Thursday, April 2, 2009

Explaining How Public Money Is Spent Can’t Hurt

By: Ed Fitzpatrick

Last week, a reporter asked the new Senate Finance Committee chairman, Daniel DaPonte, about an agreement that House and Senate leaders had reached to close this year’s $357-million state budget gap, and DaPonte did something remarkable: He talked about it.

That might not seem remarkable at first, since the House Finance Committee was scheduled to vote on the supplemental budget plan two days later. And it might not seem remarkable because the package included changes the public has a clear interest in, such as a 2-cent hike in the gasoline tax and $9 million less in school aid.

But at the State House, it was remarkable because while DaPonte was talking, House Finance Committee Chairman Steven M. Costantino was declining to comment. And the budget package wasn’t officially unveiled until House Finance met to vote on it Friday.

Some might say DaPonte made a rookie mistake and deserved to take State House heat for blabbing. But I say he did the right thing. I think the public should know the details of such significant proposals 48 hours before a key committee vote.

I’m not canonizing DaPonte. Somehow I doubt he’d have talked if he’d known Costantino wasn’t. And I’m not demonizing Costantino. House Finance puts in long hours, hearing lots of public input. But the process should be more open. And I’m hoping in the future, Costantino and DaPonte realize they can build public confidence by divulging details before the day of budget votes.

John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said, “Senator DaPonte struck a blow for openness in making the comments he did, even though it might not have helped with the way leadership thinks this should be done — which is to negotiate a budget in a room and then reveal it and ask for instant approval.”

Marion noted the House Finance Committee did post a notice 48 hours before Friday’s meeting, saying it planned to vote on the supplemental budget. But he called for including the latest budget details in that posting. He said, “We know it would be difficult to negotiate a budget in an open committee hearing. That said, can’t there be some debate after it’s presented? Does the vote have to be at same time?”

DaPonte declined to comment. Costantino said his committee has “numerous hearings on every single [budget] article,” and he’s “very proud of House Finance on the amount of public input we receive.” He said that after House and Senate leaders reach an agreement, he briefs committee members and gathers their input, which could change the plan. “They have to know what they are going to be voting on because ultimately they are elected by the people,” he said.

In this case, DaPonte divulged details before Costantino had completed those briefings, so it looked as if Costantino did something his committee members didn’t know about, he said. “That was upsetting,” Costantino said. But, he said, “I’m not upset with Dan DaPonte at all. We are working very well together.”

Costantino noted the public can have input before the full House votes on the budget, and he said his committee held hearings on most budget items. But he said it’s “fair criticism” to note there was no hearing on the gas tax.

“Democracy is not perfect,” Costantino said. True, but it can be improved. And here’s an easy fix: Give the public the same courtesy afforded House Finance members and provide them with the details of any budget plan before the day of the vote.

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