The legislative sausage-making process in Rhode Island is in dire need of reform; reforms that should be codified via a constitutional amendment.

Center Recommends Constitutional Amendment to Codify Legislative Process Reforms

All Lawmakers Should Have a Greater Say in the Legislative Process

New “Reform Caucus” is Disingenuous

Providence, RI — The legislative sausage-making process in Rhode Island is in dire need of reform; reforms that should be codified via a constitutional amendment, according to the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity.

“Now is the time to demand better government. Now is the time for General Assembly leadership to cede some of their excessive powers and to reform our government so that all lawmakers on Smith Hill are freer to represent the families and businesses in their districts. No more excuses,” said Mike Stenhouse, CEO for the Center. “It is far better that the many elected representatives have a greater say in the legislative process than to be pressured to support the agendas of the few in leadership.”

The Center supports the reform ideas previously put forth by Representative Jared Nunes (D, Coventry) as a good starting point. However, now, with the statewide debate gaining momentum, the Center recommends that a more permanent solution should also be considered.

In calling for a dual-legislative track, the Center’s primary objective is to ensure that elected Senators and Representatives will have greater capacity and freedom to represent their individual districts, rather than being compelled to back the personal agendas of Senate and House leadership.

The first piece of legislation would immediately implement certain reforms for the 2019 General Assembly session, while the second piece would call for a ballot-referendum in 2020, whereby voters could approve codification of those reforms into the Rhode Island constitution.

“The recently concocted ‘Reform Caucus’, led by progressive-left activists, is currently making disingenuous calls for similar reforms. It should be clear, however, that their motives are not for good-government purposes, but rather as a means to advance their radical agenda,” warned Stenhouse. “We must institutionalize these reforms in our constitution, because the ultra-left cannot be trusted not to reimpose authoritarian measures if they ever assume leadership control.”

The Center calls on lawmakers from the left and the right to publicly back this legislative initiative, and for leadership to consider how they can be viewed as heroes by supporting these obvious good-government reforms.

Among the high-level goals that the legislation and constitutional referendum should seek to reform, include:

  • Less control by leadership over what legislation will advance, with more power provided to legislative committees
  • A more democratic process to ‘advise and consent’ over committee chair appointments and other leadership positions
  • An end to the corrupt end-of-session “cattle-call” votes, whereby dozens upon dozens of bills are rushed through committees and brought up for floor votes in the course of just a few late-night hours
  • A process that restricts the capacity of majority and minority leaders to ‘suspend the rules’ to circumstances where only true emergencies may occur, and with limited duration or scope.
  • An end – or significantly increased transparency – to the corrupt legislative and community grant process, which is often used as a coercive legislative sledge-hammer

POLL: Why Rhode Islanders Want a Constitutional Convention

See the results of our September poll about how Rhode Islanders feel about the state of their state; includes actual words from your neighbors.

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POLL: Why Rhode Islanders Want a Constitutional Convention

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Read actual quotes from voters – very interesting

October 22, 2013, Warwick, RI – last evening at the RI Taxpayer Association meeting in Warwick, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity announced additional poll results from its September public opinion survey about likely-voter attitudes towards a Constitutional Convention, which will be decided on ballot Question-3 this November. The results show three-to-one support in to in favor of a convention and also show that arguments in support of a convention poll significantly stronger than arguments against a convention. Highlights of the recently released results, show that likely-voters:

  • By a 63% – 21% margin, favor a convention
  • By a 74% – 11% margin, see a convention as a means to bypass the traditional legislative process and have their independent voices heard
  • By a 67% – 16% margin, favor tax and spending restraints (such as a line-item-veto and no more 38-Studios type bonds)
  • By a 68% – 16% margin, believe that a convention would give voters a more direct say in their democracy

Previously released poll highlights can be seen below.

October 9, 2014; East Providence, RI  – The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity released figures from its recently commissioned poll at a lunch forum this afternoon at the Squantum Association in East Providence. Based on the results the Center recommends that voters “approve” RI ballot Question #3 to convene a Constitutional Convention.

At the forum, which featured nationally renowned anti-tax crusader, Grover Norquist, and former RI gubernatorial candidate, Ken Block, the Center released portions of a public opinion poll it commissioned last month.
The poll of over 500 likely voters was conducted by Communication Concepts of Easton, PA. It demonstrates the deep skepticism that Rhode Islanders feel towards their state government. In summary, Rhode Islanders believe …

  • Overwhelmingly that RI is on the wrong track (70%-17%)
  • Overwhelmingly that Economy/Jobs is the state’s most important problem (59%)
  • Overwhelmingly that that our political leadership is not adequately addressing our state’s problems (77%-12%)
  • Overwhelmingly that RI government is more geared towards special interest groups than towards the people (79%-11%)

“Voters are angry and are fed up with special interest politics,” observed Mike Stenhouse, CEO for the Center. “They see a Convention as a legitimate and needed avenue for their voices to be heard. With Rhode Islaners this obviously incensed and hungry for a solution, our Center recommends that voters approve Question-3 on the ballot in next month’s election.”

The Center also announced that it will launch a campaign to approve a Constitutional Convention. A white-board video ad, in response to the union sponsored “no” video, along with other digital ads can be viewed at

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“Shall there be a convention to amend or revise the Constitution?”

How a Constitutional Convention might benefit the Ocean State!  #ConConRI

Will you vote “Yes” or “No” this November?

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Legal Precedent to Ban Legislators from Running as ConCon Delegates

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The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity commissioned a legal brief by the Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights to determine if any constitutional language or case law exists that would impact the eligibility of a sitting elected official from running as a Constitutional Convention delegate, should voters approve ballot Question-3 this November.

Based on the legal brief below, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity urges the special convention commission to recommend that the General Assembly, if and when a Constitutional Convention is approved, should establish a requirement that any currently elected official would first have to resign their current position before declaring their candidacy as a Convention delegate.


August 21, 2014:

The Prohibition of Service by Legislators and Other Office Holders as Delegates to a Constitutional Convention –

A “ConCon” Conflict

Written by the Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights; commissioned and released by the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity

Summary: There is clear constitutional language and supporting case law that would prevent General Assembly members, and perhaps other state or local officials, from serving as delegates to a Constitutional Convention.

Background: This November the voters of Rhode Island will have the opportunity to approve or reject a ballot measure calling for a Constitutional Convention for the state.[1]  While varied forces and interests are aligning around the question itself, one legal argument – who is permitted to run for convention delegate – is not only being raised but has also been the subject of a significant court case since the last Constitutional Convention was called.

In the 2009 decision in Felkner v. Chariho Regional School Committee [968 A.2d 865 (R.I. 2009)] the Rhode Island Supreme Court held not only that a specific statutory exclusion prevented a citizen from holding two public offices, but that “the simultaneous holding of these two positions violates the long-recognized common law doctrine of incompatibility.” [Felkner, 868.]

As with the statutory prohibitions in Felkner, the Rhode Island Constitution erects a clear bar to the holding of multiple offices in Article III, Section 6:

ARTICLE III – OF QUALIFICATION FOR OFFICE – Section 6. Holding of offices under other governments —Senators and representatives not to hold other appointed offices under state government. — No person holding any office under the government of the United States, or of any other state or country, shall act as a general officer or as a member of the general assembly, unless at the time of taking such engagement that person shall have resigned the office under such government; and if any general officer, senator, representative, or judge shall, after election and engagement, accept any appointment under any other government, the office under this shall be immediately vacated; but this restriction shall not apply to any person appointed to take deposition or acknowledgment of deeds, or other legal instruments, by the authority of any other state or country. No senator or representative shall, during the time for which he or she was elected, be appointed to any state office, board, commission or other state or quasi-public entity exercising executive power under the laws of this state, and no person holding any executive office or serving as a member of any board, commission or other state or quasi-public entity exercising executive power under the laws of this state shall be a member of the senate or the house of representatives during his or her continuance in such office.

This language clearly and unambiguously prevents General Assembly members from holding office with the Federal Government or that of any other state or country.  Nor, it states, shall they “be appointed to any state office, board, commission or other state or quasi-public entity exercising executive power under the laws of this state.” [2]

While this later clause may seem at first to settle (in the negative) the question of whether a General Assembly member may serve simultaneously as a Constitutional Convention delegate, it could perhaps be read to apply only to those positions that relate to the executive power.  And while a Constitutional Convention may (and likely would) in fact impact the powers and duties of, and limitations imposed upon the executive branch, it would not be unreasonable to view the Constitutional Convention as a body above all three branches, and a participant in none.  If one preferred such a limited reading of the constitutional restriction found in Article III, then the next logical step in a legal analysis would be an assessment of the application of the doctrine of incompatibility.

In her opinion in Felkner, Acting Chief Justice Goldberg provided a clear roadmap to the question and a detailed history of the doctrine of incompatibility, its evolution, and the public policy that drives it.  At its heart, the incompatibility doctrine is not a bar arising from the impracticality or physical impossibility of serving in two offices, but rather a bar against the inherent and unavoidable conflict that arises when “one [office] is subordinate to the other, and subject in some degree to its revisory power; or where the functions of the two offices are inherently inconsistent and repugnant.” State ex rel. Metcalf v. Goff, 15 R.I. 505, 506, 9 A. 226, 226 (1887), 15 507, 9 A. at 227.

After defining the relevant standard, the opinion in Felkner delves into the facts of the matter – the powers and purview of the two offices to which Felkner was elected – to determine whether service in the two offices would give rise to issues that “inevitably would result in the silencing of at least one of [his] constituencies.” [Felkner, at 874.]  As with that case, there are a number of factors in the possible service of a General Assembly member as a Constitutional Convention delegate than implicate the incompatibility doctrine.

First, to put to a General Assembly officer the question of whether their powers should be limited or expanded at the very least draws questions of the appearance of self-interest and inherent conflict.  At worst it creates clear and ethical conflicts if matters such as legislative pay, the shift to a full-time legislature, or other perquisites of office were to arise.  And while some might argue that a recusal may suffice if such questions were to arise, the rare and important nature of a Constitutional Convention should in itself be an argument against such measures.  Too rarely to the citizens have the opportunity to have their representative voices heard on matters of such import, and a system designed with the expectation that their voice may be silenced by the recusal of their representative delegate should be vigorously avoided.

Second, it is clear that the very purpose of a Constitutional Convention is the exercise of a “revisory” power over the structures that define the breadth and scope of legislative power as well as those of the executive and judiciary.  An official who was elected by their constituents to exercise the powers of their office, could not at the same time be an advocate for the limiting (or expansion) of those powers.  Further, the Constitutional Convention itself serves as a super-legislature, allowing the people, through this alternative mechanism, to check, balance and override the action or non-action of the General Assembly relative to specific issues of law and governance.

Finally, given the extensive entanglements of finance, funding, control, and oversight between the General Assembly and the municipalities of our state, a strong argument could be made that the facts of the matter[s] should extend the prohibition to any public official, whether state or local, not just General Assembly members.  In addition to potential structural changes (regionalization, consolidation, shifts of control from state to local or vice-versa) practical administrative questions (such as those relative to school funding, approval of tax hikes, infrastructure, or the balance of powers between the state and its constituent municipalizes) are also very likely to present themselves.  To argue that those local offices or programs that may be funded in large part by state revenues are not integral to the state executive function is to deny the modern reality of public finance.  To assert that the decision making authority granted to the delegates of a Constitutional Convention to alter the scope of authority of local officials does not present a conflict if those local officials serve as delegates would fly in the face of the incompatibly doctrine.

And so, while some might hope that certain (or even a great mass of) current legislators might run for and take the oath of office as a delegate to a Constitutional Convention, thereby resulting in their effective resignation from the General Assembly, it is probably more beneficial for our democracy to make sure the rules are clear in advance, and let those who might have such an interest be aware that their service in one capacity will effect their resignation[3] from their prior hard won office.  As importantly, the strong potential for a legal challenge to any legislator who attempted to serve in two capacities simultaneously would only serve to delay, demean, and complicate the process of convening a Constitutional Convention if called for by the voters of or state.

Therefore, we would call on those who may eventually be tasked with defining the qualifications and restrictions for our Constitutional Convention delegates to make clear the Constitutional, statutory, and common law restrictions discussed herein.  As a practical matter, legislators should be prohibited from running for delegate seats without first resigning their elected office.  A further exploration of who else might face a similar bar should be undertaken promptly, perhaps with appropriate anticipatory guidance from our courts.

Just as importantly, we would ask the General Assembly to consider (and take into account in the drafting of rules of election) the underlying public policy question and the impact of such conflicts, whether real or potential, on the gravity and import of a Constitutional Convention.  To ignore this question would only muddy the process and add the expense of litigation, special elections, or other contests, and possible delay the Constitutional Convention itself.

The best and most prudent approach would be a clear legislative requirement that a candidate for delegate to the convention must first resign any state or local office before declaring as such.


End notes:

[1] ARTICLE XIV – CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS AND REVISIONS – Section 2. Constitutional conventions. – The general assembly, by a vote of a majority of the members elected to each house, may at any general election submit the question, “Shall there be a convention to amend or revise the constitution?” to the qualified electors of the state. If the question be not submitted to the people at some time during any period of ten years, the secretary of state shall submit it at the next general election following said period. Prior to a vote by the qualified electors on the holding of a convention, the general assembly, or the governor if the general assembly fails to act, shall provide for a bi-partisan preparatory commission to assemble information on constitutional questions for the electors. If a majority of the electors voting at such election on said question shall vote to hold a convention, the general assembly at its next session shall provide by law for the election of delegates to such convention. The number of delegates shall be equal to the number of members of the house of representatives and shall be apportioned in the same manner as the members of the house of representatives. No revision or amendment of this constitution agreed upon by such convention shall take effect until the same has been submitted to the electors and approved by a majority of those voting thereon.
[2] Interestingly, the perhaps most well know prohibition on political activity – the Hatch Act – may or may not prevent Federal employees from running for delegate slots in a Constitutional Convention.  That act prohibits participation in partisan elections, and so if the General Assembly were to structure the delegate races as non-partisan, there may be an opportunity for participation by Federal employees.
[3] “It is well settled that, when a person accepts an office incompatible with one which he then holds, he thereby impliedly resigns or vacates his former office.” ; 3 McQuillin, § 12.67 at 367.  Further, “[T]he mere acceptance of the second incompatible office per se terminates the first office as effectively as a resignation.”  In explaining the premise upon which the rule of implied resignation is based, we stated that the resignation “can be thought of as one of election, though not properly one of individual choice. There is no room for an actual election, unless it exists simply in choosing to accept a second, incompatible office. Once that act is done, the law implies an immediate resignation of the prior office, accompanied by a surrender of all claim and title to that office.” Advisory Opinion to the Governor, 121 R.I. at 67, 394 at 1357. [Both referenced and cited in Felkner, 872,873.]

Stenhouse – Constitutional Convention – Video Testimony & OpEd

The Center’s CEO provides testimony & opinion about how a ConCon can be structured to best serve the people of Rhode Island and not the typical special interest insiders.

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– Republished in the Providence Journal, 8/14/14 (click button above to read)StenProJoOpEdConCon




Stenhouse testimony at August 7, 2014 bi-partisan preparatory commission hearing … (click below)

Stenhouse testimony re. a “People’s Convention” at August 21, 2014 bi-partisan preparatory commission hearing … (click below)

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The Path to a Constitutional Convention

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“Shall there be a convention to amend or revise the Constitution?”

The Rhode Island constitution requires the Secretary of State to place such a question on the ballot every 10 years. In 2004, this ballot initiative was narrowly defeated, 52:48 percent.   In 1984, Ocean State voters did approve a convention. This year, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity expects a similar ballot question — to convene a statewide constitutional convention — to be approved by Ocean State voters in the upcoming 2014 November elections.

If the question is approved by voters in 2014, the rules that will govern the constitutional convention (more simply referred to as the “ConCon”) will be determined by the state’s General Assembly in 2015, beginning with how delegates will be elected — at least one for each of the 75 House districts — in a specially scheduled general election. The convention will then convene for a specified length of time, with various constitutional amendment measures to be considered and approved by delegates. Finally, all ConCon-approved amendment measures will be put forth for approval from voters as future ballot initiatives.

Read full analysis (PDF).