Constitutional convention could improve R.I.’s image

Branding is an important aspect of any business venture. Successful branding is meant to create a long and meaningful relationship with customers and prospects. Companies place a lot of emphasis and spend considerable sums to maintain and burnish their brand image.
Branding also extends into the public realm, as cities and states aim to brand their entities as a good place to do business, raise a family, or even find love. Remember “Virginia is for lovers?” The “Old Dominion” still uses it.
So what is Rhode Island’s brand? Unfortunately, one thing it is not is the Ocean State, despite what we might like to think.
To outsiders, our beautiful state’s image is overwhelmingly associated with public corruption and the “worst place to do business” in the nation. Concerns about corruption linger in matters such as 38 Studios, former House Speaker Gordon D. Fox, at the time of his March resignation the state’s most powerful politician, being investigated by federal law enforcement officials, and even the recent beach-concessions scandal. And with each new business-measurement ranking, Rhode Island continues to place last or near last, reinforcing our anti-business brand.
As a result, what companies and individuals hear about Rhode Island is simple: “Stay Away,” unless your choice involves moving to the state to take advantage of its generous social welfare programs. That’s why we’re losing population, especially younger people and families who are forced to move elsewhere, and why we’re losing jobs.
Rhode Island is possibly on the cusp of losing a congressional seat. And with the Bay State’s move to compete for gambling dollars by adding its own casinos, Rhode Island (Nevada’s little brother when it comes to gaming dependency) is poised to lose serious revenue that no one has a credible idea how to replace.
With a constitutional convention question on the Nov. 4 ballot, Rhode Islanders have a truly democratic opportunity to buck this downward slide. It’s provided in our state constitution but once a decade, so this is an important choice, and it’s one, we feel strongly, that the state’s business community should get solidly behind. We know who opposes a constitutional convention: all one has to do is go to Citizens for Responsible Government’s website ( to see their list of supporters. They represent the status quo in this state, entrenched special interests allied with a General Assembly majority that could pass useful, indeed necessary, constitutional changes in the way our government operates, but which chooses not to. Let’s not forget what a struggle it took to get rid of the master-lever option on the ballot? Look at 38 Studios. Whether to pay back or renege on paying back the 38 Studios “moral obligation bonds” is a major battle that continues. But since the collapse of 38 Studios has the General Assembly acted to outlaw such bonds that taxpayers don’t get the chance to vote on? Not at all. The work of a constitutional convention could correct that.
Or consider a line-item veto for the governor. Forty-four states provide such a check on the legislative branch, but not Rhode Island. Democratic candidates for governor are so beholden to the special interests in the legislature that they have to reject outright a line-item veto, a power that would strengthen their office.
Improving our constitution will send a message that Rhode Island has not given up the good fight, that we are still struggling to improve our government and change our state’s image for the better. That can only be good for business.
By tagging those of us who want a constitutional convention as “wealthy special interests,” opponents are again sending an anti-business message. They have even warned that a convention could pass amendments lessening workers’ rights, when this is not a constitutional issue in the first place.
Despite the scare tactics of the status quo, steady-as-we-go opponents who argue that a convention today would be no different than the 1986 experience, a modern constitutional convention could offer up a number of important improvements that would help get this state back on track. A constitutional convention is not a panacea for all our problems, for sure, but it’s the best chance we’ve got right now to collectively say, “We’ve had enough, it’s time for some changes.”
That’s why it’s critical for the Rhode Island business community to lend its support. We urge you to vote “Yes” on Question 3.

Larry Girouard is president of The Business Avionix Co., a consulting firm, and president of R.I. Taxpayers. John Hazen White Jr. is president and CEO of Taco Inc. in Cranston. Both are members of RenewRI, the pro-constitutional convention coalition.

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