Saturday, October 31, 2009

Rhode Island panel eyes conflicts of elected officials with union ties

By Steve Peoples

Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE –– The state Ethics Commission is moving forward with a plan that would reverse a long-held position that largely guides the behavior of labor union members who are also elected officials.

Critics have long contended that organized labor wields tremendous influence in state and local affairs, at least, in part, because union members serve in the General Assembly and in local town councils and school committees. The Ethics Commission has consistently ruled that such officials may vote on union issues, and even participate in contract negotiations, so long as they don’t belong to the specific local union involved.

That may be about to change.

While a final vote is at least a month away, the commission has drafted a proposal that would prohibit elected officials from participating in any union business that affects not only their specific local union, but also the umbrella organization — such as the National Education Association — to which they may belong.

The issue arises most often, according to a commission analysis, with teachers elected to serve on school committees outside the district where they work. They have traditionally been allowed to vote on union issues, even though the NEA may represent teachers in both districts.

“After conducting research and receiving public input on this specific issue, the commission has concluded that the prior analysis applied to this issue is no longer valid,” reads the proposal discussed at the commission’s Tuesday meeting. The first of at least two required votes was scheduled for its next meeting, Oct. 20.

“I think it’s a major shift,” said commission Vice Chairman Ross E. Cheit, noting that the board welcomes public input. “If they don’t think this makes sense, I want to fully understand why.”

Organized labor has strongly opposed such a shift. In an interview Tuesday afternoon, AFL-CIO President George Nee warned of legal action should it become final.

“Instead of encouraging people to participate in the political process, they seem to be putting up more roadblocks and hurdles. They should listen to logic more than talk radio,” Nee said of the commissioners. “Obviously, we will be checking those issues with our attorney. If it can be the subject of legal action, I’m sure it will be.”

It’s unclear, however, whether the change would be subject to a court challenge.

The commission voted 5 to 2 Tuesday morning to address the matter by issuing a “general commission advisory,” as opposed to changing a specific rule related to the state code of ethics.

“I don’t think you can take an advisory opinion to court,” Cheit said. “It’s just advice.”

The policy shift –– which is backed by government watchdogs Common Cause and Operation Clean Government –– centers on the commission’s interpretation of the term, “business association,” as set in the state Code of Ethics. Traditionally, rank-and-file members have not been viewed as business associates of labor umbrella organizations such as the NEA or AFL-CIO, which consist of various local unions and receive a portion of each member’s dues.

The complicated issue has been visited 31 times since 1995, according to an analysis by commission staff attorney Esme DeVault. Almost half of those cases involved school committee members who were also members of teachers’ unions.

Valerie Zuercher serves as a recent example.

Elected to the Exeter-West Greenwich School Committee last November, she is also a social worker in the South Kingstown school district and therefore a member of that local teachers union and the larger umbrella organization, the National Education Association. The NEA also represents teachers in Exeter-West Greenwich.

In asking for an advisory opinion earlier in the year, Zuercher noted that the same NEA negotiator that represents her interests in South Kingstown also represents teachers in Exeter-West Greenwich.

The commission ruled there was no conflict.

But such advisories could go the other way should the new policy take effect, effectively barring Zuercher and others in her position from voting on teachers’ contracts or other issues involving locals represented by the NEA.

R.I. lawmakers close year’s business with a flurry

By Steve Peoples

Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE — Nine hours after Thursday night’s action began, state lawmakers filed out of the House and Senate chambers for what would probably be the last time this year.

They recessed shortly after 12:30 a.m. Friday, ending a rare October gathering of the part-time legislature after approving a slew of high-profile bills that outlaw text messaging behind the wheel, require $7 saltwater fishing licenses, force lenders to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, and tighten the state’s drunken-driving laws on land and water.

As his colleagues swapped goodbyes around him, an exhausted Senate Majority Leader Daniel P. Connors defended the Assembly’s work early Friday amid Republican criticism that Democrats had largely wasted their time this week.

“I think we accomplished a lot of important things,” Connors said, noting that in addition to adopting a bevy of new laws, several study commissions have been convened to address economic issues and structural budget problems.

Overall, the Assembly approved virtually everything on its crowded calendars — and a few items that hadn’t been listed on the calendars — racing to pass legislation left in limbo after lawmakers abruptly recessed for the summer in the early-morning hours of June 27. This week’s action also includes the passage of laws to outlaw indoor prostitution, re-open the Westerly branch of the Division of Motor Vehicles, and require the police to record interrogations of suspects in serious crimes.

Attention now turns to Governor Carcieri, who could wipe away much of the Assembly’ recent work with the stroke of his veto pen.

“Some bills were transmitted very, very late,” Carcieri spokeswoman Amy Kempe said Friday, declining to specify when veto decisions might be made. “The team is expected to start the review process today with the governor.”

While there are enough Democrats to overturn the Republican governor’s vetoes, Assembly leaders don’t plan to reconvene their full membership until Jan. 5, according to Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker William J. Murphy. Lawmakers could overturn vetoes that day.

There is little question that the governor will exercise his veto power, as he has at the end of every legislative session.

While the Assembly resisted organized labor’s push to implement binding arbitration for teachers unions, they approved a controversial measure to increase the number of apprentices and other union workers on some construction projects.

Blasted as a handout to labor, AFL-CIO President George Nee later praised the move, which narrowly cleared the House before being passed overwhelmingly in the Senate.

“That’s a very important issue to the whole labor movement,” Nee said, noting that labor officials would lobby the governor’s office over the coming days against a veto.

The narrow passage of the apprentice bill, and legislative leaders’ unwillingness to approve binding arbitration, was cause for celebration for at least one labor critic.

“The public employee unions are on life support in that building,” said Rep. Douglas W. Gablinske, D-Bristol. “After decades of controlling the public policy agenda, there is a shift under way.”

Nee didn’t see it that way: “It’s not an easy place to do business when times are tough,” he said. “But we’ve been around a long time and we’ll be around a lot longer.”

Meanwhile, while the full Assembly likely won’t take any more formal votes this year, its business isn’t quite complete.

House Democrats will gather next week to discuss new legislative priorities and the state’s dire economic situation, according to Berman. The Senate, meanwhile, has convened four study commissions to examine budget and economic issues, according to Senate spokesman Greg Pare.

And both chambers will convene separate “economic summits” in early December.

This week, meanwhile, there were few items on the legislative calendars that weren’t ultimately approved.

But after the House passed a proposal that would wipe away criminal records of offenders with deferred sentences, the Senate failed to address the measure. It’s now considered dead, for this year at least.

The pace of this week’s action drew criticism from one government watchdog group.

Between Tuesday afternoon and the wee hours of Friday morning, lawmakers reviewed or voted on more than 200 proposals. Many were debated publicly in recent months, although some were changed in recent days.

“It was somewhat unbelievable to me how quickly it was moving. Sitting in the House gallery, I think I saw them do 23 bills in 20 minutes,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “People lose faith in the democratic process when they think it’s being sped up for the convenience of their elected representatives.”



Criminalizes indoor prostitution

Saltwater fishing

License required effective Jan. 1; $7 fee

State name

Voters to decide on removing “Plantations”


Text-messaging while driving is banned

U.S. Senate vacancies

To be filled by special election, not gubernatorial appointment

Gambling revenues

Lincoln to get larger share from Twin River’s receipts

Drunken driving

Police can get warrant for blood alcohol test

Same-sex rights

Partners gain right to make funeral arrangements

Boating safety

Tougher penalties for minors

operating while intoxicated

Foreclosure prevention

New requirements for lenders to work with borrowers

Westerly DMV

To be reopened one day a week

N.E. Patriots plate

Portion of fees to support R.I. charities

Mixed martial arts

Competitions allowed


Police must record

in capital cases

Bar closings

Extra hour on weekends

with no alcohol sales


Criminal records

Automatic erasure in 5 years

after deferred sentence


Binding arbitration

To settle teacher contract disputes

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Congratulations Rep. Driver

The House Judiciary Committee is voting now on a bill that the representatives had never seen. Congratulations Representative Driver for bringing that to everyone’s attention. The rules of the House are currently suspended and the House has no intention of obeying them.

R.I. General Assembly to reconvene over long list of issues

By Steve Peoples

Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The General Assembly returns to Smith Hill this week after a four-month hiatus that left uncertain the fate of scores of bills touching everything from taxes, cell phones, license plates and fishing to even the state’s official name.

Related links

Your Turn: What issues do you want the R.I. Assembly to prioritize?
There will be little time for warming up.

Legislative leaders have scheduled hearings or floor votes for 196 individual proposals between Tuesday afternoon and Thursday night. And that number is expected to grow.

What was initially planned to be a narrowly focused two-day gathering may become a likely clearinghouse for legislation that has, in some cases, lingered in political limbo for years.

The coming days may be dominated by news of lawmakers’ attempts to outlaw indoor prostitution, but they may also ban text messaging by drivers, require saltwater fishing licenses of Ocean State residents, allow mixed martial arts fighting and ask voters to decide whether to eliminate the word “Plantations” from the state name.

Other proposals, also expected to pass, include the creation of a New England Patriots license plate, the re-shaping the state’s Economic Development Corporation, the re-opening of the Westerly branch of the Division of Motor Vehicles and a measure stripping from Governor Carcieri the power to appoint a replacement in the case of an unexpected vacancy in the U.S. Senate.

“They’re still fine-tuning some of the legislation, but this is the bulk of it,” Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker William J. Murphy, said of the 128 bills posted on House calendars for public hearings or votes before Friday. The Senate listed another 68 as of Monday evening.

State Republican Chairman Giovanni Cicione said that Democratic lawmakers, who dominate the Assembly, are wasting taxpayers’ time.

“Nothing good can come of this,” he said. “They should not be coming back to tinker. If they’re coming back, they should be doing something substantial to address the economic disaster facing this state.”

This week’s gathering comes three months later than Murphy intended when he abruptly left the rostrum in the early morning hours of June 27. Suggesting that circumstances required Rhode Island’s part-time lawmakers to become a full-time Assembly, the speaker said he would schedule a July session.

That never happened. And subsequent efforts to reconvene ultimately failed. Until now.

The public first learned of the specific plan for the week when legislative leaders began to post committee agendas Friday afternoon. Most of this week’s plans, however, were posted throughout the day Monday.

The scope of the agenda apparently surprised several political observers.

“I thought it was going to be more targeted,” said John Marion, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause. “It seems like they’re going to try to finish the bulk of what was left on the table the morning of June 27.”

He said that most proposals have been debated already, but suggested the narrow timeframe may complicate efforts to properly review changes or new legislation that may surface.

“There’s been a lot of rhetoric that they consider themselves a full-time legislature,” Marion said. “There’s no need to rush through this in two days.”

The bills posted on the agendas enjoy the support of the House and Senate leadership and are likely to pass both chambers by the end of the week, according to Berman. Once the same version of a bill passes the House and Senate, it becomes law absent a gubernatorial veto.

“You can never predict for sure,” Berman said of the likely passage of this week’s agenda. “Nothing is 100 percent.”

Legislative leaders have suspended the rules, which normally require 48-hour notice of all committee and floor action. That means committee hearings can now be held with a few minutes notice in unusual places, such as State House balconies and hallways, just as has happened in the final days of recent Assembly sessions.

“We’re trying to abide by the rules as much as possible, but we may need some leeway,” Berman said.

Among the high-profile bills excluded from the agenda is a proposal to allow binding arbitration for teacher’s unions.

The contentious issue pitted taxpayer groups against organized labor in a special House labor committee hearing last week. It has also become a battle on the radio and television airwaves in recent days.

The state’s largest taxpayer group, the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, budgeted $4,000 for a “public education campaign” consisting of 30-second radio advertisement warning that, “An unelected person could get the final say, locking your town into contracts it can’t afford.”

The National Education Association, meanwhile, refused to disclose how much it spent on a separate radio and television advertising campaign that described binding arbitration a different way: “Your homework assignment is to call your legislators and ask for their support in binding arbitration for teacher contracts,” says Jodi Olivo, a fifth grade Pawtucket teacher in one of two television advertisements, adding that binding arbitration would end teacher strikes, “work to rule,” and excessive legal fees.

NEA executive director Robert A. Walsh said he was “concerned, but not panicked” that the binding arbitration bill wasn’t posted on any agendas.

“You never know what’s going to come up at the very last minute,” he said.

The legislature also plans to address legislation that would:

•Allow police to force chemical tests on drivers involved in serious accidents

•Reduce the minimum sentences for some drug offenses

•Destroy the record of any crime for which an admitted criminal has been given a “deferred” sentence, regardless of the nature of the crime, as long as the offender stays out of trouble for five years

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Common Cause Rhode Island Annual Meeting

Join us at the Annual Meeting of Common Cause Rhode Island, on Thursday, October 29th at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet. We will be having a presentation and discussion about the changing role of the media with Providence Journal Senior Vice President and Executive Editor, Thomas Heslin. Common Cause will also be honoring Thomas Bender with the Excellence in Public Service Award, and Warren Galkin with the Distinguished Service Award.

If you would like to receive information, or purchase tickets, please contact MaryBeth Marshall at (401) 861-2322 or email


Thursday, October 29, 2009


4:30 p.m. Business Meeting
5:00 p.m Cocktails/Registration
6:00 p.m. Dinner
7:00 p.m. Awards, Discussion and Questions


Rhodes on the Pawtuxet
60 Rhodes Place
Cranston, RI

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Let’s All Obey the Rules

By: John Marion

On Wednesday, October 28th, the Rhode Island House and Senate are scheduled to return from recess. Common Cause Rhode Island asks that upon their return both chambers reinstate their rules.

In the closing days of the General Assembly session in June both the House and Senate suspended significant portions of their rules. These allowed them to meet late into the night (and in one case the next morning) and hold hearings without advance notice. Without the rules in place, members can even be asked to vote on bills that they haven’t seen in advance.

On October 19th Common Cause sent letters to the leadership in the House and Senate (click here to read the House letter and here to read the Senate letter) asking them to reinstate the rules upon their return. We followed that with letters to all members of both chambers.

We believe government should be open and accountable. The General Assembly faces no statutory deadline for finishing their work. We feel the people deserve a legislative process that is open and deliberative.