Sunday, November 29, 2009

John Marion: Connecting the dots on Smith Hill

The Rhode Island General Assembly returned for a brief two-day session in late October to finish up business it had left in its June recess. The week before its advertised return, Common Cause Rhode Island sent an e-mail, followed by a letter, to every member of the General Assembly asking them to reinstate their operating rules for conducting business. The legislature failed to do so, and instead, both the House and the Senate broke several of their own rules. Only now, weeks after the Assembly’s short session, are we seeing strong evidence that their failure to reinstate the rules means our government business is being conducted behind closed doors.

The rules of the House and Senate are created to govern the behavior of the respective chambers. They specify everything from whether members can smoke, drink and talk on cell phones on the floor of the chambers (they cannot) to when a member may speak during a debate. Some of the most important provisions involve notice to both members and the public of committee hearings, floor votes, and access to bills.

It’s typical for the Senate and House to suspend those rules on public notice during in the final days of June as they rush to adjourn, finishing up all of the substantive work left over after the budget has passed. This year was no different. Both chambers suspended a large number of those rules governing public access and notice with one notable exception. This year the Assembly didn’t adjourn in June; rather it came back in October. And when it returned it didn’t put those rules back into force.

So, for example, the rules of the House prohibit the chamber from passing more than 50 bills in one day. On Oct. 29, the House passed over 70 bills. Does anyone believe that legislating that fast is the best way to act as a deliberative body? Yes, the vast majority of what they voted on were “duplicates,” bills that had passed both chambers already and now had to “cross over” and be voted on again. But it is asking a lot to expect legislators to remember each of the hundreds of votes they cast in June. It was an almost impossible task.

Common Cause called for reinstating the rules, in part so that the process would slow down and mistakes would be avoided. As we know from The Journal’s Nov. 4 article “Without notice expungements almost expanded,” it was only a simple miscommunication in the final hours that led to an error that derailed significant legislation. Common Cause takes no position on the issue of expungement of criminal records itself, but it is concerned that with bills like this the process is so rushed and confused that no one even knows what is happening.

The expungement bill has been around for a while, and the public has had a chance to weigh in on it at various points in the legislative process. The real concern about not having all of the rules in place is that new issues, never subject to the scrutiny of the public or even the members of the legislature itself, would emerge. And now we have strong evidence that this is exactly what happened. As the Oct. 30 article “R.I. lawmakers plow through heavy agenda to the end” points out, a new bill was introduced late in the evening, S 1060, “that would divert hundreds of thousands of dollars in gambling revenue from the state’s coffers to the Town of Lincoln,” and was immediately passed. No notice to the public, no notice to the members, no hearing in committee, no deliberation of members concerning this legislation took place in public. There was no democracy.

Did the language exist in another bill, under another bill number that had been heard many months earlier? Yes. But that could only be determined post hoc. The people, and the members, deserve to know what they’re voting on in advance of those votes. The public has the right to weigh in on issues that affect it. There is a reason rules exist, and that is to keep government open. This is clearly a case of closed government. But interestingly, it’s not the end of the story.

And now here is where the story gets interesting, and where we begin to understand why government without deliberation is government conducted not by all of our elected representatives. On Nov. 3, the Rhode Island Lottery Commission director moved to expand casino gambling at Twin River in Lincoln to 24 hours a day on weekdays (“24/7 slots coming to Twin River”).

Even the least cynical person can see that the legislature was effectuating an apparent quid pro quo with Lincoln in passing a new bill, late in the evening, during a rushed session, when no one was looking and apparently with the collaboration of the Carcieri administration, which includes the Lottery Commission.

Conducting an inquiry into how our government works is a necessary if not fun exercise. Why? Because it shows us that unless the rules are in place, all we can do as citizens is watch while decisions are made about our lives by our government without our input.

Common Cause will be there as long as is necessary to ensure that our government works for the people that elected it. Please join us in that fight.

John Marion is executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.