Rep Dickinson’s “Report” From Smith Hill – Part 3 of 3: “The legislature is designed to perpetuate itself and its privileges, and to cover up problems.”
Following is Part Three of the five page letter that Representative Spencer Dickinson (D-South Kingstown) sent in the last few days to constituents to make the case for voters to choose him over his Democrat challenger in Tuesday’s primary. (Part One. Part Two. Full letter as a PDF.) Beyond partisanship, the letter is a valuable insight both for District 35 and around the state because it offers an eye-opening and disturbing first hand report into the workings of the Rhode Island General Assembly.
So where is the problem?
The problem is with our speaker and the system he employs. A careful observer of our Rhode Island house would note that our representatives are not so much legislators as electors. What they do is select from among themselves the smartest person in the room to be speaker. Then they sit back and allow the speaker to be a dictator.
There are dissenters, but a program of fear and vindictiveness is designed to minimize their number. The others understand they are expected to go along. And many are able to do this. The representatives who sat at my right and left voted invariably – invariably – with the speaker. l also know that what they think sometimes does not match how they vote. At times this can be hard for them, but there are rewards.
The model of speaker as dictator shows itself in the way the committees operate. A lot of what you see on Capitol TV and in the Committee rooms is nothing more than show business. Testimony is taken in front of a camera and sometimes there are questions. There is continuity of testimony but there is little continuity of listening. Members come and go during the meeting. Chair and co-chair seamlessly hand control of the meeting back and forth. But few members hear a continuity of arguments pro and con. They don’t bother because it doesn’t matter. There is no deliberation. They will not participate in determining the bill’s disposition.
Committee rooms have become studios and there are TV cameras all over the building. The one place where there is no camera is the speaker’s office when he is talking to a lobbyist. That’s where a camera is needed because that’s where the deliberation takes place and that’s where the decisions are made. Weeks or months after a hearing, bills come back to a Committee for a vote. While the hearings may take hours, the meetings where we vote typically take only a couple of minutes. Once there is a quorum, the votes are called in quick succession, usually with no discussion. None needed. The speaker has made his decision. The members are more than happy to go along. But if the speaker is truly the smartest man in the building, why is there a problem?
The problem is that it does not work. The system that has evolved in the Rhode Island legislature is not a functioning model for problem solving. The legislature is designed to perpetuate itself and its privileges, and to cover up problems.
Consider the facts:
– The economy is bad. We are typically first in and last out of a recession.
– The housing market is bad. People can’t move to new opportunities.
– We have the second highest unemployment rate.
– We are consistently rated 50th in business friendly environment.
– We are at or near the bottom in percentage funding of our state university.
– The U.S. Public Interest Research Group ranks us 50th in the condition of our roads and bridges.
– Our legislative grant program can’t account for hundreds of thousands of dollars given to the Institute for Sport at URI. The State Police are investigating.
– The 38 Studios disaster. Fifty million of your tax dollars gone and we’re on track to run that number up to over a hundred million.
– And the legislature has not been called into session to take action to cut our losses.
Over the years that all this has been developing, Gordon Fox has moved up from finance committee chair to majority leader to speaker. Under his leadership, our legislature is dysfunctional. One-man rule. Show-business committee hearings. Lack of participation and deliberation. The problem is our speaker and the majority of legislators who will support him in anything he wants to do.
You have a choice in this election. You can vote for someone who has no state pension, no state contracts, no relative working for the state, and who takes orders only from you.
Or you can vote for Kathy Fogarty who will be counted on to do whatever the speaker wants because her husband pulls in over $100,000 of your tax dollars and whose number one job is to keep me out of the legislature and provide the speaker with her vote.
The good news is that there are about twenty house members who want nothing for themselves and who hope to transform the way the house does business. These are the people I look forward to serving with. After the primary, we will count again and see if that number has grown. If it has, the different direction we are looking for may not be too far off.
Thank you for reading this, and thank you for your participation. I know that the decision that all of you make will be a wise one and I look forward to learning what it is.