2016-05-19 / Front Page

Line-Item Veto Ignites Debate

By Tom Walsh

For Rep. Marvin L. Abney, DNewport, the newly appointed chairman of the House Finance Committee, it didn’t take long to discover that heading this pivotal panel that shepherds the annual state budget towards enactment can be quite the hot seat.

“It’s really quite a ride, let me put it that way,” said Abney a few days after presiding over a hearing on May 12 on what has emerged as a controversial proposal to ask voters in November to approve a constitutional amendment that would give the governor what’s known as “line-item” veto power over spending measures without killing the entire budget bill.

More than 100 citizens crowded into a Statehouse hearing room to either hear the debate or testify on it. Most of them were in favor of the measure, even if they had to wait several hours to say so.

Should lawmakers—and eventually state voters—approve such a measure, the governor could annually review the Assembly-approved budget and remove specific spending proposals she found to be unnecessary or troubling.

Governors in 44 states, including Massachusetts, already have this line-item veto power. Proponents maintain that giving governors this power helps to curb spending growth.

As it stands now in Rhode Island, the governor can only approve the budget, veto it entirely, or let it become law without her signature. Should this ever win approval, the General Assembly could always turn around and restore such cuts.

While Gov. Gina Raimondo supports this proposal, politically powerful House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello opposes the idea. Both are, like Abney, Democrats.

Mattiello has maintained that Rhode Island government works “very well” and that the current system can “get big things done.” He said this not long after Abney’s predecessor as Finance Committee chairman, Raymond Gallison of Bristol, resigned from the House having reportedly become the target of a federal investigation.

“Right now I don’t have an opinion on it either way,” Abney said. “I’ll have to look at all the ins and outs of it.” He added that if he were governor, he’d probably support the idea as well. “It’s used as a bargaining tool as much as anything else. So I get that,” Abney said.

“All of us on the Finance Committee are getting hundreds of emails on this matter,” he continued. “But I’m not getting hundreds of emails from people in my district saying they want the line item veto. But I know there are people who strongly believe that there’s an imbalance of power in Rhode Island. People are angry all across the country.”

Abney added, though, that “Some states that have line-item veto power still haven’t stopped corrupt people from being corrupt.”

After hearing hours of testimony, the House Finance Committee voted neither to approve nor reject the proposed referendum. Rather, the panel voted to hold the bill for further study—a move that has often sounded a death knell for General Assembly measures over the years.

“But that doesn’t always kill it,” Abney said. “We’ve had a hearing and we’re still compiling information on the issue. That needs to be made clear. On anything we do, there’s a balance that we have to keep. We try to do our best to serve the state.”

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