In the future, students of Rhode Island history may well look back on the last couple of decades of the twentieth century as a period of reform unequaled in the annals of the state since the 1840s. In the country as a whole, during the last third or more of the century, attitudes toward government and political life seemed steadily to change. Confidence and trust gave way to skepticism, distrust and cynicism. Faith in the good intentions of those in public life waned. Traditional political loyalties unravelled and were replaced by postures of independence, disengagement, frustration and alienation. These trends showed themselves in a number of ways in Rhode Island toward the end of the century.
The impact of these growing attitudes was not all negative. Spurred on by a series of scandals during the 1980s and 1990s, reform efforts gathered momentum at the same time that large numbers of citizens were turning their backs on public affairs with disgust. It is probably true that the spate of highly publicized moral and ethical lapses had the effect of a catalyst. In any event, there were very important legal and constitutional reforms put in place which fostered the gradual development of a new atmosphere in public life with more emphasis on public service. The long prevailing attitude among many in the state - citizens and office holders alike - that government was a kind of "candy store" for the benefit of individuals began to give way to the idea of government disinterestedly serving the public interest. At least ethical lapses were more often met with punishment, than with the characteristic shrug of the past.
The catalytic events, if such they were, included the 1985 scandal centering on the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation, and particularly on its director, Ralph Pari. This agency was established to help low income families finance home purchases. The misdirection of some of its funds and the misuse of funds for his private purposes by Pari shocked the public.
There was a string of scandals involving the state's judiciary. In 1986, the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, Joseph A. Bevilacqua resigned as an investigation of his activities revealed misuse of public funds and employees, together with other behavior unbefitting a judge. Impeachment was in the offing had he not resigned voluntarily. In 1991, a Superior Court judge was arrested for soliciting bribes, ultimately convicted and sent to prison. Two years later a second Chief Justice, Thomas F. Fay, resigned in the face of revelations of unethical conduct and the prospect of impeachment.
Then there was the saga of Mayor Brian Sarault of Pawtucket. He too had been soliciting bribes from city contractors and others. For months the city was in turmoil as the council president took over the executive responsibilities, even though Sarault was still technically the mayor. Eventually he was convicted and sent to federal prison.
The year 1991 also saw perhaps the most shocking and damaging event of its kind in the history of the state: the failure of the organization which insured the state - chartered credit unions, the Rhode Island Share and Deposit Indemnity Corporation (RISDIC). Governor Bruce Sundlun had hardly finished taking the oath of office, when it became apparent that a banking disaster was imminent. He issued an executive order closing all institutions which RISDIC had insured. The rest of the year was consumed with efforts to craft legislation to deal with the fallout of this crisis. More and more information came out implicating credit union and RISDIC officials in the collapse. Thousands of account holders were demanding their money. Eventually, legislation was framed and signed by the Governor that set up the Depositors Economic Protection Corporation (DEPCO) to take over the assets of the failed credit unions and to use the available proceeds, plus borrowed state money, to make the depositors whole.
During the same general period a series of highly questionable manipulations of the state employees' pension system surfaced. In many cases special deals had been made and embodied in legislation allowing favored individuals and groups to secure enhanced benefits. The unfairness and favoritism that was revealed contributed more fuel to the fires of public anger and disgust with the conduct of public business.
Following his departure from office in 1991 Governor Edward D. DiPrete, who was first elected in 1984, was investigated and indicted for accepting bribes and extortion. His son, Dennis, was also indicted. This was the first time in the history of the state that such action had been taken against a governor or former governor.
In light of all of this and more that hit the press during the 1980s and 1990s, it is small wonder that the public became cynical and disillusioned about the whole governmental/political system. Fortunately, however, many individuals and groups in and out of public office took up the challenge, and action to bring about constitutional and related reforms was undertaken.
Even before this rash of revelations and scandals broke into the headlines, the reform movement had gotten underway. The Watergate affair in Washington and the impact of the Vietnam War triggered a great deal of reform activity at the national level, which impacted and provoked action in the state. In Rhode Island, this took the form in the 1976 session of the General Assembly of the enactment of legislation setting up a Conflict of Interest Commission, together with regulations spelling out the forms of behavior that were to be proscribed as involving conflicts. In the same session, legislation mandated that all meetings of public bodies must be open to the public with a few enumerated exceptions. In both instances enforcement procedures and penalties were provided.
In 1976-77, in conjunction with an insurgent victory in a struggle over the speakership for the 1977-78 session, the Rules of the House were subject to major revisions. These were designed to open up the process in a number of ways, so that both legislators and the public would be able to attend committee and other meetings, and to inform themselves on the status and progress of legislation. In 1979, legislation was passed granting to the public the right to access public records, and again, providing enforcement mechanisms.
The next major event in the march of reform, was the calling of an open constitutional convention to meet in 1986. It had only been since the 1930s that the courts had ruled that calling such a convention was possible and constitutionally valid. The limited constitutional convention of 1973 had proposed, and the voters approved, a revision of the amending process which made it far easier, and which mandated that every ten years the voters must be asked the question as to whether a convention should be convened or not. The question was posed in 1984, and the electors answered in the affirmative. The convention met during the ensuing biennium and its work went before the voters for their action in November, 1986.
The timing of this convention was such that the full impact of local scandals was yet to be felt. The delegates considered and in some cases proposed language upon which the public was not yet ready to act. A few years later, a revised judicial selection system, for example much like that proposed in 1986, was approved. Nonetheless, important reforms were presented in 1986 and affirmed by the voters.
Provision for the setting up of a Constitutional Ethics Commission was adopted, and replaced the Conflict of Interest Commission. The terms of this new pair of amendments were so strong that Rhode Island now has the most powerful such body in the country. The commission, according to the Supreme Court, has the authority to in effect write the ethics legislation that it will then enforce. The convention also successfully proposed amending language that would require the General Assembly to regulate campaign contributions and spending, and allowing it to provide for public funding of campaigns. An amendment was also approved by the voters that would remove convicted felons from office and prevent them from running for office for three years. This language was designed to deal with situations like that of Mayor Vincent Cianci, Jr., of Providence who was convicted while in office and thereafter ran again and won. It would not have dealt with the Sarault situation, while he was under indictment and being tried.
The convention also put before the voters, successfully, a revised version of the constitution which excised language that had been annulled or replaced with new amending provisions, and inserted the latter in their proper places in the body of the document. Besides their rejection of new judicial selection language, the voters turned down the updating of the absurd five dollar-a-day legislative pay, four-year terms, and a recall proposal.
In 1987 a major step in the direction of opening up the legislative process to the public was the start of cable television broadcasting of all sessions of the House and Senate. The state-wide broadcasts were live except in cases when both chambers were meeting at the same time, whereupon one was recorded for later broadcast. All sessions and hearings of the House Finance committee are carried on cable television, as are other important hearings. The most recent step along the same path was taken in 1994 when legislation was passed "to make electronic products and services regarding [the Assembly's] proceedings available to the citizens of this state." These would include the history, text and status of all bills, legislative calendars, and much more. The phase-in of this service began in 1995. Here too, a major innovation occurred to open the legislative process still further and more completely.
In 1992, the General Assembly placed a proposed amendment on the fall ballot which again called for four-year terms, but this time only for the governor and the other four state-wide officers. In 1986, the legislators in both houses would also have had four-year terms. Quite obviously, the people of the state wanted tighter reins on their representatives. The 1992 proposal passed, and also included a recall provision for just those with four year terms. One can see at work here both the public distrust of politicians, but also a willingness to have four-year term governors. This latter was no doubt seen by many as a reform in that it would mean expensive and attention diverting campaigns for the office of governor only half as often, and thus more time that could be devoted to the problems of the state by the chief executive. It was also the case that between 1986 and 1992 there had been, as noted, a series of disquieting events in the state, which no doubt had focused ever increasing attention on the need for government reform.
This growing concern led to the appointment of a Blue Ribbon Study Commission to make a thorough examination of the legislative institutions of the state and make reform recommendations. A number of recommendations emerged in their report, issued in 1993, relating to staff, facilities and structural arrangements. Out of these, an omnibus amendment was prepared for the November, 1994, ballot. It dealt first with the long vexed question of legislative pay by recommending a $10,000-a-year salary. There had been a number of attempts over the years to remove the five dollars from the constitution, none of which succeeded. This time it worked because coupled with the new amount was language denying future legislators pensions for their service. Legislative pensions had long been a sore subject with the public. This, coupled with the recent rash of pension scandals, seems to have persuaded the voters that the salary for pension tradeoff was a good deal.
The same amendment also tackled another long-standing concern of some reformers: the size of the legislature. Commencing in 2003, the House will be cut to seventy-five from the present one hundred seats, and the Senate from fifty to thirty-eight. This reduction in size was no doubt seen by many as saving state money, though actually the savings will be minimal. Others no doubt simply saw the change as shaking things up in an institution which had come under a drumfire of criticism in recent years. The General Assembly was of course blamed for the much-publicized milking of the state pension system generally, as well as their own increases of legislative pensions. More important probably, was the blame laid on the legislature for the RISDIC collapse and the anguish it had caused. The record seemed to show that there had been legislative proposals to improve the credit union insurance system, which had not been given serious consideration. In any event, the 1994 amendment represented a reform landmark that had few equals in the past constitutional history of the General Assembly.
That same 1994 general election also put before the voters a major overhaul of the judicial selection system. The system which had evolved over the centuries involved statutory provision for the governor to appoint judges with the advice and consent of the Senate. Supreme Court Justices were elected by the two chambers of the General Assembly sitting jointly as the Grand Committee. This latter system was blamed for the resignation in disgrace of the last two chief justices. Hence the legislature, yielding to intense reformer pressure, framed a new system for judicial selection. It called for a non-partisan judicial nominating commission which was to evaluate the qualifications of candidates for all judicial appointments and submit a short list to the Governor. The Governor would make his choice which would then be presented for Senate confirmation. In the case of Supreme Court nominees by the Governor, both the House and Senate would have to approve separately. The voters, who had been treated to lower court judicial misbehavior during the last few years as well as the Supreme Court instances, approved this package by well over a two-to-one margin.
There could well be more reforms yet to come. The Ethics Commission is in process of circulating the draft of an exceedingly strong and comprehensive ethics code. There is some feeling that reform efforts, as reflected in some code provisions, are unrealistic and go too far. Nonetheless, the reforms chronicled in the foregoing pages, starting with the legislative enactments of the late 1970s represent, collectively, an impressive and largely unprecedented effort to revise and improve the conduct of government and politics in Rhode Island. They may not bring on the millennium nor restore the badly shaken faith of Rhode Islanders in their political system, but they have dealt with a number of pressing specific problems.
As noted earlier, a major attitudinal trend throughout the country and shared in Rhode Island has been a progressive disenchantment with political parties, as evidenced in the erosion of party loyalty and party voting. The electoral record at the state level and representation in Congress reflects the considerable increase in political independence in a state which since the 1930s has been heavily Democratic. The governorship, for example, was held by Democrats with few exceptions from the early 1930s until the mid-1980s. The three terms served by Republican John H. Chafee from 1962 to 1968 were the one major exception. And yet starting with the election of Republican Edward DiPrete in 1984, the office will have been held by Republicans (DiPrete and Lincoln Almond) for all but the Sundlun four years (1990 to 1994), at least through 1998. In that same period the sprinkling of Republicans in the other state offices has increased.
More striking perhaps has been the shift in control of the Rhode Island Congressional delegation. Until 1976, with the election of John Chafee to the Senate, all four seats allocated to Rhode Island were consistently in Democratic hands since World War II. Then in 1980 the Second Congressional District seat went to Republican Claudine Schneider, who held the seat for ten years. In 1988, Ron Machtley captured the First Congressional District seat for the GOP and held it for six years, which meant that during the period 1980 to 1994, the Rhode Island delegation to Congress was evenly divided between the two parties, a remarkable change from the Democratic dominance in prior decades, and indeed, from the overwhelming Republican control of those seats prior to the New Deal.
For many, changes of this sort, reflecting as they clearly do a far greater willingness of voters to seek out candidates with much less concern for party label, represent a kind of reform to be applauded. Obviously opinions differ on the usefulness of political parties, party loyalty and party voting in the operation of the electoral system and of the government. The prevailing orthodoxy during the second half of the twentieth century in Rhode Island increasingly became political independence and "vote the candidate", not the party label. Though the voters still send overwhelming Democratic majorities to the General Assembly, their independence from party ties has become more and more evident in the state-wide elections, and in local elections as well, for good or ill, with very important consequences for the operation of the state's governmental system. A sign of the times was the 9% of the Gubernatorial vote which was cast for the "Cool Moose Party" candidate in 1994, giving it status as the third official party.
A shift from these political and constitutional developments to economic trends in the state during the last dozen or so years is not as complete a shift of focus as it may seem. In very general terms, the state was quite prosperous and its economy did well during the 1980s. This meant that state revenues rose steadily and made possible the development of new government social and other programs. In 1985, Governor DiPrete signed the first billion-dollar State Budget. As the decade was drawing to a close in 1989, for the first time since 1982 forecasters predicted that job growth would decline in 1990. When Governor Sundlun took office in January, 1991, he not only faced the RISDIC credit union crisis, but major budget problems for 1991-1992. In fact, each year thereafter balancing the budget became one of the state's major challenges, as revenues continued to decline.
There is little doubt that the tightening financial situation for the state and for its citizens had something to do with the rising anger and falling confidence and trust in government and politicians. This was compounded, among other things, by the impact of the necessary cuts in state spending for social welfare programs, for educational aid to the cities and towns, and elsewhere. The education cuts meant tightened local budgets and rising real estate taxes to take up the slack. The 1990s were difficult years. Much of the rest of the country was enjoying prosperity, while the Rhode Island economy seemed to be little more than stagnant.
An underlying structural problem for the Rhode Island economy was the shifting that was taking place in the pattern of employment. Manufacturing had been the mainstay of the state's prosperity since the late 18th century beginnings of the textile industry. That industry by the latter half of the twentieth century had almost totally disappeared. The considerable amount of manufacturing activity that remained also declined, and was replaced by employment in service jobs which pay less and are less stable. Comparing figures for 1972, 1982 and 1993, manufacturing employment dropped successively from 40% of the work force, to 35% and then 24%. At the same time, the percent of employment in service jobs for those three years, rose from 19% to 26% and to 35% by 1993.
The state government grappled with its fundamental economic problems. High energy costs, especially for electricity, have long been of serious concern to manufacturers and other large users. In 1996 Representative George Caruolo introduced legislation that would ultimately deregulate the sale of all electricity, eliminate that role of the PUC, and allow market forces to work. This is the first time this has been attempted by any state. The workers compensation system, which had been very expensive in comparison with other states, was reformed and costs cut. These efforts were strikingly successful. After the system's reforms had been in place for a few years, companies providing insurance for workers' compensation actually went to the state authorities recommending a cut in insurance rates. Little could be done to keep businesses from fleeing the high level of unionization in Rhode Island for non-union states in the South and elsewhere. Legislation was passed, however, to remove the right of strikers to receive unemployment compensation benefits. The state had been one of the last two in the country to allow such payments.
The Greenhouse Compact referred to earlier, an imaginative effort to jump start economic development in new product and industry areas was overwhelmingly defeated by the voters in the referendum that was necessary to authorize the necessary state funds. The voters were not prepared to subsidize the private economy. In the early 1990s other investments of public funds with an eye to boosting the economy were made, usually amid considerable public opposition. Governor Sundlun launched a major project at Green State Airport involving a new modern air terminal, in the hope that Providence could become a major arrival and departure point that would be seen more convenient than Logan Airport in Boston.
The gratifying growth of the tourist industry has been one of the bright spots in the state's economic picture in recent years. To further stimulate this trend the state embarked on another major multi-million dollar project, the construction of a Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence. This was a controversial initiative because it would involve a great deal of public investment. It was hoped that the center, when built, would attract large numbers of convention goers who like other tourists would spend money in the city and state while here. It was decided that in order to make the center viable, a new hotel would have to be built adjacent to it to ensure enough available rooms, and this was done, also at state expense. This complex then became one of the incentives for development of Providence Place, a $359-million, 150-store shopping mall between the center and the state house and not far from downtown Providence.
This too the state would have to underwrite to a considerable extent. The argument for this investment was that downtown Providence had largely died as a retail center and this would in effect bring it back. A related argument was that those coming to the conventions at the new center would want to shop in their spare time, and the new mall would provide that opportunity. Extensive negotiations were conducted among the governor, the developers, the City of Providence, and the General Assembly leaders. The ultimate deal granted the developers a portion of the sales tax revenue their tenant stores would earn. This would help pay for the parking garage being built as part of the complex. The city would forgive most of the real estate taxes that would otherwise be due for thirty years. For all parties it seemed to be a promising gamble. It will be quite a while before it is known how much these public investments in new projects and facilities are going to provide the economic stimulus for the state that was hoped for when they were initiated. Providence was fortunate to attract the ESPN Extreme Games in 1995, another draw for both residents and tourists.
Another vexing issue which troubled the state during the early 1990s was gambling. The incredibly successful Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut has had a major impact on the dog racing and Jai Alai facilities in Lincoln and Newport. Rhode Islanders could get to the Connecticut gambling mecca very easily and enjoy more exciting action in more luxurious surroundings. Steps were taken to allow slot machines at the Lincoln dog track and the Newport fronton to boost their attractiveness, and the Rhode Island state lottery brought increasing revenues to the public coffers. The Rhode Island Narragansett tribe decided to build a casino of their own and cash in on this bonanza. Resistance to their plans was widespread, involving both Governor Sundlun and Governor Almond. Those in favor argued that the state should not let all of that money flow across the state line, particularly in light of the financial difficulties in which the state government found itself. This acrimonious debate was further fueled by moves on the part of five Rhode Island communities to become the site either for the Indian casino or for one developed by private interests. Moreover, in Massachusetts the state gave its blessing to a plan to build an Indian casino in New Bedford. In 1994, five referenda questions were placed on the state election ballot, each seeking both local and the requited state approval for a casino facility in those communities. (One of these towns, Coventry, had been chosen by the Indian casino developers as the preferred site for their enterprise). All of them were defeated by the voters, most by very wide margins. The Indians made it clear that they would go ahead and build a casino on their own tribal land, which legally, they seemed quite able to do. But the state generally rejected a move to gambling business as a way to stimulate economic development and support the State Budget.
The returns from the 1990 census for the state showed trends in the shifting population patterns, similar to those which had been revealed by the 1980 enumeration. The smaller rural communities continued to be the gainers. Most of the cities registered either very slight gains or small losses. The towns which gained, many of them substantial gainers during the previously decade as well, nevertheless went up at a considerably lower rate than had been the case between the 1970 and 1980 censuses. The flow of minority population into the state continued, though the sources changed somewhat. The percent of the population of the state composed of African-Americans rose some, from 2.9% to 3.9%. The Hispanic proportion more than doubled from 2.1% to 4.6% making it the largest minority group. The Asian percentage (that is, Hmongs, Cambodians, etc.) tripled from .6% to 1.8%. This influx, largely into south Providence, was in a sense the most noticeable additional to the state's ethnic mix. At mid-decade following the 1990 enumeration, official estimates showed that the population of the state which had been set at just over a million, had dropped below that level. Rhode Island was one of only two states to register a population loss.
There were significant developments in the realm of higher education in the state during the years from the mid 1980s to the 1990s. The College of Continuing Education of the University of Rhode Island moved into new quarters in the former Shepherd building on Westminster Street, vacating the former Rhode Island College buildings near the State House slated for demolition to make room for the new Providence Place Mall discussed earlier. Johnson and Wales, Salve Regina and Roger Williams all achieved university status in the period, adding that designation to their names. Roger Williams took the initiative of starting the first law school in the State on its Bristol Campus, adding that to its recently established school of architecture. Salve Regina has developed strong programs in Nursing and Law Enforcement, and is offering masters and doctoral degrees in a number of fields.
Other landmarks in the state's history and development during the last decades of the century included the completion of a new bridge connecting Jamestown to the South County area. This replaced a narrow structure which had been built in 1946. With the completion of this structure, the various water-separated parts of the territory of the state were finally connected by bridges capable of handling large volumes of traffic. In each instance, over the years ferries had been replaced by bridges. Bristol had been joined by bridge to Aquidneck Island by the Mt. Hope Bridge in 1929. That island was linked to Tiverton and Little Compton by the Sakonnet River Bridge (replacing the historic "Stone Bridge") in 1956. Newport had been connected to Jamestown (on Conanicut Island) by a new Newport Bridge later re-named after Senator Claiborne Pell. The new Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge was the final link.
As it had been throughout its history, the state again suffered various weather and marine disasters. Hurricane Gloria struck in 1985 leaving 300,000 homes without power and disrupting schools, businesses and travel for more than a day. In 1991 there was hurricane Bob which again left thousands without power - 290,000 in Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts, some for a week or more, and caused more than one hundred million dollars in property damage.
As the "Ocean State" Rhode Island is subject not only to this kind of natural disaster, but also to major marine mishaps such as oil spills. Most of the petroleum products used in the state and in surrounding areas come in by tanker or barge into Narragansett Bay and the port of Providence. In 1989 the World Prodigy, a 560-foot tanker went off course and ran aground on Brenton Reef near Newport spilling a million gallons of fuel oil, causing considerable environmental damage. Then in 1996, a tug towing a barge loaded with millions of gallon of fuel oil ran aground on a sand bar off Moonstone Beach in South Kingstown, when its tug caught fire and lost control of the barge in stormy seas. Some 800,000 gallons escaped into the surrounding sea killing thousands of lobsters and other marine life. Authorities were forced to ban fishing in a very large area in the vicinity of the grounding to prevent contaminated seafood getting to market.
This last marine disaster came at a particularly bad time. The adverse impact that it will almost certainly have on one of the state's important industries will further complicate the problems Rhode Island has in maintaining and enhancing a viable economy which can support her citizens. Only a productive economy can continue to enable government to provide the services they require, and which have been generously provided in the past. Based on their state's history, Rhode Islanders can almost certainly rely on their own resourcefulness and hard work to overcome current difficulties, as their ancestors overcame obstacles in generations past.