Rhode Island State House

  Only a third of Rhode Islanders have confidence in their state government, 49th in the nation, according to a 2015 Gallup Poll. Only Illinois ranked worse. Now, Rhode Islanders have a chance to do something about that by approving a referendum this November that once again brings the state legislature under the scrutiny of the state’s Ethics Commission.

For years, Common Cause and other organizations and individuals have advocated to provide the ethics oversight to the General Assembly, but have had difficulty moving legislative leadership to approve the reform and move it to the ballot – until this year.

House leadership seemed reluctant again, until the House Finance Chairman Raymond Gallison, resigned in disgrace, facing a criminal investigation. Gallison’s fall follows a long list of legislative and other government leaders who have fallen from grace, facing criminal investigation, and imprisonment.

Phil West, former executive director of Common Cause, who has been among the leading advocates for ethics reform, also said that House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello recognized the need for change, but was concerned about frivolous claims made in the weeks leading up to elections.

While that was not addressed in the legislation, and referendum, it is being addressed by the Ethics Commission.

In the lead-up to the General Election, little has been said about the ethics question, but ultimately it may be the most important statewide issue on the ballot. Failure to approve the legislation will leave the General Assembly without ethics oversight, and reinforce the trust issues that so many Rhode Islanders have with their government (according to the Gallup poll).

West is confident the measure will pass, but hopes for an overwhelming victory, giving the General Assembly a strong message of Rhode Islanders support for the commission. West said Rhode Island’s ethics regulations have won recognition nationwide as possibly the strongest in the nation.

The issue.

This is an amendment to the State Constitution that will provide the Rhode Island Ethics Commission the authority to investigate alleged misconduct regarding legislative activities.

Why is this bond issue important?

The Rhode Island Ethics Commission, a non-partisan and independent commission, was created in the state’s last Constitutional Convention in 1986. Another section of the state Constitution, the speech and debate clause, says that members of the General Assembly shall be exempt from prosecution during the General Assembly session for “any speech and debate in either house.”

In 2004, Operation Clean Government filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission alleging that Senator William Irons, Rhode Island Senate President, an insurance agent with ties to the pharmaceutical industry, engaged in activities regarding pharmacy legislation, allegedly a conflict of interest. Irons maintained he was protected by the speech and debate clause, a position upheld first by the Superior Court, and then the Supreme Court.

The court decisions were highly controversial, removing the legislature from Ethics Commission oversight.

The referendum, if approved, restores that oversight.


Common Cause, with West its previous executive director and John Marion, its current executive director, the leading proponents, fighting for seven years to restore Ethics Commission oversight over the General Assembly.

The legislature was unanimous in its support of sending the issue to voters. The state House of Representatives voted 73 to 0, and state Senate, 38 to 0, in passing the ethics legislation.


There appears to be no opponents to the referendum, with little doubt that it will pass.


The campaign has been waged on social media and on op ed pages, where Marion and West, and others, have actively lobbied for passage of the referendum.

With no money reported being raised by either proponents or opponents, there has been no advertising campaign regarding the referendum.

With such a low-key campaign, it suggests that many voters will be uninformed of the history or need for the legislation, not necessarily threatening its passage, but perhaps making West’s hope for a decisive and overwhelming favorable vote, still in question.

Frank Prosnitz

Frank Prosnitz brings to WhatsUpNewp several years in journalism, including 10 as editor of the Providence (RI) Business News and 14 years as a reporter and bureau manager at the Providence (RI) Journal....