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In Year Two, Sen. Hodgson Looks To Make Waves

Among the bills he's introduced, one would abolish the Caruolo Act. Another would offer merit "bonuses" for some teachers.

Dawson Hodgson, the Republican state senator from North Kingstown, spent his first year in office learning the ropes — “playing defense and being a vocal opponent of bad ideas.” This year, he said, he plans to take a more proactive role, from attempting to abolish the act that gives school committees the right to sue towns, to offering $1,000 bonuses to teachers whose students earn AP credits.

“I’m attempting to implement more policy changes,” Hodgson said in an recent interview. He’s introduced six what he calls “substantive” bills this session, this despite a bout of pneumonia a month ago that landed him in the hospital for two days. He’s recovered but said he tires more quickly than usual, joking that the Democrats have been enjoying a quieter Dawson Hodgson in the Senate in recent days.

When he was elected in 2010, Hodgson's district included part of East Greenwich and North Kingstown. After the new redistricting, it includes parts of Narragansett and South Kingstown too. “They got real creative with this one,” he remarked. It can make for long days. While Hodgson knew being senator would be a lot of work, he said balancing family, work and politics is a challenge. For now, he said, it’s a challenge he’s happy to have.

Here are five bills Hodgson has introduced:

1. The Benefit Fraud Statute would make it a felony to make a false statement to a government agency in order to procure a government benefit such as disability pensions, retirement benefits, and welfare.

According to Hodgson, “there are currently embezzlement statutes but nothing specifically targeted to individuals who game the system.”

Under this act, it would be a felony to fail to disclose a change in circumstances. “That part of the act is really the meat of this because it tells everybody who is on a governmental disability of some sort you have a continuing obligation to play by the rules,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of being scrupulous or unscrupulous. You’re stealing.”

Hodgson said tough economic circumstances may make this bill easier to pass this year.

“With a healthy economy and lots of money coming into the government, that covers up a lot,” he said. “Because of the lack of revenue, we’re starting to see the skeleton of everything. Things that hid under piles of money are now out in public view. It may be the political climate where we can go to better practices.”

2. Establishing a statewide IT department. “Right now we have lots and lots and lots of little IT departments scattered throughout the state. The long-term vision of this legislation … is that one agency is providing all the IT to the whole state,” he said. In the bill, the head of that department would be a member of the governor’s cabinet.

According to Hodgson, this is more than just a practical move to reduce duplication. It’s also a way to position Rhode Island to attract the high tech industries it seeks.

“If I was a technology entrepreneur,” he said, “I am not just looking at real estate, I’m looking at, is the state in the stone age with their computer systems or do they have a strategy? I don’t see a strategy right now.”

3. Municipal and School Department Alignment. The motive behind this bill, according to Hogdson, is to amend Title 16.2 to give town and city councils more power over the school budgeting process. “I’m trying to remove barriers to the appropriate authority, which is the Town Council, to best managing what they’re going to have to fund,” he said.

Under Hodgson’s bill, school committees would be responsible for the educational care, custody and control of students.

“I think it gives town councils tools to get in and save where they need to and it also safeguards the educational mission,” said Hodgson. Included in the bill is an amendment that would strike the language of the Caroulo Act.

Enacted in 1995, the provision allows local school committees to file suit in state Superior Court in order to seek more money than budgeted by their town or city councils.

“I think most of my bill will get support, but I think that portion is probably dead on arrival,” Hodgson said. “But I needed to include it because this bill is a tool and it’s also a statement.  That’s another big-picture bill and an important conversation to have.”

4. Term Limits for the General Assembly. Under Hodgson’s bill, the terms for state senators would go from two years to four and senators would be limited to two four-year terms. State representatives would be limited to four two-year terms.

“What it does is promotes turnover and it prevents building up concentrations of power,” he said.

As for the reason to increase the length of the term for senators, he said, “I think four years would give members of the senate the opportunity to develop a policy portfolio in a more substantive way.”

On the two-year terms for representatives, he said, “There is something to be said about keeping one chamber closer to the will of the people.”

Still, Hodgson said he recognized that this bill could be a tough sell: “There’s a very compelling, cogent argument that we have term limits already — they’re called voters.”

5. Bonus for teachers whose students earn AP credits. Hodgson said the model for this comes from Florida and it would serve two purposes. One, it could help lower college costs for those students who earn AP credits. Two, it would send the message that Hodgson supports teachers who can show success.

“It’s starting the conversation of ‘I want to pay you for performance.’ I want the best to get more. And I want the dead wood to get less,” he said. Anticipating one possible argument, Hodgson said he’d support bonuses for any teacher who could come up with a way of quantifying success. He’s proposing bonuses of $50, which would be capped at $1,000 a year. [Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated the bonus amount. We regret the error.]

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