October 23, 2012

Can Rhode Island Find Representatives Willing to Take the Daring Action of Representing?

Carroll Andrew Morse

I try to use the blogospheric cliche of "read the whole thing" sparingly, but it is very obviously the appropriate pointer to Senator Dawson Hodgson's op-ed from Saturday's Projo, where Senator Hodgson criticized the lack of accountability at the Rhode Island General Assembly, which the 38 Studios fiasco has made more apparent than usual.

Consider the following, in conjunction with Senator Hodgson's op-ed: when the General Assembly created the loan guarantee program that 38 Studios tapped into, the decision to use "moral obligation" instead of "general obligation" bonds was a conscious decision to bypass the process written into the state constitution that is supposed to be used when putting taxpayers on the hook for long-term debt. Long-term bonded debt is supposed to require direct voter consent...

ARTICLE VI - Section 16 - The general assembly shall have no powers, without the express consent of the people, to incur state debts to an amount exceeding fifty thousand dollars, except in time of war, or in case of insurrection or invasion; nor shall it in any case, without such consent, pledge the faith of the state for the payment of the obligations of others.
Seeking the express consent of the people would have automatically created a window for deliberation, open between the the passage of the legislation calling for a ballot question and the voters going to the polls. Questions like how much any one company could tap the loan guarantee fund for would have been raised in public; members of the state's Economic Development Corporation, responsible for administering the loan guarantee program, would have to had taken a position on whether they supported giving $75 million to a single company.

But, as is ingrained habit at the Rhode Island statehouse, our legislators decided to skip over any serious deliberations about whether to incur $125 million in potential debt. Instead, a few members of "leadership" decided behind closed doors what they wanted passed (the amendment that increased the initially proposed size of the loan guarantee fund from $50M to $125M, the difference being the size of exactly one 38 Studios loan guarantee, didn't write itself), chose the “moral obligation” process that did not involve a referendum, and told their followers to approve the plan as written. Naturally, their followers complied, obeying their orders without deliberating amongst themselves, much less the public, and sticking the citizens with the bill.

* * *

The refusal to deliberate 38 Studios has now extended beyond the original vote authorizing the loan guarantee program. No hearings were held this session to determine, in the words of Senator Hodgson, "who put [legislators] in the position to facilitate the squandering of tens of millions of public dollars". The General Assembly has decided that Rhode Island voters should not be provided with a clear accounting of how the loan guarantee decision was made, prior to choosing Senators and Representatives in the upcoming elections.

This decision fits perfectly within the usual operating philosophy of the Rhode Island legislature, where rank-and-file legislators regularly forgo conducting substantive business in open committee sessions. Instead, decisions get made someplace less visible, with legislative committees rubber-stamping them, their primary function being to provide a bit of theater to make backroom decisions appear to be public ones. Leadership alone is not responsible for this state of affairs; it is the repeated actions of just-happy-to-be-there backbenchers, willing to quietly go along with the practice of holding all bills "for further study" and awaiting permission from above before considering anything for real, that allows this to happen again and again.

The manner in which 38 Studios’ loan guarantees are ultimately disposed of will be greatly impacted by the degree to which Rhode Island legislators are willing to accept their usual relegation to the background. Will the decision either to pay off or default on the bonds be made through open deliberations, with all issues laid out, the public fully informed and every legislator making an independent decision about what is in the best interests of his or her constituents? Or will the decision be made by the House Speaker and Senate President, consulting with a few associates out of public view, and commanding a compliant majority to obey orders?

Senator Hodgson concludes his op-ed with one important question related to this and to every decision that the legislature makes...

[Y]ou should ask them whom they are going to support to lead the chamber. Are they going to use your vote to keep the same decision makers in place?
...but another, equally as important question should also be put to the voters of Rhode Island: regardless of who the next leaders of the Rhode Island House and Senate are, are you going to accept representatives who meekly give away their rights to decide on the substance of important matters, just because that's the way it's always been done?

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

It's a rare moment when I agree with the commentators on this site (though I read it regularly, just to see how the other half lives). But this is one issue I think most pol-watchers in the state can agree on. Where we might have disagreement though, is over what can be done about it.

It's a easy thing to say legislators should not abrogate their responsibilities. But it's something else entirely to make them able to do so. Even if a majority of state reps were committed to open deliberations, it's a serious question whether an eight month term is enough time to have any. The part-time nature of the GA seriously constricts the amount of deliberation that be had over any bill, let alone ones that might be controversial. In such a climate, the only place anything can get done is in the back-room.

If we're serious about making the GA more responsive, we have, to my mind, really only one option; major structural reform that either (1) provides the time necessary for opposition to organize and force serious debate or (2) a guts the GA's powers to make them less essential to the functioning of the state.

Posted by: Ron B. at October 23, 2012 2:11 PM

I'm game for option 2...

Posted by: Mike at October 23, 2012 2:40 PM

Ron, there's a couple statements that you made that I don't understand how they go together:

"The part-time nature of the GA seriously constricts the amount of deliberation that be had over any bill"


"the only place anything can get done is in the back-room."

If it's simply a matter of lack of time, how does the back room help at all? There's no stoppage of time there. If there's sufficient time to debate things in the back room, then there's more than enough time on the floor.

As for your statement that one option is to give the opposition enough time, I don't think that'll help. There just isn't enough opposition. As I've stated before, the major mistake the Republicans make is in dividing their numbers. They should be 100% focused on the Senate. They're only about 5 seats away from being able to sustain any Governor veto. Let the Democrats have 100% of the House, that doesn't matter. Get enough votes in the Senate so when a bad bill gets vetoed by the Governor, it can't be just rammed right past him.

That's where the true opposition power could come from, not just more time.

Posted by: Patrick at October 23, 2012 4:17 PM

The issue is not time or the part-time nature of the General Assembly. They have plenty of time to review the bills (if the unpaid bloggers here can do it, then the representatives can). The issues are the the political culture in Rhode Island and the procedures the body follows. If a representative doesn't have enough time for their duties, then they shouldn't run. Full-time representatives are a disaster - rich, connected people serving in the same politically-traded seats for decades and decades on end, totally out of touch with constituents. Just look at Massachusetts if you need a reminder. The volunteer legislature of New Hampshire should be the model. The citizens of that state are relatively satisfied with their representation.

Posted by: Dan at October 23, 2012 5:39 PM

" the decision to use "moral obligation" instead of "general obligation" bonds was a conscious decision to bypass the process written into the state constitution that is supposed to be used when putting taxpayers on the hook for long-term debt."

OOOOooh. I didn't realize that was the difference.

What a great way to do what the hell you want without having to get permission from the people footing the bill.

Posted by: Monique at October 23, 2012 9:03 PM
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