GOP governor out to turn Rhode Island around. DiPrete promotes big plans to rebuild little state's image

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

There's a Republican in the chief executive's chair. Staff members use words like ``mandate,'' and they talk about cutting back on government and returning power to the people. But this is not the White House. It's the Statehouse in Providence. And the man who claims the mandate is not Ronald Reagan, but Edward D. DiPrete, Rhode Island's first GOP governor in 16 years.

Only three months into office, Governor DiPrete has already set out to turn his state around. Having a Republican governor in the Statehouse ``says a lot to Rhode Islanders,'' DiPrete says. By fostering economic development, cutting back government, and lowering taxes, he says he hopes to bring ``a breath of fresh air to the state.''

For decades Rhode Island has been in economic decline. In the 1970s it was one of two states in the country to lose population. Many young people have moved out of the state, leaving it with the third-highest percentage of elderly residents.

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Some see the state's biggest problem as its poor image. Stanley Lemons, a professor of history at Rhode Island College, says, ``We're so small, we never get noticed unless something horrible happens.''

Democratic state Sen. Victoria Lederberg says the governor may well change that. ``I see Governor DiPrete . . . as perhaps being the exact catalyst Rhode Island needs to give us a good dose of the upbeat self-confidence that we have been lacking.''

Mrs. Lederberg, who is also a professor of psychology at Rhode Island College, says she sees in DiPrete ``the capacity to turn around Rhode Island's self-image.''

And she says there is a ``definite parallel in what Reagan has done for the national mind-set and what DiPrete has the potential to do for Rhode Islanders.''

Yet the governor does not come across as a cheerleader. He is a quiet, serious man. Before becoming governor, this father of seven was mayor of Cranston for six years.

After graduating from Holy Cross College, and serving four years in the US Navy, he started working in a small family real-estate business.

Friends and aides say DiPrete is not a typical politician -- that he dislikes social events and would much rather work quietly on budget figures than make speeches.

But behind the quiet exterior, Mrs. Lederberg says, DiPrete is ``keen . . . and informed on government issues.'' She says he will ``run a very tight, efficient ship. He will carefully control and monitor what [his staff] is doing.'' And that, she says, ``is the key to a good executive.''

Mrs. Lederberg is not the only Democrat who speaks well of the governor. Even Matthew J. Smith, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, says: ``I'm getting along better with him [DiPrete] than I did with his predecessor [Democrat J. Joseph Garrahy].''

The limits of a two-year term of office might not offer DiPrete the time he wants to change the state's course after 16 years of Democratic control. But he has lost no time in proposing changes. The two major items on his agenda are promoting economic development and restructuring government.

``Thirty percent of our young people leave the state,'' he says. There simply are not enough jobs for them. ``We're losing those college graduates to states which have fostered economic growth.''

DiPrete says government's role is to ``create an environment in which businesses can prosper.'' He wants to streamline rules and regulations for companies to operate in Rhode Island.

He also would like to repeal a law that provides unemployment compensation for strikers. In effect, employers are now required to pay for strikes.

Government can also have the ``intelligence to recognize Rhode Island's strengths and capitalize on them,'' DiPrete says. Its location on the Atlantic Ocean and Narragansett Bay, its labor force, good highways, and a regional airport are strong selling points to help attract business to the state, he says.

On Tuesday, the governor released his proposed budget. The changes it portends for the state add up to a lot more than just revenue and expenditures. DiPrete says it includes major structural changes in the way the state government operates.

For example, there are too many independent government authorities and commissions in Rhode Island, DiPrete says. These amount to a ``duplicate government,'' he says, in which many of the commissions operate without responsibility to any elected official.

This problem was recently highlighted when two members of the Board of Plumbing Examiners were convicted for selling licenses.

DiPrete says elected officials should be responsible for running government. In his budget he proposes eliminating or consolidating 43 of the state's 75 or 80 commissions.

The governor says another avenue for change is a constitutional convention that voters approved last November. DiPrete says he would like to see several changes come from the convention. For instance, He favors setting the term for statewide office at four years. (Only two other states, New Hampshire and Vermont, maintain two-year terms.) Also, the governor and lieutenant governor should be elected as a pair, he says.

State legislators, who at present earn only $300 a year for a 60-day session, should receive reasonable pay, DiPrete says. And he also proposes reducing the size of the 150-member General Assembly.

DiPrete has submitted a bill to the legislature asking that the delegates to the convention be elected this June in a special election, and that the convention take place during the summer. The proposed changes would then be voted on in the general election next fall.

In that case, says Mrs. Lederberg, the convention's changes could be implemented in 1986. If voters approved a switch to a four-year term for governor, ``DiPrete's net gain would be the avoidance of an entire election,'' she says.

But members of the legislature may not be inclined to rush the convention. Speaker Smith says it makes much more sense to elect delegates to the convention in the regular election in November. Few voters turn out for special elections, he says.

After three months as governor, DiPrete says the job is demanding and quite a step up from being mayor of Cranston. On any given day, he says, he can be called upon to deal with issues as diverse as budget preparations, solid waste disposal, or a plan to relocate a river.

Even if the budget sails through the legislature unscathed, and the constitutional convention comes off without a hitch, DiPrete says he will have plenty to keep him busy.

``In trying to change the direction of government, there are a great many things to be done,'' he says. ``Working to improve the economy is a never-ending job.'' Chart: Rhode Island statistics: (see below) Land area -- 1,049 square miles, the smallest state. Population in 1980 -- 947,154; down 2,600 from 1970. Population density -- 910.4 per square mile; 87% urban Population over 65 -- 13.4%, the third-highest percentage in the US High school graduates: 61.1% College graduates: 15.4% Manufacturing employment: 29.3% of the work force, the third most-industrialized state. Manufacturing wages: $6.68 an hour, the third-lowest. Per-capita income (1983): $11,670, ranked 20th in the US.

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