Can Rhode Island Find Representatives Willing to Take the Daring Action of Representing?
I try to use the blogospheric cliche of “read the whole thing” sparingly, but it is very obviously the appropriate pointer to Senator Dawson Hodgson’s op-ed from Saturday’s Projo, where Senator Hodgson criticized the lack of accountability at the Rhode Island General Assembly, which the 38 Studios fiasco has made more apparent than usual.
Consider the following, in conjunction with Senator Hodgson’s op-ed: when the General Assembly created the loan guarantee program that 38 Studios tapped into, the decision to use “moral obligation” instead of “general obligation” bonds was a conscious decision to bypass the process written into the state constitution that is supposed to be used when putting taxpayers on the hook for long-term debt. Long-term bonded debt is supposed to require direct voter consent…
ARTICLE VI – Section 16 – The general assembly shall have no powers, without the express consent of the people, to incur state debts to an amount exceeding fifty thousand dollars, except in time of war, or in case of insurrection or invasion; nor shall it in any case, without such consent, pledge the faith of the state for the payment of the obligations of others.Seeking the express consent of the people would have automatically created a window for deliberation, open between the the passage of the legislation calling for a ballot question and the voters going to the polls. Questions like how much any one company could tap the loan guarantee fund for would have been raised in public; members of the state’s Economic Development Corporation, responsible for administering the loan guarantee program, would have to had taken a position on whether they supported giving $75 million to a single company.
But, as is ingrained habit at the Rhode Island statehouse, our legislators decided to skip over any serious deliberations about whether to incur $125 million in potential debt. Instead, a few members of “leadership” decided behind closed doors what they wanted passed (the amendment that increased the initially proposed size of the loan guarantee fund from $50M to $125M, the difference being the size of exactly one 38 Studios loan guarantee, didn’t write itself), chose the “moral obligation” process that did not involve a referendum, and told their followers to approve the plan as written. Naturally, their followers complied, obeying their orders without deliberating amongst themselves, much less the public, and sticking the citizens with the bill.
The refusal to deliberate 38 Studios has now extended beyond the original vote authorizing the loan guarantee program. No hearings were held this session to determine, in the words of Senator Hodgson, “who put [legislators] in the position to facilitate the squandering of tens of millions of public dollars”. The General Assembly has decided that Rhode Island voters should not be provided with a clear accounting of how the loan guarantee decision was made, prior to choosing Senators and Representatives in the upcoming elections.
This decision fits perfectly within the usual operating philosophy of the Rhode Island legislature, where rank-and-file legislators regularly forgo conducting substantive business in open committee sessions. Instead, decisions get made someplace less visible, with legislative committees rubber-stamping them, their primary function being to provide a bit of theater to make backroom decisions appear to be public ones. Leadership alone is not responsible for this state of affairs; it is the repeated actions of just-happy-to-be-there backbenchers, willing to quietly go along with the practice of holding all bills “for further study” and awaiting permission from above before considering anything for real, that allows this to happen again and again.
The manner in which 38 Studios’ loan guarantees are ultimately disposed of will be greatly impacted by the degree to which Rhode Island legislators are willing to accept their usual relegation to the background. Will the decision either to pay off or default on the bonds be made through open deliberations, with all issues laid out, the public fully informed and every legislator making an independent decision about what is in the best interests of his or her constituents? Or will the decision be made by the House Speaker and Senate President, consulting with a few associates out of public view, and commanding a compliant majority to obey orders?
Senator Hodgson concludes his op-ed with one important question related to this and to every decision that the legislature makes…
[Y]ou should ask them whom they are going to support to lead the chamber. Are they going to use your vote to keep the same decision makers in place?…but another, equally as important question should also be put to the voters of Rhode Island: regardless of who the next leaders of the Rhode Island House and Senate are, are you going to accept representatives who meekly give away their rights to decide on the substance of important matters, just because that’s the way it’s always been done?