Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Taxpayers deserve accountability for their $52,927

Providence Journal

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

By Edward Fitzpatrick

You’ve heard of Joe the Plumber, right? Well, here in Rhode Island we have Joe the Constituent Liaison.

Attention is focusing on the fact that Joseph S. Burchfield, the former North Providence Town Council president, faces extortion and bribery charges, accused of joining two other councilmen in pocketing a $25,000 bribe. But it’s also worth noting that Burchfield has been working for the state Senate as a “constituent liaison.” While he’s on unpaid administrative leave now, he had been making $52,927 a year.

And that’s a figure worth keeping in mind as legislators decide whether to pass bills requiring that House and Senate floor votes, and committee votes, be posted on the legislature’s Web site in an easily accessible format.

At a time when elected officials and candidates bombard us with PR via Twitter and Facebook, there’s no excuse for not giving us a simple way to access vital information on how legislators voted on issues we care about. But you’ve already begun to hear the excuses taking shape on Smith Hill: It’s a tough year; we’d love to pass these bills but we’re not sure we can afford it; you understand, right?

Actually, no. Not when legislators are voting on crucial issues such as closing the state budget gap or closing the student achievement gap, enacting pension reform or an updated school-funding formula, deciding the future of a wind turbine project or the future of the bankrupt Twin River slot parlor.

And not when we’re spending $52,927 a year in taxpayer money for the likes of Joe the Constituent Liaison.

True constituent service would involve putting floor votes and committee votes into an easy-to-search format. While online House and Senate journals already include daily floor votes, curious citizens must know the date of the vote and scroll through a lengthy document. And about the only way to get a recent committee vote is go to the State House and track down a committee clerk.

Some state legislators want to follow Arizona’s example when it comes to cracking down on illegal immigration, but we’ll see if they also follow Arizona’s lead when it comes to public information. The Arizona legislature’s Web site not only gives you easy access to floor and committee votes on the controversial immigration bill, you can also see video of committee and floor discussions of the bill.

“We are so far behind in some respects,” said John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.

For example, Rhode Island is the only state that does not stream audio or video of legislative floor debates, Marion said. And we have the most cumbersome process for monitoring legislative votes online, he said, explaining that unlike other states, Rhode Island posts floor votes in PDF documents, which must be downloaded and cannot be quickly searched online.

Marion took note of one Byzantine twist to Senate journals: A “legislative day” can include multiple calendar days, so in February one of the Senate’s legislative days lasted two weeks, meaning it took 14 days for the Senate Journal to reflect votes from that legislative day.

Marion said the Assembly could post committee votes online without spending any money. “We’ll call that the Hyundai version,” he said.

And while the Assembly would have to spend some money to post floor votes in a more easily accessible format, Marion said, “For the price of one constituent liaison, you could likely have the Cadillac of legislative Web sites.”

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