Op-Ed: Toll-Setting Must Be Subject to Checks and Balances



Op-Ed By Sen. Marc A. Cote and Rep. Daniel P. ReillySen. Marc A. Cote (D-Dist. 24) represents Woonsocket and North Smithfield. Rep. Daniel P. Reilly (R-Dist. 72) represents Portsmouth and Middletown.

We all learned in school that our system of government involves three separate branches – the legislative, executive and judicial – each with the ability to keep the others from becoming too powerful or exceeding their authority.

One of the most important checks involves the legislative branch’s ability to keep the executive branch from spending too much money. That is why, although the governor gets to propose budgets, the General Assembly ultimately votes on what is included in them. Without that check on the executive branch, the state departments would have little impetus to control spending, with taxpayers left to foot the bill.

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With this very necessary balancing act in mind, we have introduced legislation aimed at changing the recently passed RhodeWorks road-and-bridge repair program to require General Assembly oversight and approval over the amounts of tolls and the location of toll collection sites.

Under the tolling legislation that was enacted, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has all the control over setting the locations and prices of tolls, with the only statutory limit being that tolls cannot exceed more than $20 per truck crossing our state and a maximum of $40 per vehicle per day. This state agency, whose leaders are appointed, not elected, has virtually unchecked power to raise as much money as it wants through tolls, all dedicated to its own use and discretion. Essentially, DOT is being allowed to set a tax rate, collect the taxes and spend the proceeds, all without any input from any other branch of government.

We see this provision as a violation of the principles of checks and balances and an infringement upon the principle of separation of powers. The General Assembly must have oversight over the executive branch’s ability to set the prices and locations of tolls. They involve millions of dollars that will be charged to businesses and ultimately to Rhode Island consumers. Giving the Department of Transportation unfettered authority to raise its own revenue through what is arguably a tax is contrary to the responsible checks and balances required for effective and responsible government.

Our legislation (2016-S 2556, 2016-H 7964) would restore the General Assembly’s authority by requiring that the department do its homework and submit recommendations to the legislative branch, which would then review and vote on the proposed toll rates and locations.

Under an amendment we plan to introduce in the coming weeks, the legislation will require the DOT to perform a cost-benefit analysis and hold public hearings on the amounts and locations of any tolls before they can be legally established. The department would then submit a report to the General Assembly detailing its proposals for toll locations and amounts. It would be the General Assembly’s responsibility to determine or ratify the proposed toll amounts and locations. Any subsequent changes to locations or toll amounts would be subject to the same process.

The tolling program and its impact on taxpayers is very similar to the state budget. Both determine how much government costs and the sources of revenue to pay for it. Our bill would make the tolls that were included in RhodeWorks legislation subject to a similar and approval process as the budget.

Having the General Assembly weigh in on tolls would also provide legislators greater opportunity to review the DOT’s efficiency and effectiveness at repairing and maintaining the state’s roads and bridges when future changes to toll rates and locations are proposed.

For decades, Rhode Island businesses have struggled under the weight of high taxes and cumbersome regulations. We have made progress in recent years to improve the state’s business climate, and we cannot afford to backslide. Having a legislative check that balances the executive branch’s power to set the price of tolls will give all Rhode Islanders a voice, through their elected members of the General Assembly, to prevent tolls from becoming an untenable burden on businesses and the consumers who ultimately pay the price through higher prices on goods and services.

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