As tonight’s budget debate in the R.I. House creaks along, some sharp-eyed lawmakers should be asking some hard questions about the item for a capital budget request of more than $3 million to purchase a vacant lot near the State House wedged between the Veterans Memorial Auditorium and the state employee credit union building. . The provision was put in by Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s administration and originally proposed paying $3.5 million for the land, according to fiscal analysis done by House financial staffers.
The House Finance Committee trimmed the governor’s request to $3.15 million and includes language in a budget article that stipulates that the land cannot be purchased for more than $70 per square foot. The land in question has sat fallow for many years and has been owned forever, it seems, by John Hawkins, a former Providence state senator who was Senate majority leader in the early 1970s and a onetime power in state Democratic Party politics. Hawkins ran for U. S. Senate unsuccessfully in the 1976 Democratic primary that was won by Richard Lorber, a car dealer who went to defeat to the governor’s father, Republican John Chafee.
Hawkins was author of the legislation that created the state lottery and he became executive director of the Lottery Commission, but was forced out after a controversial tenure. He also authored the police officers Bill of Rights legislation that makes it difficult to fire police officers who run afoul of management.
Hawkins once tried as a senator to steer a state lease for the auditor general’s office to a building he owned on Smith Hill, near this land. Some inquiring House member ought to ask about the genesis of this one. If no one in the House catches it, how about some enterprising senator poking around?
Chafee's administration director, Richard Licht, defended the proposal. Licht said the state's appraisal of the land came in higher than the purchase price. He also said that the state is short of parking spaces near the State House, especially during the General Assembly sessions.
Licht also said that Hawkins is a part-owner, not the sole owner. And Licht said, the price is a bargain for the state because the nearby rurn around space for the Renaissance Hotel adjacent to the Vets Auditorium went for $130 per square foot in 2006.
``This is the lowest price the state will ever get it for,'' said Licht.