The index examines legislators’ votes in terms of their likely effect on the free market, the size and scope of government, the balance of residents’ interests against those of public employees and beneficiaries, and the constitutional structure of a divided government with limited power over the people whom it represents. Counting companion bills and the budget only once, sixteen pieces of legislation fit the Gaspee Project's understanding of these criteria.
The resulting scores give a detailed sense of each legislator’s priorities beyond a few high-profile issues.
Gaspee further divided the bills into five categories:
- Tax & budget: bills that affect the tax structure in Rhode Island and/or that relate to government expenditures, just driving or relieving the pressure on taxation
- Regulatory environment: bills that make it more or less difficult to live and do business in the state by imposing regulations
- Constitutional government: bills that affect the structure of the government, as well as the scope of government in its authority over residents’ lives
- Public sector labor: bills related to the relationship between its employees and itself and the electorate
- Education reform: bills that advance or impede the reform of the state’s public education system, in terms of both cost and quality
Most legislation has implications for more than one of these categories. For the purposes of this index, we applied our subjective sense of the area of core effect and sorted the bills accordingly. If, for example, a bill having to do with education seemed to us intended to secure the role of public employees, we classified that bill as Public Sector Labor, not Education Reform.
Gaspee selected legislative bills for inclusion in the Liberty Index if they were deemed to have an effect on free-market, small-government, or constitutional principles, with each bill assigned a positive or negative weighting based on the criteria listed below. Weighted points for each bill were given to each legislator based on his or her roll-call vote on it.
Each legislator’s final Liberty Index was calculated as his or her score’s percentage of the total possible points. A positive score indicates a voting record that generally protected individual and economic freedoms, while a negative score reflects the opposite.
Disclaimer: It should be noted that the total Liberty Index score generated for each legislator is a direct reflection of the perspective of the Gaspee Project when it comes to the weighting of each bill. The Liberty Index is not an absolute measure of a legislator’s merit and does not constitute any endorsement or individual criticism. The Liberty Index is a tool designed for general research and for accountability, giving voters some quantitative metrics for their own assessments as to their elected legislators’ performance.
1) Determine weighting: Each selected bill received a weight ranging from +3 to -3, as determined by the Gaspee Project. Negative weights indicate legislation that creates or expands an agency, government program/function, or tax; creates new regulatory burdens; is hostile to constitutional principles; or otherwise conflicts with the principles that guide Gaspee. Positive factors were assigned to bills in line with those principles. Companion bills in the House and Senate were weighted identically. To determine the weightings, Gaspee requested reviews of all chosen legislation from a half dozen engaged Rhode Islanders with similar principles and combined the range of results for a final weighting.
2) Determine vote: Each legislator received a +1 or -1 vote factor, depending on whether he or she voted FOR or AGAINST a particular bill, respectively. If a legislator did not vote on a bill, he or she received a +0.75 if the bill passed or a -0.75 if the bill failed.
3) Calculate weighted vote: Multiplying the weighting factor and the vote factor produced a weighted vote score for each legislator for each bill.
4) Calculate the legislator score: The cumulative score for all bills for each legislator determined that legislator’s overall score.
5) Calculate Liberty Index: Dividing each legislator’s total score by the maximum possible for the appropriate chamber provided his or her Liberty Index, or a percentage of the best possible score he or she could have achieved.
For example, consider a bill that would increase the regulatory burden significantly in Rhode Island and that Gaspee therefore weighted as a -2. Legislator A voted for the bill. His or her weighted vote would be calculated as follows: -2 x 1 = -2. Conversely, the weighted vote for Legislator B, who voted against the bill, would be: -2 x -1 = 2.
In determining each bill’s weighting, the following questions were considered:
- Does the bill create or eliminate an agency, program, or function of government?
- Does it give the government new or expanded power to prohibit or restrict activities in the free market? Examples may include licensure and other restrictions on legal business practices.
- Is it unconstitutional or does it do violence to our concepts of federalism or separation of powers? Does it restrict property, speech, gun, or other constitutionally recognized rights or freedoms? Conversely, does it restore balance between the state and federal government, resume state authority over an issue under the 10th Amendment, or remove restrictions on constitutionally protected rights?
Other considerations were also brought into question:
- Does the bill redistribute wealth or use tax policy or other incentives to reward specific interest groups with special favors or perks? Conversely, does it eliminate special favors and perks in the tax code or public policy?
- Does it perform a function that can and should be performed by the private sector or restore functions to the private sector?
- Does it grow or shrink the regulatory scope of an agency?
- Does it directly or indirectly create/reduce taxes, fees, or other assessments?
- Does it increase or decrease control of the private sector through rules, regulation, or statute?
- Does it increase or decrease long-term debt or override or restore statutory or constitutional protections against long-term debt?
- Does it give or reduce special benefits for government employees or politicians?
- Does it promote government transparency and openness or does it restrict access to information that should be in the public domain?
It should be noted that the complexity not only of the law but of political theory in general can make assessments of the sort described above subjective and very difficult. People reviewing the index should consider the results to be the best judgment of Gaspee, given our collected experience and expertise.