovereignty of local governments, and advance a federal and international agenda that was not designed with the best interests of Rhode Island families and farmers in mind.

Walkers in the General Assembly

See responses from General Assembly lawmakers here …

Ken Block, Chairman of

Did you ever wonder how many votes your state senator and representative missed this past year?

I never gave it much thought until the last day of the 2016 Rhode Island legislative session, when the last votes were being cast as the sun was rising after an all-night spasm of deal making and lawmaking. Punch drunk representatives staggered home after casting a mind-boggling 209 votes in less than 48 hours, while our senators cast 141 votes.

WatchdogRI and the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity teamed up to analyze the voting records of every incumbent legislator for legislative years 2014, 2015, and 2016. The Center provided raw data in electronic form from their data provider LegiNation Inc., and WatchdogRI performed the data analytics.

After discarding resolutions and marriage solemnizations, we were left with 615 votes in the House and 532 votes in the Senate for 2016.

In the House, the top 10 legislators with the most missed votes were:

  • Thomas Palangio (D, Providence): 536
  • John Carnevale (D, Providence): 356
  • Arthur Corvese (D, North Providence): 263
  • Jared Nunes (D, Coventry/West Warwick): 221
  • Joseph Trillo (R, Warwick): 209
  • John Lombardi (D, Providence): 202
  • Robert Jacquard (D, Cranston): 157
  • Edith Ajello (D, Providence): 142
  • Nicholas Mattiello (D, Cranston): 126
  • Dan Reilly (R, Portsmouth/Middletown): 105

For the Senate, the top 10 legislators with the most missed votes were:

  • Frank Lombardi (D, Cranston): 138
  • Donna Nesselbush (D, Pawtucket/North Providence): 130
  • Edward O’Neill (R, Lincoln/North
    Providence): 118
  • Frank Lombardo (D, Johnston): 115
  • Leonidas Raptakis (D, East Greenwich/West Greenwich/Coventry): 107
  • Nicholas Kettle (R, Coventry/Foster/
    Scituate/West Greenwich): 92
  • James Doyle (D, Pawtucket): 91
  • Elizabeth Crowley (D, Central Falls/
    Pawtucket): 89
  • Joshua Miller (D, Providence/Cranston): 77
  • William Walaska (D, Warwick): 77

Representatives Robert Phillips (D, Cumberland/Woonsocket) and Raymond Johnston (D, Pawtucket) each missed only one vote, joining 23 other representatives who missed fewer than
10 votes.

Senator John Pagliarini (R, Bristol/Portsmouth/Tiverton) did not miss a single vote, joining 15 other senators who missed fewer than 10 votes.

Every representative who understandably decided to go home after midnight on June 18 missed 43 votes or 7% of all votes held for the year. A representative who had a family emergency the last two days of the session would have missed 34% of all votes held for the year.

We all know that the human mind works best well rested, yet 7% of all votes held in the House this year were held after 1:00 a.m. on the last day of the session. Those bills contained 234 pages of legalese. I wonder how many legislators read those pages while most of us were fast asleep?

The practice of pushing most important votes to the end of the legislative session can leave entire legislative districts with no representation. Would you vote for a legislator if you knew he or she would not vote on more than a third of the bills voted upon by the General Assembly in a year? The rules of operation of our General Assembly make it possible for any legislator to miss that many votes if any personal crisis comes up in the tiny 48-hour end-of-session window.

In the seven years that I spent advocating to eliminate the master lever, legislative leadership was fond of explaining away the 50 years it took to get the job done as part of the slow and deliberative legislative process. There is nothing slow or deliberative about the final 48-hour frenzy of last minute bills, amendments, and votes.

Nothing mandates that our legislature operate in such a circus-like manner. Simply passing 10 bills a week over the six-month session would eliminate the end-of-session blitz. Transparency would be increased and legislators would theoretically be better informed about the bills they were voting upon.

The legislature should consider a 25-bill weekly limit (not including resolutions and marriage solemnizations). As a deliberative body, no floor votes should occur after 9:30 p.m. — ever.

Rhode Island needs leaders who are dedicated to changing our political culture. Will we get the leadership we need, or will we be perpetually left with an annual legislative hangover?


Click here to see responses from lawmakers who claim there were extenuating personal circumstances that caused their missed votes.