Did the Rhode Island Legislature Make the Right Decisions?
Two political issues, important to concerned citizens here in Rhode Island, arose at the end of the legislative session here in Rhode Island.
The first issue, as reported in this ProJo article, is about lobbyist spending disclosure requirements:
…Fending off cries from Common Cause of Rhode Island and Secretary of State Matt Brown that their actions would gut the state’s spending disclosure requirements for lobbyists, the House voted 41 to 20 in favor of exempting what could be a vast swath of sales and purchases made by people and companies seeking to influence the General Assembly.
Brown has interpreted the law, made stricter in the wake of conflict-of-interest charges against key senators, to mean that lobbyists must reveal anything of value they sell to or buy from a lawmaker — whether it be home telephone service supplied, a slice of pizza bought at a lawmaker’s restaurant, or something larger.
The bill, from House Majority Leader Gordon D. Fox, D-Providence, would exempt the disclosure of the sale or purchase of goods and services “in the ordinary course of business and for fair market value.”
“Employment and consulting contracts” and “fees” still would have to be reported.
The change was supported by lawmakers such as Crowley, a restaurant owner; and Rep. Carol Mumford, D-Scituate, who has a family Christmas tree farm.
House Finance Committee Chairman Steven M. Costantino, D-Providence, said requiring the disclosure of everyday sales and purchases “just doesn’t seem practical in the world that we are in, especially a part-time legislature where we all have businesses.”
But many argued in favor of a proposal from Rep. John Savage, R-East Providence, to put a cap in the bill. Savage initially proposed requiring a lobbyist to disclose anything purchased from a lawmaker worth $250 or more; he later agreed to raise the figure to $1,000.
Said Rep. Al Gemma, D-Warwick, in support of a cap: “You can’t make a crook out of an honest man . . . however, it’s perception, it’s transparency.”
But Crowley said the information, once disclosed, would be used against lawmakers — in a newspaper story or by an opponent in a campaign. He said a truly crooked lawmaker would still do backroom deals that wouldn’t be disclosed, but someone like himself, who might get paid a large tab for a wedding or a company party, would lose business or suffer from the perception that there was “some kind of shady exchange.”
Savage’s amendment failed on a rare tie vote, 31 to 31, before the bill was approved.
Later, the Senate also approved the measure, after defeating an effort by Senate Committee on Government Oversight Chairman J. Michael Lenihan, D-East Greenwich, to add the same $1,000 cap debated in the House. The amendment failed by a vote of 22 to 10, and the proposal then passed by a vote of 24 to 7.
A second issue involved electronic filing of campaign contribution reports:
The House also passed a Senate bill that retroactively exempts candidates from filing their campaign finance reports electronically. Lawmakers called the requirement too onerous and agreed to delay its effect until 2007; the bill needed one final Senate vote before it hit the governor’s desk.
I find this exemption to be offensive. Since when has government ever retroactively waived regulatory requirements on businesses and citizens or paused to consider how they might create onerous demands on any of us?
Yet, the Rhode Island legislators – which have given us ample evidence of questionable ethics – vote to exempt themselves from the most basic of disclosure regulations necessary to bring transparency to important financial contributions that can drive votes on key issues.
You can read Common Cause’s viewpoint in opposition to both of these two bills here.