Rhode Island is a unique state with unusual scandals.
Last week, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello declared he did not know what to cut in Rhode Island’s $9.97 billion state budget. Shortly afterwards, it was revealed that buried in next year’s budget was $1 million for Victor Pedro, a Cranston chiropractor with a zoology degree.
The federal government has denied funding for Pedro’s unorthodox treatment services and a state panel of physicians has determined there was no scientific evidence that his treatments worked. Unbeknownst to the public, Pedro had previously received $1.88 million in taxpayer money despite the efforts of Gov. Donald Carcieri and Gov. Gina Raimondo to stop his funding.
This was possible because Pedro had powerful benefactors in the House of Representatives. Both as a state representative and as a lobbyist, Frank Montanaro Jr. advocated for Pedro. Mattiello also backed Pedro, a campaign donor, supposedly in the hopes that he would pioneer a medical breakthrough.
Although Mattiello eventually eliminated Pedro’s funding from next year’s budget, the curious case of this Cranston chiropractor helps make the case for why Rhode Island needs a line-item veto.
In 44 states, the governor has the authority to reject provisions in the budget without vetoing the entire bill passed by the legislature. With a line-item veto, the governor has the ability to eliminate spending that is unnecessary, wasteful or earmarked to benefit politically connected recipients. Although a veto of a budget line item can be overridden by the legislature, it is less likely to occur than if the governor were to veto the entire budget, especially if the line item vetoed reeks of political insider dealing.
Rhode Island is one of only six states that do not provide for a line-item veto to the governor. Consequently, powerful legislators have been able to get away with putting unique spending items to benefit themselves or their supporters in appropriation bills.
For instance, in 1947, as part of a secret bipartisan deal, a bill providing grants to charitable organizations was quickly amended to include a $10,000 grant for a “State Agricultural Fair” in Kingston, although no had fair had been held there since 1941. This grant was placed into the bill at the behest of state Sen. George Westlake, chairman of the Senate Corporations Committee. Westlake had recently sold his financial interest in the Rhode Island State Fair Association to James Muldowney, a dog track promoter.
Gov. John Pastore disapproved of the grant but was unwilling to veto the bill since it would negatively impact the operations of other charitable organizations. In end, Pastore was able to avoid paying out the funds on technical grounds; the bill did not name an actual person or corporation to receive the grant for the fair.
A more recent example of budget spending to benefit the politically connected occurred in 1992, when the state budget included a new $77,200 legislative grant to the city of Cranston to fund an elderly program project called EPIC. A few months after the budget was approved, state Sen. James D’Ambra, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was hired by Cranston to fill a $44,028-a-year job paid for by the grant. But, a year later, D’Ambra lost his job when a new Senate leadership did not include the grant in the budget.
At times, funds are included in the budget to benefit the politically connected year after year. For example, from 2003 to 2016, an educational nonprofit called Alternative Educational Programming received a total of $2.2 million in community service grants. These funds helped pay the salary of state Rep. Raymond Gallison Jr., a member of House leadership, who was appointed in 2014 by Speaker Mattiello to be chairman of the House Finance Committee.
In 2016, Gallison abruptly resigned from the legislature, and in 2017, he went to prison, in part for misappropriating funds at Alternative Educational Programming. Prosecutors described Gallison’s position at Alternative Educational Programming as a no-show job.
With a line-item veto, Rhode Island governors would be better able to eliminate from the budget, spending to benefit the politically connected. If either Gov. Carcieri or Gov. Raimondo had a line-item veto, perhaps Pedro would never have received $1.88 million from the taxpayers over the years. It is certainly difficult to imagine the General Assembly wanting to vote to override a line-item veto that ended Pedro’s funding.
Rhode Island has been reluctant to increase the power of its governors. For instance, in 1909, Rhode Island became the second-to-last state to give the governor any veto authority. However, giving the Rhode Island governor veto authority had an immediate and beneficial fiscal impact on Rhode Island.
In 1911, the General Assembly passed a budget and various other appropriation bills that would have caused a budget deficit. Gov. Aram Pothier did not veto the budget, but he did veto 31 bills and resolutions that included various appropriations, such as funds for a war memorial in Ohio, a portrait of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, and a pay raise for the lieutenant governor. By vetoing various individual appropriation bills, in effect, Pothier exercised the equivalent of line-item veto. As a result of Pothier’s vetoes, state spending was reduced by nearly 20 percent from what the General Assembly had passed.
While how much a line-item veto could reduce Rhode Island spending is uncertain, what is certain is that it would save taxpayers some amount of money. A line-item veto is a tool for leaders who are fiscally astute and politically courageous to protect the taxpayers from wasteful spending. This is why powerful politicians interested in holding onto their power to benefit either themselves or their supporters usually oppose a line-item veto.
Hopefully, the embarrassment of giving nearly $2 million to a politically connected chiropractor will cause state legislators to finally find their backbone and support a line-item veto.
Steven Frias is Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman, a historian, and recipient of The Coolidge Prize for Journalism.