July 24, 2006

How Things Work on the Hill

Marc Comtois

Rep. David Laroche (D) Woonsockett and Rep. James Davey (R) Cranston are both retiring from the General Assembly this year. Jim Taricani had them on NBC 10's News Conference (with Bill Rappleye) this past Sunday to talk about how things really operated in the Legislature. Let's just say that things work just how you'd expect. If you don't want to read the following rough transcription, here's what I took away from the discussion:

1) What we thought we knew, we now know for sure: all the power is on the "3rd floor" of the State House where the leadership resides. That's not really anything new, but the degree to which the power is centralized in our legislative body--which is supposed to operate on a more dispersed power model--is a big problem.
2) The fact that Laroche is retiring as both a firefighter and a State Rep. and moving to Florida!!! "Thanks for all the tax dollars toward my pension and benefits folks...I'm going to Disney World!" That's just great...

{What follows is a mixture of a paraphrasing summary with a few direct quotes sprinkled in.}

Davey said he was leaving for personal reasons and would be moving to North Carolina for cost (taxes) reasons. Laroche is a retired firefighter who has bought a home in Florida, which he indicated would be his primary residence. {Yes, soak in the irony of that...MAC}

Then they got into how things work up there:

Davey - Gave example of how submitted a bill that would have required that all collective bargaining agreements for every town be made available on line. The committee chairs thought it was a good idea, but “the third floor” (the leadership) didn’t and no action was taken.

Laroche - Committee hearings are a farce. What really happens is that what the leadership considers important is what gets passed. What people are really doing when they testify before a committee is educating the committee, who are also private citizens and don’t have an expertise in every subject.

Davey - It’s true in a number of cases, but we did adjust a number of bills based on testimony. But the big, important ones don’t get a vote and there is no accountability. In NH or Maine, every bill gets a vote, most (90%) of ours are tabled for further consideration. In Maine, everything reaches the floor and if you want to hold it for further study, that gets voted on, too.

Taricani noted that John Celona had pled guilty to basically selling his office and then asked: How much does this go on at the State House?

Laroche — Maybe on the 3rd floor, but they didn’t call me. We vote on what the chair says we’re voting on and that comes from the Speaker.

Taricani - “And you have no idea where that influence comes from?”

Laroche - “Nope, not at all.”

Davey - “I have absolutely no evidence of any of that in the House. And I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but…my concern more is with the system and with making just a couple of simple changes in the system the Legislative branch could become much more open and accountable. For example, under the separation of powers legislation, we’ve been passing these [executive] boards… have to submit financial reports at the end of the year. The net result is that the people of Rhode Island are going to know more about the Mosquito Abatement Board and the Scenic Roadways Commission than they will the Legislature.”

According to Davey, this is the bottom line: They should report their expenditures and change the committee process so that every bill gets a vote on the merits. Davey sat on the Judiciary Committee, a busy committee, all year and he didn’t get one bill out of committee while one guy showed up two days all year, just to vote. Their ought to be minimum attendance requirements and there ought to be votes on bill.

Taricani - But isn’t the reason they won’t do that [make changes] is because it’s about power?

Laroche - But they already have the power because they stack all the committees so that all of the Speaker’s supporters outnumber everyone else.

Davey - It’s only accountability. If we could make them take a position on tings via an on-the-record vote, it would make a difference.

Taricani - Regarding pensions-why is it that public employees insist on co-pays while every “working stiff” makes them?

Laroche - They received their benefits along the way by bargaining in good faith and did that in lieu of receiving a pay raise.

Taricani - You guys received a pay raise every year!

Laroche - Nope, you're wrong. We’ve worked without a raise before...

Taricani - And many in the private sector have worked for years without a raise and still make a co-pay. Don’t you understand how the public looks at that and says what is it with these guys. Don’t the unions get that?

Laroche - I’m sure they do, but when we go to the bargaining table and get…should we give it away?

Taricani - But times change...

Laroche - Exactly, and I’m sure some Fire Depts are sharing.

Taricani - But not Woonsockett, why are you any different. Believe me, I have a lot of respect for police/fire, you put your life on the line every day, but why, in this context of pensions and benefits, should you have anymore than any other working stiff.

Laroche - I’m not saying we are, we signed a 3 year deal with the mayor…

Davey - There is a trend to paying co-pays, but my concern is that they’re minimal. In Cranston, Teachers went from 0 to5% but negotiated a pay raise that ended up giving them more money in their paycheck..

Taricani - But…in all these contracts, who signs the contract? It’s the very person that’s usually complaining they don’t have a co-pay, the politicians. You can’t just blame the unions.

Davey - No you can’t

Taricani - If you’re an executive, you try to get the best compensation package you can…

Davey - What we need to do, and I had a bill on that too--77% of Cranston’s budget is not subject to the budget process and is covered by collective bargaining (teachers, police, fire)—the bill would require any Collective Bargaining agreement have a fiscal impact statement and a 10 day notice. I will say that under Mayor Laffey we have 10-15-20% copays under this sort of process.

Davey- (In response to question from Rappleye) I have to give speaker credit for changing voting procedure—though only after a lot of public pressure—but now you actually have to be there to vote! The other thing is that now we make legislative grants public. [Legislative grants are basically patronage plums].

Rappeley - They’re moving in the right direction

Davey - There are signs that its worthwhile continuing the difficult schedule.

Rappeley - Why did you want to become rep….is it to serve their own private interests?

Davey - Never was a politician, attended a few city council meetings and saw how the public’s pockets were being picked. And I also ran into the RI attitude that you have to accept it, it’s RI. SO I figured if I ran and beat Montenaro, people would see that an unconnected person could win. Step up to the plate.

Rappeley - Are there bad guys up there?

Neither Laroche nor Davey go so far as to say that anyone up there was using their office for overt personal perks and privilege.

{Note: Made some minor edits in the intro on 7/25/2006. MAC }

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Excuse me while I force the bile back down into my stomach where it belongs.

What this state desperately needs is an explosive gas leak while the legislature is in session...

Posted by: Greg at July 24, 2006 3:39 PM

And more thanks to Cranston's lame-duck mayor for adding 15 MORE positions to our fire department-at over $120,000 total annual compensation per "job"- to what is already the most overpaid and bloated fire department in the the United States.

Posted by: Mike at July 24, 2006 7:26 PM

Marc, you left out that Davey is moving to North Carolina.

Posted by: Anthony at July 26, 2006 9:32 AM

Yes, the General Assembly is messed up, but I don't have much sympathy. Rhode Islanders elected these people.
If you're responsible for putting someone into power, you really have no right to complain about it.

The problem isn't the General Assembly, it's the people who ELECT the General Assembly. Rhode Islanders like to blame the legislature, but it's our own fault and nothing will change until we take individual responsibility for our own decisions.

People in West Warick know what they are getting when they vote for Bill Murphy. Representatives from other towns who vote to elect Murphy speaker know what they will be getting. So Murphy becomes speaker. Then is it any surprise that the leadership in most democratically-elected legislative body sets the agenda?

If people were truly upset with the General Assembly, they would vote their own reps. out and replace them. But they don't. I don't blame either Laroche or Davey for moving somewhere else to save money. I blame Rhode Island voters for letting it happen.

It's like I said in the Senate race. If you help Sheldon Whitehouse get elected and the Senate goes Democrat, don't complain about it afterwards. Accept some individual responsibility.

Why Rhode Islanders blame others for electing a self-serving General Assembly is beyond me.

Posted by: Anthony at July 26, 2006 9:58 AM

I think Anthony's hitting on the real problem - we all complain about how corrupt the Assembly is, but most people say..."But not MY representative!"
Unfortunately, in most statewide attempts to oust corrupt legislative leadership at the ballot box, these issues don't play at the local level. As Tip O'Neill once said, all politics is local...for better or worse.
As much as I'd like to vote out Murphy and Montalbano, or their lackeys, and bring in some fresh blood, it's really not my decision to make. We who follow politics as intensely as many people follow the Red Sox may look at the bigger picture before we vote, but the majority don't. We're stuck with the consequences of sectors of West Warwick and North Providence/Pawtucket where people are unwilling or unable to smell the coffee (or eager to swill the coffee and doughnuts).

Posted by: Rhody at July 26, 2006 11:26 AM

First, RE: Davey - no I didn't, it's in the extended transcript. I suppose you mean that I left it out of my summary. But I didn't think the fact that he was leaving because of personal/family issues was pertinent. Especially as compared to a person who had two state pensions to draw from and was moving out of state.

Second, you engaged in a bit of conflation by saying "it's our own fault" for re-electing the same people, etc. It's not my fault at all. I don't elect them, I vote for the Republican ticket. But this speaks to a larger problem.

There is a dual dilemma faced by those who want to challenge the dominant status quo. First, it seems that many of the loudest anti-RI establishment voices are coming from people (like me) who weren't born and brought up in RI. As such, we don't have a natural constituency of family and friends to draw on should we decide to run in a local election.

Second, those native RIers who are willing to run against the old boys and do have such "infrastructure" are very likely to share friends (and even family) with whomever they may oppose! Hence, they don't want to "step on any toes" (how often have you heard that one) by running against a guy or gal they knew growing up.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at July 26, 2006 7:04 PM

I absolutely agree with you (except I still don't see the difference between Davey and Laroche--they're both moving for economic reasons--it's just a matter of degree). My point is that I don't have any sympathy for those people who vote for "their guy" when they know what the result of their vote will be.

It's like dealing with an alcoholic. Sometimes you need to let them hit rock bottom before there will be recovery.

Rhode Island is addicted to a bloated bureaucracy, fat pensions, free healthcare for state workers and high taxes so it can be given out to friends by those in power. Heck, I know some so-called "conservatives" who feed at the trough, while at the same time talk about the need for lower taxes and better government, although it usually the Democrats who are guilty.

But this is apparently what Rhode Islanders want, because that's how they vote. Eventually things will hit the fan and at that point Rhode Islanders will wake up and figure out they can't afford it all.

In the meantime, the state government will do things like blow the entire multi-year tobacco settlement funds to meet a one-year budget shortfall in an attempt to patch a sinking boat.

It just might be better to let the boat sink first and then rebuild it.

Posted by: Anthony at July 26, 2006 8:27 PM

I've come to believe that, too. Dan Yorke occasionally touches on this subject, too. And I think he's right (as are you). It's them vs. us, but too many of us want to be them!

Posted by: Marc Comtois at July 27, 2006 7:55 AM