Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Edward Achorn: Designed to keep you in the dark

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

By EDWARD ACHORN

In theory, we have something called representative democracy in Rhode Island. In practice, we have one of the most closed systems in America. It is run like an oligarchy — where very few people have access to information, the public is kept in the dark until it is too late for citizen pressure to make a difference, and decisions are made primarily to benefit leaders and the special interests that prop them up.

The cynicism of this system is on display every year, but it reached a kind of glorious efflorescence in recent weeks, culminating with last week’s mad dash to whip through scores of bills — on spending, taxes, gambling, energy, you name it — before citizens could weigh them and express their concerns.

The job of citizens, as far as our politicians are concerned, is to sit there without grumbling and pay through the nose. And to cast ballots every two years returning the same old crowd to office, many of them unopposed because the election system — with its master lever and dominance by special interests — is designed to make opposition difficult, if not futile.

The public’s growing desire to do something about illegal immigration, for example, was met this year with defiance by leaders of the General Assembly, who seem to side with businesses that want to exploit low-wage illegal labor and those who have a financial and political stake in making sure our duly enacted federal laws are not enforced.

House Speaker Gordon Fox (D.-Providence) stepped in before a bill based on the new Arizona law could even get a hearing. And Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed (D.-Newport) pulled a fast one on Sen. Marc Cote (D.-Woonsocket), who was pushing for implementation of an E-Verify system, aimed at reducing illegal hiring practices.

Senator Cote had followed Senate rules to obtain a floor vote on his bill, which enjoys strong public support and was co-sponsored by fully half of the chamber –– 19 senators.

But when the bill came up, President Paiva Weed did not call on the sponsor to make his case, the usual procedure. Instead, in a pre-arranged scheme, she recognized Majority Leader Daniel Connors (D.-Cumberland), who moved to recommit the bill (i.e., kill it). Refusing to recognize the objections of the thunderstruck proponents, the president immediately called for a voice vote, deemed that the “yeas” had it (though a recording suggested strongly that the “nays” were louder and perhaps in greater number), and that was that.

Any further objections were ruled out of order — the bill had been dealt with.

That seemed to suit most senators fine. But who represented the public, whose interest would be served by recorded votes on important issues (it would help them cast informed votes in November, for one thing)? Nobody, as far as I could tell — aside from Senator Cote, who seemed genuinely miffed.

Rhode Island leaders enjoy having the power to defy the public and render its representatives impotent.

But that power trip costs us dearly. An informed and active citizenry actually makes a state stronger and more vibrant. Citizens bring ideas to the table, help stop bad legislation, and form an important check against public corruption. That makes for a better-run state, with a stronger economy, less waste, lower taxes and fewer cozy deals for special interests.

Which is why well-run (and even not-so-well-run) states make an effort to bring the public into the loop.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, says that Rhode Island is the only state that does not post audio or video of its legislature on the Web. Nineteen states post even committee hearings. Last week, Mr. Marion was standing in a hearing room at 1 a.m., listening to a debate on an important bill no one had ever seen before, with no camera or reporter present.

Some 20 states employ a system that alerts citizens by e-mail when some action has been taken, or is about to be taken, on a bill they are following. Such systems pay for themselves in less corrupt and more just government.

Rhode Island, naturally, has nothing of the sort.

Indeed, here the public confronts a Herculean task finding out on a timely basis even how their legislators voted on issues. It can be weeks before floor votes are published in the legislative journal. Those votes, taken electronically, could and should be posted instantly on the Web.

We could easily save money, curtail corruption and create a better informed electorate by bringing such reforms here. But that will never happen until taxpayers and law-abiding citizens decide that enough is enough, and resolve to show their status-quo representatives and senators the door.

Edward Achorn is The Journal’s deputy editorial-pages editor ( eachorn@projo.com).

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