February 13, 2022 District Letter

Last Monday night, a group of us met virtually to review the Governor’s budget. You can view our discussion on YouTube by clicking on this link. I learned many things, including information about the Governor’s environmental program from our neighbor Sue AnderBois who works at the Nature Conservancy. Sue shared insight concerning concerning a $6 million line in the Governor’s budget to staff the Executive Climate Change Co-Ordinating Council (“EC4”) established to implement the zero-carbon future envisaged by the Act on Climate. On reading the Governor’s budget, I assumed this cost would be paid for with general revenue; however, I learned on Monday night that it instead would be funded through a surcharge on utility bills. The Senate Finance Committee reviewed this budget item on Tuesday night. The administration maintained that the program could be funded without a utility rate increase by redirecting funds that currently are rebated to utility shareholders as an incentive to develop energy-efficient programs. A group of environmental advocates (including the Nature Conservancy) testified in opposition, stating that while funding the EC4 was a valuable priority, the use of the shareholder rebate/incentive funds to pay for it would be represent a step backward. Through further questions and discussions, the Finance Committee was advised to ask the Public Utilities Commission its view of the benefits of the current rebate/incentive program to determine whether to change the Governor’s EC4 funding plan and, if so, where to find an alternative funding source. 

As some of you may remember, I received the Democratic Party nomination in a 5-way primary in which I received less than 32% of the vote. At the time, I noted that more than two thirds of the voters chose someone else, and that I would look into other voting methods that could result in some form of majority support for the prevailing candidate in future elections. I was particularly interested in ranked-choice voting, a version of which was used in the New York City Democratic mayoral primary this past summer. Under that system, each voter casts a ballot that states their preference of some or all of the candidates in rank order of preference. In the first round, all the “first choice” votes are counted, and the contest ends if one candidate wins a majority. If not, the “second place” votes of the candidate with the lowest total are redistributed among the other candidates to see if that creates a majority result. If not, the process repeats with the votes of the lowest remaining candidate redistributed among the others until one candidate emerges with a majority. In the New York City Democratic mayoral primary, Eric Adams received 31.6% of the first round votes from a field of thirteen, and ultimately won the primary with 50.4% of the vote. 

Ranked choice voting requires education for both voters and election officials. It encountered some implementation bumps in the road in New York City and may require an amendment to the Rhode Island Constitution. With that said, Rhode Island’s “first past the post” electoral system produced weak “mandates” for Governor Lincoln Chafee in 2010 (36.1%) and Gina Raimondo in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary (42.1%) with the prospect of a similarly less-than-conclusive result in this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary due to the large field of candidates. 

With that in mind, I have introduced two bills this year. The first, which is largely similar to a House bill introduced by Representative Kislak, will institute ranked choice voting for General Assembly primaries only, beginning in 2024. The second bill calls for a Senate study commission to review ranked choice voting and other voting systems for multicandidate elections (such as runoff elections), submitting a report by the end of this calendar year for the next Senate session. While no alternative system is perfect, I believe we can have greater confidence in our elected officials if the prevailing candidate has the support (in some form) of a majority of voters. The Senate Judiciary Committee has placed both of these bills for consideration on its Tuesday evening calendar to be heard at the conclusion of the regular Senate meeting.