Friday, February 20, 2009

RI Lawmakers Ignore Tansparency Amid Annual Rush

By Ray Henry

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—State lawmakers ignored transparency guidelines during their chaotic final week last year when legislators suspended their own rules, met in marathon sessions and hurriedly passed reams of legislation, according to a study being released Friday.

The annual report by Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis measures whether legislative committees adhere to the state's open meetings law, which is voluntary for the General Assembly but mandatory for other government agencies.

Under the law, government officials must publicly advertise their meetings and post an agenda 48 hours in advance. Committee hearings are particularly vital in the General Assembly because they allow the public a chance to testify about legislation before it goes to the House or Senate floor.

"That's one of the best things about our government," Mollis said. "People can come and speak on any issue, but they can only do so if they're provided with enough advance notice."

House committees adhered to the standards set in the state's open meetings laws during 87 percent of their meetings, a slight increase over last year, according to the report. Senate committees scored a 90 percent for the second straight year.

When then-Secretary of State Jim Langevin first measured lawmakers in 1997 by the same transparency standards they applied to others, the House Finance Committee scored a 39 percent.

"I think it's a step in the right direction," Mollis said.

But nearly every violation last year occurred during the week of June 15, when lawmakers scrambled to end their year. Rhode Island's part-time lawmakers typically adjourn in mid- to late-June, although nothing in state law prevents them from meeting over the summer, which could give lawmakers more time to alert the public before votes.

Legislative leaders describe the frantic end as a fact of life.

"In the last few days, there are just so many bills that fly back and forth between the two chambers," said Larry Berman, a spokesman for House Speaker William Murphy. Some items require immediate action or involve changes to bills that were already debated and adopted.

Berman said the quick pace does not allow for two days notice before every committee hearing.

"We'd be here all summer," he said.

Openness typically takes a backseat during the annual rush to pass the state's budget in June, normally just before the start of the fiscal year in July. Lawmakers use some bills as bargaining chips during the fierce budget debate, while other legislation simply languishes until money problems are resolved.

The chaos makes it easy for lawmakers to make mistakes or mischief with little scrutiny, said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.

"Many of the most important decisions are made in the eleventh hour," Marion said. "And it happens so quickly that no one can protest."

When asked about the flood of bills on the last day of last year's session, Murphy paraphrased a saying attributed to former German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Laws are like sausages, Murphy told a reporter, and it's ugly watching either being made.

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