General Assembly Freedom Index Unsettles Voter Perceptions

Perception is not always reality.

That is one of the central conclusions that can be drawn from the first annual General Assembly Freedom Index the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity released earlier this month.

But by adopting a broader view of the key votes that impact the state’s long-term interests, constituents can develop a more accurate and complete portrait of elected officials and their public policy orientation, according to researchers and activists familiar with the Index.

All told, the Index evaluated 96 different bills and then weighted those bills to determine whether or not they had a positive or negative effect on individual or economic liberty. The bills would then receive a weighting ranging from -3 to +3 and the individual lawmakers also received a score based on how they voted. The Index is built around five categories: Tax & Budget, Regulatory Environment, Constitutional Government, Public Sector Labor, and Education Reform.

“One of Rhode Island’s biggest problems is that people don’t really know much about their elected representatives,” observed Justin Katz, the Center’s research director, who also manages the Ocean State Current. “It’s not entirely their fault though, because the information is hard to come by, so everybody winds up making comparisons based on just a couple of issues or an initial impression.”

This was certainly true, Katz argues, in the case of former Democratic Rep. Roberto DaSilva and his failed primary challenge against Sen. Daniel DaPonte in East Providence. Although DaPonte was widely viewed as the more conservative of the two candidates, the Index shows otherwise. DaSilva’s overall score was -1.9, which compares favorably against DaPonte who bottomed out with an overall score of -43.1.

Despite his better than expected Index score, Lisa Blais, the spokesperson for Ocean State Tea Party in Action, continues to have misgivings about DaSilva’s voting record.

“Our concern here with DaSilva is the commitment he had to upholding labor bills that would roll back education reforms,” she said. “He also supported binding arbitration, which made matters very difficult for school committees, and DaSilva opposed pension reform.”

Blais views the Index as a valuable tool that will help voters make an informed decision. She encourages Rhode Island residents to carefully evaluate those votes that impact their future livelihood and the state’s financial viability.

“Certainly, I agree with the idea of looking at the big picture and see the Index as a terrific tool for concerned citizens,” she added. “But some votes matter more than others, and when you looked at where DaSilva stood on issues like education reform and pension reform we had good cause for concern.”

The Index should be not be viewed as panacea, but as a new tool that makes it possible for voters to consider a broader collection of public policy questions, Katz said. He points out that the bills of concern to others, like Blais, having to do with public-sector labor did not make it to the floor, meaning that they did not receive a vote of the entire Senate or House.

“There’s an inherent hazard to picking a few key votes,” he continued. “In Rhode Island, the annual collection of new taxes, fees, and regulations is ultimately more harmful than the flashier issues that attract attention.”

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