2014-09-04 / Front Page

Bill Drafting Examined

Misunderstanding May Have Fueled Ballot Change
By Barry Bridges

One week after it was revealed that a local ballot question concerning the proposed casino was eliminated through a law passed in the waning hours of the 2014 session of the Rhode Island General Assembly, it appears that the change in the anticipated number of ballot questions from two to one originated through confusion over different versions of the gambling legislation, House Bill 8294.

Newport’s Second Ward Councilor Justin McLaughlin recently met with officials on Smith Hill. He told Newport This Week that Richard Raspallo, the chief legal counsel to Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, explained that the legislature’s Law Revision Office, which is responsible for editing and publishing the state’s laws, posted the wrong version of H.B. 8294 on its website. It did not contain language allowing for a single referendum. Some interested parties relied on this version and assumed it was the one winding its way through the lawmakers’ session.

Meanwhile, a different version of H.B. 8294 appeared on the General Assembly’s Bill Tracker system, which many rely on as the source for the latest version of a bill. This variation included an amendment allowing for a single referendum and was eventually passed and signed into law by Governor Lincoln Chafee on July 3.

The final version signed by Chafee also contained language discussing the rationale for having only one question on the ballot, contrary to what many expected.

It starts by stating what was often repeated in Newport throughout the summer: “In 1994 the voters amended the Constitution of Rhode Island to provide that no state operated gaming or gambling could be established in the state and in any municipality of the state without the express approval of voters both statewide and in the municipality where the proposed establishment or expansion of such gaming or gambling [is] proposed.”

In its findings of fact, the law says that “it is important that such proposals to establish or expand stateoperated gaming or gambling in the state be presented to the voters in a manner that is clear and transparent to the voters.” It emphasizes that brevity is part of clarity and transparency, and describes current practice requiring voters in a municipality to “vote on the same question twice, once on the statewide ballot and once on the local referendum ballot.”

At this point the new law begins to diverge from what Newporters assumed about the ballot based on previous experience. It says that “the General Assembly believes that it would be in the furtherance of clarity and transparency for all persons voting on any question of state-operated gaming or gambling to vote on the same form of ballot and on one question,” specifying that this would meet constitutional requirements because the local board of canvassers would still certify local results.

McLaughlin reviewed videos of the proceedings where the bill was passed and reports that it was House Majority Leader John DeSimone who introduced the amendment to require only one ballot question.

In a written statement forwarded to Newport This Week, McLaughlin said, “When offering the amendment, and in responding to Representative [Peter] Martin’s questions, DeSimone noted that the voters of Newport would be required to vote on two ballot questions while the amendment would only require them to vote on one ballot question, and that this would make the process clearer and more transparent; he also emphasized the role of the local Board of Canvassers [Newport Canvassing Authority] in certifying the local vote as required by the constitution.”

With that explanation by DeSimone, legislators adopted the amendment by a vote of 52-0 and the entire bill, as amended, was later passed by a similarly large margin.

It was not until late August that the ballot misunderstanding was communicated to the Newport Canvassing Authority, which had erroneously certified a local Question 8, evidently working under the assumption that the other version of the law had prevailed.

McLaughlin said that the bottom line is that there appears that nothing nefarious was going on in Providence. This is especially true, he said, when one considers the lengthy provisions that describe in detail the rationale for the amendment, which he finds to be rather persuasive in advocating for a single appearance on the ballot.

“It was an honest misunderstanding based on the posting of the wrong bill and people making decisions on the wrong bill,” he said. “In talking with legislative leaders and doing some legwork, I’ve begun to get a sense of where some of the confusion arose.”

The end result of what happened is that what was previously a local Question 8 is now encompassed by the statewide Question 1. McLaughlin plans to introduce two resolutions at the City Council meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 10 in an attempt to counter any lingering misunderstandings concerning the ballot.

One resolution will ask the Newport City Council to direct the Canvassing Authority to post conspicuous signage in each polling place to advise voters who choose to use the straight party (master) lever that they need to vote separately for local candidates and questions such as the casino issue.

The other measure will ask the Secretary of State to print the background of Question 1 in a distinctive color so that it will not be overlooked, preferably in the same color as that used for local Newport referenda.

McLaughlin commented that taking legislative action in the wee hours of the last day of the General Assembly’s session probably contributed to the confusion. “The eleventh hour is not in the nature of the legislative process,” he said.

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