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POLITICS AS USUAL: What happened to respecting the will of voters? (OPINION)

November 28, 2012

Give people a choice between freedom and dictatorship, and they will pick freedom every time.
That is what happened in Michigan in the Nov. 6 election. In a referendum, voters repealed that state’s Emergency Manager Law.
That might seem an obscure law in a far-away state to some of you, but to citizens of Central Falls, Woonsocket and East Providence, it will have a distinctly familiar ring. It is a law that allows a state-appointed “manager” to, in effect, march in and take over cities and towns, strip duly elected local officials of their authority, assume all taxing and spending authority, and do pretty much anything he or she pleases.
Locals will recognize this as a kin to Rhode Island’s receivership law. Given the opportunity to pass judgment on the law, 2011’s Public Act 4, Michganders rejected it 52-48. But dictatorship can be resilient, and it appears that the express wishes of the voters of Michigan, as they demonstrated while attempting to exercise their right of self-government at the ballot box has been thwarted, at least temporarily.
You see, Public Law 4 was a more muscular, more tyrannical version of a previous law creating emergency managers, Public Act 72, which it superseded.
So when citizens in Detroit went to the courts after the Nov. 6 victory to get the emergency manager of that city’s public school system ousted, they were rejected. A judge who must be a devoted fan of Franz Kafka ruled that when the people of Michigan voted to repeal Public Act 4, they at the same time inadvertently rejected the legislature’s repeal of Public Act 72, allowing it, and any emergency managers appointed under it, to remain in power. No sooner were the votes counted to reject Public Act 4 when state officials reappointed all managers in place under Public Act 72.
Democracy once more got crushed under the steel toe of tyranny’s boot.
Citizens voted, they rendered a democratic decision to throw off the state’s shackles, and they were ignored by those in power. The “consent of the governed” to which we usually pay such lavish lip service, was deemed to mean nothing in this case. The attempt by citizens to literally take back their government by democratic means was eviscerated.
This should be a lesson here in Rhode Island, where, remarkably for a blue-collar blue state, people tend to embrace the receivership law as a handy tool to rip up union contracts. But once your freedom is taken away from you, it is rarely ever given back. If you want it, you have to take it back by any means you can. And that is never easy.

n Speaking of the democratically-expressed desires of the people being ignored by the powers-that-be (there seems to be a lot of that going around these days), it looks like the referenda questions in the states of Washington and Colorado to legalize small amounts of marijuana for adults are going to go for naught as well.
The U.S. Justice Department insists that marijuana remains illegal under federal law and they don’t give a fig about what citizens in Washington and Colorado voted to do.
What happened to states being the “laboratories of democracy,” allowed to experiment and try new things that may end up being beneficial to the country as a whole?
As was reported in Friday’s Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call, state Rep. Edith Ajello is planning to introduce a bill in Rhode Island’s General Assembly to likewise legalize marijuana for recreational as well as medical use.
Neither proponents nor opponents of legal pot should get too excited about this; Ajello has introduced similar bills in each of the last two years only to see them die before they hit the floor. The legislature passed a bill decriminalizing marijuana in the last session, making possession of small amounts of the drug a civil violation rather than a criminal offense. That law has not even taken effect yet – it won’t kick in until April 1. So I can’t imagine lawmakers having a sense of urgency to go to full legalization any time soon.
But good for Ajello anyway for trying to bring some common sense to Rhode Island’s marijuana policy. Rhode Island has made accommodations for sick people to get medical marijuana, but we are still tripping over ourselves trying to establish compassion centers so sick people can get their medicine without adopting a second career in agriculture or going out in the mean streets to find a drug dealer. We have decided to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, but have not allowed the law to take effect yet. Meanwhile we are spending money on police, prosecutors and (although on rare occasions) prisons to pursue marijuana prohibition laws that seem to get more and more meaningless with each passing day.
Legalizing and regulating the drug would simplify that legal morass for citizens, law enforcement and the courts while at the same time bringing in millions of dollars in taxes.
Millions upon millions of people are smoking marijuana every day in this country, yet there is almost a complete absence of major problems caused by them pursuing the pastime. Lives are still ruined by marijuana but only because those people run afoul of the law, not for any medical or sociological malady.
Ajello points out that we spend more than $20 million a year pursuing anti-marijuana laws in this state when we could be saving that money AND raking in about $10 million in taxes if marijuana were regulated and taxed. As chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, I’m sure Ajello doesn’t want to become known as Rep. Reefer, so it takes a good amount of political courage for her to step up and present a forward-thinking idea that is certain to be shot down at some point in the legislative process. But as she told reporters in a conference call last week, “we do things incrementally” at the General Assembly, so perhaps after a few more tries, Ajello will ultimately be successful.
Discussions over legalizing drugs inevitably degenerates into hand-wringing about “the children,” but as Ajello noted, any illegal drug dealer will sell pot to a kid, no matter what age, but a store owner with a business and an expensive license to protect would be much more reluctant to do so. A lot of kids report that it is easier now for them to obtain marijuana rather than liquor for that very reason.
When Ajello suggested that a recent poll showed more than 50 percent of Rhode Islanders favoring the regulation and taxation of marijuana, I asked if she might look to put a question on the ballot in Rhode Island, similar to the ones in Washington and Colorado (along with one in Oregon that was defeated). She said that may be a possibility.
Poll or no poll, it would be interesting to see how such a ballot question here would fare.

n Channel 12’s intrepid Tim White scored again last week with his report on Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and, to a lesser extent, House Speaker Gordon Fox being chauffeured around in a state-owned vehicle by state employees.
Really? In this era of budget cutting and austerity, we need to be spending money to drive General Assembly pooh-bahs all around the state?
There should be no need for legislation on this, no need for public hearings, Paiva Weed and Fox should just apologize and stop doing it. Just stop it!
It doesn’t matter if they are doing legislative business, personal business or political business – I don’t care if they are going to meet the president or the Pope. They each have nice cars of their own (and get reimbursed for mileage) so they should drive themselves wherever they need to go. Give the SUVs to the State Police or DEM and let the employees go back to doing what they were hired to do.
Jeez, why do we even have to say stuff like this? It should be self-evident.

Jim Baron covers the State House for the Rhode Island Media Group. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of The Standard Times or SRI Newspapers. He can be reached at

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