There are many arguments for and against the merits of the legislation as written, for and against the merits of keeping the Pawtucket Red Sox in Pawtucket, and for and against the merits of the state paying for bonds to finance the construction of a stadium, theoretically covered by the tax revenue derived from said stadium. But there is something else only a handful of people have spoken about.
When I look at this legislation, I am reminded of a book I read this summer, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Moses, during his time as New York Governor Al Smith’s chief of staff in the 1920’s, was referred to by the author as “the best bill drafter in Albany.” He knew how to read the laws of New York, but, more importantly, he knew how to write the laws of New York. His bills appeared innocuous and even well-meaning, but they served a far greater purpose: giving himself power.
When I look at this legislation, I see a bill that proposes to change existing law regarding blighted properties and redevelopment. The bill seeks to give redevelopment agencies far broader power to engage in financing and development which circumvents the General Assembly and violates the Rhode Island Constitution.
It is no coincidence that this legislation was negotiated by the Governor’s Secretary of Commerce. The Governor and Secretary are seeking to give themselves, through the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency, Commerce Corporation, and other public economic and redevelopment corporations under the control of the Governor, the power to bypass the public and the General Assembly with increased eminent domain powers, increased control of development, and increased ability to finance these unconstitutional projects.
Robert Moses did not invent the public authority, but he carefully crafted public authorities to evade state law and make them immune to the restrictions placed on state agencies. Robert Moses built an empire in New York City and New York state that lasted from the mid-1920’s to the late 1960’s. The effects of his reign have ruined New York City’s finances, public transportation, and housing development for decades, if not centuries, still to come.
When the Pawtucket Red Sox ownership, the Mayor of Pawtucket, and others claim that we would be financing a publicly owned stadium, they are not telling the truth. This would not be a publicly owned stadium. The stadium would be owned by the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency, which is a public corporation. In the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s Warwick Mall Trust v. the State of Rhode Island decision, Justice Flanders explained their decision by writing the following, “Our bedrock rationale for all these opinions is that public corporations of the state have ‘a distinct legal existence from the state and [do not constitute] a department of state government.’”
Increasing the power of public corporations in Rhode Island puts us on the dangerous path to be controlled by the public corporations because once bonds are sold, the state cannot legislate its way out of the contract entered into by the public corporation. These agencies can bend city and state governments to their will if we let them. It is easy to give these public corporations more power, but it is much more difficult to take it away.
The General Assembly should be afraid of allowing this power grab by the Governor and public corporations of the state to happen. It should not allow the state to finance the construction of a stadium which will not be publicly owned. I implore the General Assembly to reject this legislation and reject the power grab by the Governor disguised as a stadium.