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Big obstacles to citizen engagement in small state Rhode Island’s legislature

By   /   May 29, 2015  /   No Comments

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NOT DIVINE PROVIDENCE: Citizens face many roadblocks to being heard at the Rhode Island State House.

By Justin Katz | Watchdog Arena

It’s almost touching when representatives of that amorphous group known as “ordinary people” overcome the obstacles in order to testify before a legislative committee at the Rhode Island State House.  They’ve got their notes and their passion.  Sometimes they’re shaking slightly with nerves.

Or maybe that’s the fault of the air conditioning.

In some rooms, the heat runs strong well beyond its need; in other rooms, sitting in the audience is an endurance test for cold.  In the hearing room of the House Finance Committee (arguably the single most important hearing room in the building), the air conditioning has regular folks wishing they’d thought to bring the gear they use for late-season football games.

Hot or cold, though, room temperature is just one way the General Assembly attempts to persuade the public that it isn’t worth their time to tell legislators what they think, intentional or not.  Chilling testimony is an apparent goal written into the entire process.

Rhode Island’s legislative session runs for about half of the year, from January to the end of June (or thereabouts, depending when votes can be wrangled and processed).  Yet, very little of importance happens until the final month and a half.  At that point, dozens of important bills might land on committee agendas, with hearings running late into the night.  In the final days, the legislature waives the rules and hearings are an anything-goes affair as the elected officials pull all-nighters.

At any time during the session, the chairs of each committee are free to rearrange the order of their agendas as they see fit. So, even people who’ve gone to the extraordinary lengths of figuring out how to find bill numbers and the dates of hearings will have no idea when–during the course of a six-to-eight-hour sitting–their bills might be heard.

And that’s assuming they can figure out when the tribulation will begin.  Most committee meetings start “at the rise” of the House or Senate, which means “whenever we finish whatever we’re doing on the chamber floor.”  That could be an agenda of 50 pro forma bills that are read and passed in the time it takes to ask, “What does this bill do?,” or it could mean four unexpectedly controversial bills that eat up 45 minutes of futile debate each.

There’s no way to know, in other words, whether one has time to drive in circles looking for metered parking or should just park in the paid lot down the street at the mall.  Typically, though, it only takes a few times at the meters before a citizen trudging out to the car after a long hearing discovers an expensive city parking ticket and decides that the mall’s a better idea, whatever the price.

Then, it takes about a year before somebody thinks to tell the now-familiar face that the public is allowed to park for free in the government-office lot across the street from the State House once the employees start heading home at 4:00.

At this point, an old pro can only hope the newly engaged citizen doesn’t discover too soon that the entire hearing process is a farce.  At the beginning of every meeting (in the House) or immediately after hearing each bill (in the Senate), the legislators take an automatic vote to “hold for further study.”  Under a bizarre reading of the written rules, this maneuver puts the bills entirely under the control of the Speaker of the House and the Senate President.

In a back room upstairs, each bill receives its thumbs up or down, largely based on politics, not merit, and if it is meant to pass, leadership will send it back to the committee to be stamped and sent to the floor.  Legislation that leadership wants faces failure so rarely that it’s considered big news when it happens.

A few years ago, one brazen representative pulled a fast one by moving to reconsider an ethics bill that had been sent to “further study” limbo, and the confused committee members accidentally voted to approve it.  Not to worry:  the House parliamentarian concocted another bizarre reading of the rules to send it back for another try a few days later, and the rebel was sent to the ineffective-gadfly section of the chamber.

Such charades may be common to other states, too, but as in other civically corrosive matters, Rhode Island seems to have taken things to the next level.  The behavior of legislators who know that they’re filling a seat for the purposes of a seven-hour quorum can become pretty abysmal, and nationally experienced subject-matter experts have commented to this writer how uniquely astonishing their Rhode Island experiences have been.

But the process gives lobbyists something for which to send invoices, while ordinary people quickly learn the lesson that representative democracy is impossible in their state.

As the saying goes, it’ll be a cold day in hell when the voice of the people is actually heard above the din of the air conditioner.

This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.

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Justin Katz is the research director of the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity and managing editor of OceanStateCurrent.com. Find him on Twitter @JustinKatzRI