March 5, 2007

Imagine if the CVS CEO Served in the Legislature...

Marc Comtois

Douglas Gablinske, a Bristol Democrat, wrote a spot-on piece this weekend:

As a private person, Rhode Island resident, taxpayer and small-business owner, I have wondered about something for years: How can state legislators who are full-time business agents of unions write, promote, and move legislation through the General Assembly, yet not be in violation of the ethics law?

Now, as a recently elected legislator myself, I wish to shine a bright light on this issue and seek a logical answer to this obvious question. It is incredible to me that this flagrant conflict of interest has been allowed to go on for as long as it has, right under our noses.

These union business-agent legislators may do a good job of representing their constituents. However, their livelihood is derived from representing their membership. Faced with a choice of voting for what is in the best interest of their constituents or in the best interest of union members and their legislative agents’ paychecks, these union representatives find their integrity challenged.

Wouldn’t it stand to reason that their compensation is increased to the degree that they are successful in promoting the unions’ interests? After all, that’s their job! So, while the union members benefit, as do their business agents also working as legislators, taxpayers take it on the chin.

Gablinske further explains that such behavior is considered unethical when applied to a private (ie; non-union) individual who accepts money from business (John Celona), and asks:
If it is wrong for him [Celona] to do so, as is obvious to everyone, why isn’t it wrong for the union business agents, who are paid hefty salaries to basically promote their memberships’ interests through legislation? The conflict is as obvious as the nose on your face.
He also pleads with his fellow Rhode Islanders to realize that this practice is neither normal nor acceptable in other states and that we shouldn't tolerate it either. Finally, he explained that "my obligation is to the taxpayer first." Unfortunately, the same can't be assumed about the union business agents. Today, the ProJo echoes his call for a change and provides some enlightening numbers:
Several legislators get big salaries from public-employee unions who have a huge and direct financial interest in the actions they undertake in the State House — unlike mere members of unions, who are not as directly dependent on unions for money. Sen. John Tassoni (D.-Smithfield) is the $88,549-a-year business agent of Rhode Island Council 94, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Senate Majority Whip Dominick Ruggerio (D.-North Providence) receives $176,070 in “salary/benefits” per year from the New England Laborers’ Labor-Management Corporation Trust. Branches of the Laborers’ union also employ Senators Paul Moura (D.-East Providence) and Frank Ciccone (D.-Providence). (Those branches declined to report their hired legislators’ salaries.)

It is extraordinary that the Ethics Commission has ignored this glaring conflict for so long. “Sometimes unnatural things become natural because they go on for so long,” Mr. Gablinske noted. “The conflict is as obvious as the nose on your face.”

Indeed. In some other posts I've made the point that "Big Labor" and "Big Business" are more similar than not, especially "at the top." Additionally, the total membership of Council 94--the largest public employee union in the state--easily rivals the total amount of employees working for many of Rhode Island's largest businesses. How comfortable would voters be if the the CEO, CFO and a couple Vice Presidents of CVS were elected to the General Assembly? Not very. And what if they happened to sit on various committees in which their votes (and presence--and cash?) could influence bills that could impact their business? Would that pass the smell test? Didn't think so. The negatives sure seem obvious, huh? So isn't it time for Rhode Islander's to insist that the same ethics rules apply to the unions--especially tax dollar supported, public employee unions--as they do to "regular" big business?

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The same goes for attorneys, educators and businessmen serving on the legislature. They all have some agenda related to their full time position. It would be impossible not to.

Posted by: jtel at March 5, 2007 11:54 AM

>>The same goes for attorneys, educators and businessmen serving on the legislature. They all have some agenda related to their full time position. It would be impossible not to.

The difference is that organized labor is essentially public sector labor - the private sector union jobs have mostly left Rhode Island.

What is left is organized labor DIRECTLY feeding at the public trough - this IS an inherent conflict of interest.

What we end up with is public sector organized labor serving as "management" (lawmakers) and "labor" (government employees) ... with us hapless and unrepresented taxpayers serving as "capital."

Posted by: Tom W at March 5, 2007 1:04 PM

Did you say "capital" when you meant to say "cattle"?

Posted by: Greg at March 5, 2007 1:08 PM

I never said there wasn't a conflict with union officials serving in the legislature. That certainly is an obvious one. However, there are other equally ergregious examples of same.

A businessman can vote himself a tax break (like thats never happened). A lawyer that represents a client pushing through favorable legislation. Some of the attorneys in office here act more like lobbyists than elected officials. Last week we had the man in charge of remedial education in Pawtucket propose legislation that would most likely increase state spending on guess what 'remedial education'.

All of these are conflicts of interest.

If you look at one type of conflict of interest you must look at all of them.
All of our part time legislature butter their bread in a way that can be enhanced by their vote.

There is no reason to put blinders on to other conflicts.

Posted by: jtel at March 5, 2007 4:28 PM

How about this idea. We solve one clear violation of 'conflict of interest' and then worry about the other ones later instead of arguing over what constitutes a conflict?

Posted by: Greg at March 5, 2007 4:38 PM

In a state the size of RI there will always be conflicts. The question is how to handle these conflicts.

A cop is going to be pro law enforcement. A teacher is going to be supportive of more spending on education and teacher's salaries. In a democracy, you operate under an assumption that people will act in a self-interested way.

The problem is that there aren't enough members of the anti-tax business community in office, so the union interests get advanced.

Posted by: Anthony at March 5, 2007 8:02 PM

>>Did you say "capital" when you meant to say "cattle"?

Or perhaps I should have said "sheep" - sheered every April 15th and heading for slaughter when the pension bills come due.

Posted by: Tom W at March 5, 2007 10:23 PM

I want to give credit where credit is due.

There is discussion about the issue but no one seems to have noted that it is a Democrat who is raising the question here. Representative Gablinske has chanted this refrain since his first days in the legislature and deserves our recognition. EVERY Republican member should join his chorus.

Jon Scott

Posted by: Jon Scott at March 5, 2007 10:52 PM

Why isn't Gablinske a Republican?

Posted by: Anthony at March 5, 2007 11:46 PM

"Why isn't Gablinske a Republican?"

After seeing how well our political machine runs, you still ask that question? He would get better funding and support if he ran on the Wiccan Lesbians for Nazi Rights party.

Posted by: Greg at March 6, 2007 8:04 AM

"We solve one clear violation of 'conflict of interest' and then worry about the other ones later ..."

And Mr. Gablinske is proposing we start with the one that is costing us the most money. Works for me.

Posted by: SusanD at March 8, 2007 11:35 AM
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