2016-09-29 / Front Page

Education Bond Could Benefit City's North End

By Tom Walsh

Election Day 2016 will task Rhode Island voters with deciding seven statewide ballot questions in addition to the array of candidates seeking public offices. Five of those questions involve bond issues totaling $227.5 million in new state borrowing.

The other two questions on the Nov. 8 ballot involve thorny issues – whether to approve casino gambling in Tiverton, and whether to restore the state Ethics Commission’s authority to investigate and prosecute General Assembly members for misconduct in the manner that they conduct legislative business.

At the same time, the state’s voters will be asked on Question 4 to approve $45.5 million in education bonds – $20 million of which could eventually result in a new University of Rhode Island business “innovation campus” that Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, DNewport, said could possibly be located in Newport’s North End.

“I believe Aquidneck Island would be well-poised to compete for a facility that would be affiliated with the University of Rhode Island,” she said. “It would be very consistent with what the city hopes to do in the North End.”

As envisioned, if approved by voters in November, the $20 million would be used as seed money for businesses and the university to join hands to build a research campus somewhere in Rhode Island.

Paiva Weed was also a sponsor, along with House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, of Question 2, which would restore investigatory and other powers to the state Ethics Commission.

“Rhode Island has one of the strongest ethics commissions in the country,” the Senate president said. She has “absolute confidence” that Rhode Island voters will approve Question 2.

“The current language came about after much work,” Paiva Weed added.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 42 states have ethics commissions established either by state law or constitution. Nine states have more than one commission overseeing different branches of government.

Rhode Island voters are being urged to approve Question 2 by numerous good-government organizations.

“This constitutional amendment will finally restore the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction over legislators,” wrote H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island from 1988 to 2006, in a recent op-ed article. “It will also reconfirm the commission’s unique authority to write ethics rules.”

Currently, the state ethics panel cannot probe or prosecute lawmakers for actions related to their legislative duties thanks to a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling. However, the state’s high court also said then that the Rhode Island Constitution could be changed to permit the ethics panel to investigate and prosecute lawmakers for their actions at the Assembly.

Question 2 seeks to accomplish that. It would also require that on any vote to enact rules and regulations, two-thirds of Ethics Commission members must approve.

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea has applauded the intent of Question 2, saying that it “empowers Rhode Island voters to amend our constitution on Election Day to ensure that our state is run ethically and the rules of engagement are clear.” Additionally, she called the ballot question “a historic step toward restoring Rhode Islanders’ confidence in their government.”

Prior to the Ethics Commission losing its ability to investigate and prosecute lawmakers, several prominent legislators were handed heavy fines by the panel. Among those sanctioned was former House Speaker Gordon Fox.

If voters approve, the Question 4 higher education proposal would also earmark $25.5 million for the University of Rhode Island’s College of Engineering to renovate Bliss Hall, one of the college’s oldest buildings, as well as other buildings.

A separate measure, Question 5, would dedicate $50 million in bond funds for “infrastructure modernization of the Port of Davisville at Quonset Point, including Pier 2” if approved. Another $20 million would finance “acquisition of up to 25 acres of land located between Allens Avenue in the City of Providence and the Providence River and any infrastructure improvements associated with the acquisition.”

Editor’s Note: Newport This Week will examine the rest of this year’s ballot questions prior to Election Day on Nov. 8.

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