Welcome to the 2012 Edition of the Journal of Held For Further Study
I attended last night’s hearing of the Rhode Island House of Representatives Municipal Government Committee on House Bill H7098, which would change the way that vehicles are valued for purposes of assessing the state’s car tax.
Municipal Government Committee Chairman Jon Brien (D-Woonsocket) gaveled the meeting to order, took the roll, and asked Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Warwick), the primary sponsor of H7098, to begin the discussion of the bill, which was the only item on last night’s committee agenda. Less than a minute into Rep. McNamara’s testimony, Chairman Brien politely interrupted Rep. McNamara, to ask for a vote to hold the bill for further study. The committee voted to do so and the meeting went on.
Now, I am not suggesting that yesterday’s immediate vote to hold for “further study” means that something untoward is occurring with the car-tax bill. The earliness in the legislative session(especially by Rhode Island standards) with which Chairman Brien, the bill’s sponsors, and the Municipal Government Committee have taken up this matter, as well as the wide range of people who participated in the hearing, makes plain that the House is giving serious consideration to this bill, and the practice of automatically holding bills for “further study” is not a central roadblock to passing meaningful reforms on an issue like the car-tax, where there is a reasonably broad consensus about changes that need to be made.
However, politics and policy making will inevitably involve issues where consensus is harder to achieve. In such cases, respecting the principle that legislatures by their nature must be governed by majority rule, not by any one individual, is of the utmost importance to the functioning of representative democracy. Unfortunately, the Rhode Island practice of holding bills for “further study” concentrates legislative power in the hands of a few members, whether or not they represent the majority view of the legislature as a whole.
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1. By voting to hold a bill for further study as its first order of business, members of a committee immediately surrender to leadership their right to determine if a bill will ever get a floor vote. The relevant rule in the House of Representatives is rule 12(f)…
Committee Chairs shall bring reports of committee actions to the floor no later than two (2) weeks following the committee votes thereon, provided that this shall not apply to the Committee on Finance, nor shall it apply to bills being held for further study under subdivision (e)(v).A vote to hold a bill for further study counts as the one vote to which every bill is entitled, but also means that a bill does not have to be seen or heard from ever again. Before the decision to hold for further study, a committee has the discretion to send a bill to the full house for consideration, regardless of how the Speaker or a committee chair would like to see it disposed of. After the decision is made to hold for further study, a committee’s ability to send a bill to the floor depends on first getting the Speaker’s and the committee chair’s permission to put it back on the agenda for another vote.
2. At the risk of sounding redundant, holding a bill for further study requires a vote to be taken. However, if you look at the General Assembly website, you will see that no vote was reported from the House Municipal Government committee from yesterday. The House is in violation of its own rules here, specifically rule 13(c)…
The Speaker shall formulate a plan for the publication of committee votes and work to implement the plan so committee votes appear online in a prominent and conspicuous location on the General Assembly website prior to the floor votes of the bill occurring: Online committee votes shall be available publicly no later than May 1, 2011.Votes in committee to hold for further study are committee votes. This means, according to the rules, they should be published on the GA website in a timely fashion. They should be published so that the citizens of Rhode Island can know which representatives reflexively surrender their right to decide the fate of bills in committee in every case, and which do not.
3. Opposing the current practice of automatically holding bills for further study as the first order of committee business does not imply that a final decision has to be made on a bill in the first committee session where it is heard. For a concrete example of this, we can turn to the Rhode Island Senate. When a bill is held for further study by a House or Senate committee, a specific note of that fact is made on the “Bill Status” section of the General Assembly website. Here’s an example from last year’s session…
Senate Bill No. 314 SUB AHowever, examining the travail of some of the other legislation considered by the RI Senate last session shows that legislative committees already use options other than holding for further study to continue business from one meeting to the next. Here’s how the I-195 redevelopment bill worked its way through the Senate Housing and Municipal Government Committee…
BY McCaffrey, Lynch
ENTITLED, AN ACT RELATING TO STATE AFFAIRS AND GOVERNMENT — RHODE ISLAND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION (would require all board members of the Rhode Island airport corporation to be appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the senate)
02/16/2011 Introduced, referred to Senate Judiciary
03/03/2011 Scheduled for hearing and/or consideration
03/03/2011 Committee recommended measure be held for further study
04/26/2011 Scheduled for consideration
04/26/2011 Committee recommends passage of Sub A
Senate Bill No. 114 SUB B as amendedAt three separate meetings, the committee postponed making a final decision on the I-195 bill, without formally holding it for further study. This meant that the committee was able, by a majority decision, to resume consideration of the bill without having to get permission from the Senate President or the committee chair. For whatever reason, the committee members decided that they didn’t want to go through a process of sending the I-195 bill to the Senate leadership and waiting for them to send it back, in order to be able to consider the bill at a future meeting.
BY Ruggerio, Goodwin, Jabour, Perry, Ciccone
ENTITLED, AN ACT RELATING TO PUBLIC PROPERTY AND WORKS
01/27/2011 Introduced, referred to Senate Housing and Municipal Government
04/14/2011 Scheduled for hearing
04/14/2011 Committee continued
05/26/2011 Scheduled for hearing and/or consideration
05/26/2011 Committee continued
05/31/2011 Scheduled for consideration
05/31/2011 Committee continued
06/02/2011 Scheduled for consideration
06/02/2011 Committee recommends passage of Sub A as amended…
No slight is intended to Speaker of the House Gordon Fox by pointing out the problems with the Rhode Island legislature’s further study system, but the simple fact of the matter is that any legislative body is going to have to deal with issues where the majority wants to move in a different direction from the leadership. We recently saw an example of this, also from the Rhode Island Senate, where the Senate leadership used parliamentary trickery to deny a roll call floor vote on an E-Verify bill that was supported by a large number of Senators and that might have passed (we don’t know for sure, because the Senate President didn’t take a roll call vote).
Under the rules of the Rhode Island legislature that are already in place, Senators or Representatives are not constrained to follow only the agenda that leadership sets for them. They already have the formal authority they need to bring votes to the floor, with or without leadership sanction. All they need is a willingness to use the authority that the people have entrusted to them.