February 11, 2005

Rhode Island Politics & Taxation, Part IX

This posting continues a periodic series on Rhode Island politics and taxation, building on eight previous postings (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII).

In addition, this posting also builds on previous postings (here, here, here as well as other postings by Justin and Marc here), all of which have noted the difficulty Rhode Island Speaker William Murphy has had in respecting his oath of office and the rule of law as it relates to the separation of powers constitutional amendment.

Now that he has relented, at least on the surface, from thwarting the will of the people regarding separation of powers, Speaker Murphy is now looking for new ways to thwart the ability of Rhode Island residents to follow State House political activities and exercise their duties as citizens. Katherine Gregg of the ProJo tells this latest story in an article about proposed House rules changes. In that article, she highlights some of the possible changes:

Shorten the time that lawmakers -- and the public -- have to scrutinize bills, including the multibillion state budget, before final votes.

Ban anyone, other than a "recognized employee of a news organization," from videotaping or taking photographs of House sessions and House committee meetings "without the express permissions of the speaker."

Spare lawmakers from having to disclose on whose behalf they have introduced a bill, such as a special-retirement bill.

Free committee clerks from having to keep minutes, including records of who testified pro and con...

...a proposal to give the majority leader, the minority leader and the speaker "voting rights" on every committee...

...raise the threshold from 30 signatures -- which comes close to matching the number that voted against Murphy's reelection as speaker -- to 42 of the 75 House members.

In the article, Ms. Gregg also noted certain responses to these proposed rules changes:

H. Philip West, the executive director of Common Cause, accused the House Rules Committee of trying to "restrict public access to information about public officials doing public business."

Others who turned out for last night's State House hearing on the proposed rule changes used words like "drastic," "burdensome" and "unncessary" to describe the efforts by House leaders...

In response to these concerns, Speaker Murphy claimed:

...we are just trying to run the House of Representatives more efficiently...

Just like Mussolini promised to make the trains run on time?

Ed Achorn of the ProJo continues the public debate with an editorial that discusses these proposed changes:

The man who holds the most powerful political position in Rhode Island, House Speaker William Murphy (D.-West Warwick), is trying to assert that power...

Far more ominous, though, are recent moves to enhance his power at the expense of the public. House leaders have rolled out proposed rules changes that could make Rhode Island politics even more of an insider's game, with less opportunity for the public to play a meaningful role and check bad ideas or potential corruption...

Information is power. The longer information can be kept from the public, the more powerful government agents can be...

Politicians understand that public knowledge of government is perhaps the greatest check on their power. That is why the Founders drafted the First Amendment, which barred the government from controlling the press...

Watch carefully, your freedom continues to be at risk.


A more recent ProJo article confirms the worst fears of freedom-loving Rhode Islanders. Here are some of the frightening excerpts:

The end-of-session maneuvering that has enabled state lawmakers to vote on major pieces of legislation -- without advance public notice or hearings -- could become the norm at the Rhode Island State House, rather than an exception, under new rules approved by a committee last night.

Early in the session, House committees would still have to give the public 48-hour notice of their hearings on proposed legislation.

But even that rule could be waived by "the consent of the majority."

It would not apply, after a certain point, "to House bills returned from the Senate with amendment."

And a committee could, by majority vote, consider bills "not previously distributed in print or electronically to its members."

And from April 14 on, the 48-hour minimum-notice requirement that the legislature has imposed on all other government bodies, across the state, would go out the window.

A one-day notice requirement would take its place and what that could mean is this: A bill approved by a House committee on a Tuesday afternoon could potentially be put to a vote by the full House the following day...

...a proposed ban on the use of "video or photographic equipment" by anyone except "credentialed representatives of the news media,"...[led to a compromise]...the new ban would only apply to the use, by House members themselves, of video and still-cameras in the House chamber and committee rooms.

...the Rules Committee also backed off on another proposed rule change that would have reduced the amount of time between House Finance Committee approval and a full House vote that the $6-billion state budget has to be available for public scrutiny...

...For instance, the two Republicans pounced on this sentence: "A committee shall not consider any public bill or resolution not previously distributed in print or electronically to its members except by a majority vote of the members present."

Last year's House rules had a similar provision, but it required "the unanimous consent" of those present -- not a simple majority -- for a committee to take up a previously unseen bill...

The Republicans also questioned the need to make anyone who wanted to know how a committee voted to put that request in writing...

Barely mentioned last night was the removal from the House rules of a long-standing requirement that legislators identify, in writing, "any lobby group, individual or other entity," on whose behalf they have introduced a bill.

In its place, the House Rules Committee is proposing this language: "Upon presentation of testimony before a committee, the prime sponsor of a bill or a resolution shall provide to the committee the name of any individual, group or organization responsible for the substantive basis or text of the bill."...

The full House is expected to vote next week on these rules. Will you speak up before it is too late?


Well, it happened:

Veteran Republican lawmakers tried last night to school newer members in the House on what it was like in the days when special pension bills were rammed through the legislature -- unseen -- on voice votes, and lawmakers were unable to pry loose bills that might have averted the state's devastating banking crisis.

But the majority in the House voted again and again last night to roll back the clock to the way it used to work at the Rhode Island State House.

They voted down a Republican-backed effort to prevent House committees from considering -- and even voting -- on bills without any prior public notice, as long as a majority gave their consent.

They rejected a suggestion that the House adopt for itself the same minimum two-day public-notice requirement the legislature has applied to all other state and local agencies, from town councils, zoning boards and school committees on up.

They rejected a proposal that would have required House Speaker William J. Murphy's leadership team to let them see, in writing, every piece of legislation on which they are being asked to vote.

On a 39-to-28 vote, they also adopted new rules that will make it easier for the Democratic majority to make decisions that previously required "unanimous consent," and harder for anyone on the outs with the leadership to pry a bill from a committee to the House floor for a vote.

And what did Speaker Murphy and his ilk have to say in response to criticism?

... "For us to get things done, in my opinion, these rules are reasonable," Crowley said...

Deputy House Whip Paul E. Moura, D-Providence, told the Republicans to "stop acting like the Philadelphia Eagles. You lost the game. Stop crying."...

...one after another, Murphy's legislative lieutenants rose to try to disabuse the freshmen of the notion that the public-notice requirements and other reforms ...were anything more than "a scam."...

Ed Achorn of the ProJo has commented on the vote:

But most people understand some basic facts of human nature: Unchecked power corrupts. Secrecy allows the powerful to serve themselves at the expense of the public. Citizen participation, openness and transparency are the hallmarks of well-run governments.

Mr. Murphy and his allies have made it harder for those outside their inner circle to know what is going on in time to influence legislation. They have given themselves greater power to ram through bad bills. They have made the majority -- as defined by House leaders -- immensely powerful.

Those outside Mr. Murphy's circle are no longer guaranteed that they may even read legislation before it comes to a vote. And the House refused to abide by the same open-meeting disclosure requirements it imposes on cities and towns...

Rhode Island's recent history amply demonstrates what happens when checks on power are removed. In the banking crisis, citizens and taxpayers suffered devastating financial losses, and the public's faith in its government was dealt a grievous blow...

What a sad day for freedom in Rhode Island. How un-principled. How un-American.


Former state legislator Rod Driver has written an editorial entitled "Rhode Island House: Back to the Bad '80's" on the issues addressed in this posting. Here are a few highlights:

Feb. 17, 2005, was a dark day for Rhode Island. In the 1980s, special pension bills had been slipped through the General Assembly unseen. Credit-union regulatory bills were quietly killed, without even a committee vote. A bill to eliminate credit-union liquidity reserves was passed under false representations. These and other outrages cost Rhode Islanders hundreds of millions of dollars.

So in the early '90s, the House of Representatives adopted some new rules. Committee chairmen were required to honor sponsors' requests for consideration of their bills. The public was to be notified of hearings on bills. Members were to be allowed to see bills before voting on them, and the House would pass no more than 40 bills in one day...

But in 2005, Rep. William Murphy (D.-West Warwick) was re-elected speaker, by a vote of "only" 45 to 30. So on Feb. 17, a majority in the House acted to give the speaker virtually every bit of power that the position might previously have lacked -- shutting out the minority entirely. During a four-hour debate on the rules for 2005, the majority rejected 20 attempts (by Representatives Savage, Watson, Gorham, Long, Amaral, Voccola, Menard, Caprio, Smith, Ehrhardt and others) to preserve some of the safeguards...

Last year's rules provided that if a committee chairman fails to consider a bill at the sponsor's request, the speaker "shall" send the bill directly to the House for consideration. The new rules say that the speaker "may" do so -- at his or her discretion.

A petition to discharge a bill from committee will now require the signatures of 38 representatives, instead of 30. (The no longer sufficient 30 is the number of votes Rep. John DeSimone got in his unsuccessful race for speaker.)

Among other new rules, the speaker, the majority leader, and the minority leader may drop in on any committee to vote on any bill.

A committee may consider a bill without notice to the public and without copies' being distributed. It only requires the acquiescence of a simple majority of the committee members who happen to be in the room.

Representatives may now have little opportunity to see bills before voting on them. Bills may be distributed as late as half a day before the House votes -- and sometimes not at all.

A bill may skip the committee process entirely and be passed immediately on the floor unread, unless one-third of the members object. Even in the 1980s, any one member could insist that a bill go through the committee process.

And if any power for the speaker and majority leader has somehow been overlooked, the new rules may now be suspended without the consent of the minority leader...

Why would any representative think these activities or the new rules are acceptable? For that matter, why does the majority routinely do whatever the speaker wants?

The answer lies in a simple, unwritten, self-fulfilling rule: To get one's bills passed, a representative needs the blessing of the speaker. And to earn this blessing, the representative must do whatever the speaker wants.

This irresponsible process will not change until legislators add more calcium to their backbones -- or Rhode Island voters and media pundits start paying attention. We Rhode Islanders criticize the General Assembly, but we traditionally re-elect our representatives and senators, or promote them to higher office, oblivious of their records...

Driver then lists who voted for these unfortunate new rules. He asks a good question each of us should ask ourselves: Why do we re-elect or promote the very people in RI government who consciously strip away our freedoms?

Does our passivity get us what we deserve? What have you personally done to improve the quality of the political debate in Rhode Island?