Downsizing the Rhode Island General Assembly

LWV RI study material 2001

In July of 1994 the Rhode Island House and Senate unanimously passed an overall reform package which included reducing the size of the House from 100 to 75 and the size of the Senate from 50 to 38 (Joint Resolutions 184 and 193). On November 8, 1994 a majority of the electorate voting in a statewide election approved the downsizing amendments to the RI Constitution. Both changes will take effect in the year 2003 after the 2000 census. Currently, there is a movement in the Legislature to rescind the downsizing.

Arguments in favor of Downsizing:

Arguments against Downsizing:

Lower costs
Broader based constituencies
Constitutional amendment/popular vote
More Competition for office
Fewer bills - higher quality work

Fewer minority reps
Less competition for office
 Less representative legislature
Concentration of power
Less responsive legislature
Greater influence for special interests

The problem with much of the debate about downsizing is that so much of the discussion is a matter of "beauty in the eye of the beholder".  Where pro-downsizing advocates see a smaller assembly as a more efficient, effective deliberative body, anti -downsizing advocates see a dangerous concentration of power in a small group of people and special interests needing fewer votes to influence legislation. Where pro-downsizers see larger districts making legislators less vulnerable to small localized groups of vocal people, anti-downsizers see a legislature with less time to respond to constituents. Pro-downsizers expect more competition for elected office because of larger pools of qualified candidates, anti-downsizers expect fewer candidates because of higher time and money requirements for campaigns. Which side is correct? No one knows.

Whether or not there will be fewer minorities and women in the legislature with downsizing is another matter. Although, state demographics have changed considerably since the 1990 census, the numbers from the 1990 census give some indication of how well or badly minorities and women are represented in our Legislature. In 1990, 91.4 percent of the state was white and 3.9 percent was black, leaving all other minority races with 4.7 percent of the population. Hispanics (not a racial designation) were 4.3 percent, and women were 53.0 percent of  the state's population.

1990 Census figures & Representation in the Legislature



# if proportional to % of pop.





% of pop.







All minorities
Women 18+




92    92%
8      8%
8      8%
0      0%
98    98%
2      2%
26    26%

49    98%
1      2%
1      2%
0      0%
50  100%
0      0%
11    22%



How did that translate into our legislature? It appears that overall, minority representation is not horribly out of proportion. But, the minority representation is all black (the two Hispanics are also black), so while blacks do not appear to be underrepresented, - others do. However, blacks, Hispanics and other minorities generally live in the same areas (see Providence redistricting maps from 1990), so they are essentially fighting each other for representation. The low number of Hispanic legislators is also more understandable when one looks at voting statistics gathered by the census bureau in 1990. In 1990, 56.0 percent of whites said they voted, 50.6 percent of blacks said they voted, but only 26.7 percent of Hispanics said they voted. Women on the other hand, are grossly underrepresented, and there doesn't appear to be any reason for this.

Given current district sizes, it does appear that seats in larger districts (Senate) are somewhat more difficult for women and minorities to win than smaller districts (House) seats, and it is not clear whether fair redistricting can or can't offset that difference. However, when two other states, Massachusetts in 1979 and Illinois in 1983, downsized their assemblies, the percentages of women in office improved (as they did for women all across the country) even though the absolute number of women in office did go down (from 16 to 15 in MA and from 32 to 27 in IL).

Information about changes in minority representation when Massachusetts and Illinois downsized their assemblies is unavailable. However, in Rhode Island, almost all the minority population in 1990 lived in urban areas (specifically Providence), which made it possible to carve out "minority districts." (The 1986 case of Thornburg v. Gingles determined that unless a minority group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district, they cannot claim to be deprived under the 1982 Voting Rights Act.) With a total state non-white population of 86,989 and Hispanic population of 45,752 mostly concentrated in urban areas, increasing the size of representative districts from 10,040 to 13,380 and senate districts from 20,080 to 26,400 should not make it impossible to again carve out "minority districts." There will be fewer "minority districts ," but the minority district losses should be proportional to non-minority district losses provided that the redistricting body uses the same standards and procedures it used for defining minority districts in 1990.

As for whether larger districts will make the legislature less representative of the people of the state, a reading of legislators' biographical information reveals that seats in larger districts (Senate) are more difficult for teachers to win than smaller districts (House) seats. In the House there are 11 teacher/educators plus 4 retired teachers and there is only 1 teacher and one retired teacher in the Senate. No other differences in occupations due to the size of the Senate and House districts are easily discerned. Blue collar occupations are not clearly represented by anyone in either house and one quarter of each of the two houses are lawyers.

Although it can be argued that with fewer bills, a smaller assembly will have more time for thoughtful contemplation of those bills . It is, however, not definite that a smaller assembly will produce fewer bills. In 1990 and 1991, 150 RI Legislators introduced 7 ,931 bills and resolutions (52.9 per member). In that same time period 76 Hawaiian Legislators produced 9,805 bills and resolutions (129.0 per member),- and 211 New York Legislators produced 44,501 bills and resolutions (210.9 per member). At the other extreme, 424 New Hampshire Legislators produced just 1,627 bills and resolutions (3.8 per member).

Downsizing should reduce costs. When the downsizing amendment to the State Constitution was passed, the smaller Assembly and elimination of pensions were intended to offset the costs of higher salaries, new health benefits, and increased administrative staff and equipment for legislators. As of now we have the increased cost of those salaries, health benefits, staff and equipment. Each legislator now receives $10,000 a year (with a COLA as well, so the figure is even higher today and it will be higher in 2003), and many legislators receive health benefits paid for by the State that cost, on average, approximately $7 ,200 per member now and are likely to rise. In addition to those increases, we are also facing the costs of legislators' increasing demands for space for their increased staff and other support services, hence the Legislature's secret $8. million "surplus" fund for renovating a new legislative office building. With the reduction in the size of the Legislature we should save roughly $650,000 a year in salaries and health benefits as a result of 37 fewer legislators. And, unless the remaining legislators simply annex the staff of the departed, we should reduce salary, benefits and space needs for them as well. And, with fewer voting districts, we should have lower election costs.

Finally, it should be noted that downsizing was not the result of an eleventh hour bill quietly slipped through on the last day of a legislative session. After seemingly endless scandals (bloated pensions, the banking crisis, indictments of judges...) a Blue Ribbon Commission on the General Assembly was appointed in September 1992 to develop "a broad blueprint for the General Assembly in the 21st Century." A draft report from the Commission was released for public comment in August 1993. Downsizing was front page news and discussed for months before both houses of the Legislature passed their bills and the public ratified the amendments in November 1994. The other changes recommended by the Commission and passed by the legislature have already been implemented (4-year terms for General Officers, elimination of pensions, legislative pay increases and health benefits, increased administrative staff, modernization of communications systems which include the legislative database on the Internet...).

A decision to present voters with referendum to amend the State Constitution is never one that should be taken lightly. In this respect, the decision to ask voters to revisit an issue relatively soon after they have directly passed upon it carries an even heavier burden of persuasion, particularly when the disputed change has not yet been tested and other significant changes have already been made based upon the assumption that the referendum changes would remain in effect. The issue here is whether the arguments advanced in favor of a repeat referendum are sufficient to sustain that burden.


"City of Providence Redistricting", Alpha Research Associates, Inc., For Distribution at Public Hearings of the City of Providence Committee on Ward Boundaries, January 1992.

The General Assembly in Rhode Island: A Blueprint for the 21st Century, The Blue Ribbon Commission on the General Assembly, December 1993.

The Rhode Island Government OWNERS MANUAL 1999-2000, The Secretary of State's Office of Public Information.

"Table 3. Race and Hispanic Origin: 1990." 1990 Census of Population: General Population Characteristics Rhode Island, U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, Bureau of the Census, June 1992.

"Table 4A.   Reported Voting and registration, by Race, Hispanic Origin, and Age, for States:  November 1996." U.S. Bureau of the Census, http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/voting/96cps/tab4A.txt,  Internet Release date:  August 17, 1998

Wattson, Peter S., "1990s Supreme Court Redistricting Decisions," http://www.senate.leg.state.mn.us/departments/scr/REDIST/red907.htm, updated October 26, 1999.

"Women Members in State Legislatures."  Unpublished document, Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council and The Center for the American Woman and Politics, March 2000.


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