Rod Driver

From the Providence Journal, Nov. 27, 2004

12 more years of one-man rule


WE'D LIKE to think of the Rhode Island General Assembly as a "deliberative body," composed of representatives and senators from across the state. But it isn't. The speaker of the House of Representatives controls the Assembly's multimillion-dollar budget. The speaker determines each year who gets $27 million in "legislative grants." And the speaker has almost complete control over the daily legislation.

The legislature may look like something from a civics class, but it most certainly is not! Regardless of a bill's merits, it dies in committee unless the committee chairperson gives the members permission to vote. And the chairperson of a House committee does not invite the committee to vote on a bill unless the speaker of the House has okayed it. Then the committee endorses the bill and sends it to the House floor.

So when a bill comes to the floor, all the representatives know that the House speaker has blessed it -- and they'd better vote aye if they want their bills blessed, too. Most bills thus pass unanimously, or almost unanimously. Sometimes more than 100 bills pass in a day, with few representatives reading, listening or thinking.

Not long ago, many members of the House would actually lock in their green aye-voting buttons with pieces of cardboard. This put them "on automatic pilot," voting aye on every bill, even when they were outside the chamber. New voting equipment in 1988 thwarted cardboard voting, but it made little difference. To this day, many House members routinely push their green buttons when prompted, without reading or thinking.

During my years in the House, 1987 to 1994, representatives voted for virtually anything the speaker approved -- even when it defied arithmetic, science or the English language. They voted to "solve the problem" of a voter-registration deadline's falling on a Saturday -- even though 30 days before a Tuesday will never be a Saturday. They voted to imprison people for possession of cocoa leaves after being told that "cocaine comes from cocoa leaves." They voted to ban possession of black jacks, brass knuckles and sling shots, but to allow the sale of such weapons to a child who has a note from a parent. (See RIGL 11-47-42.)

They passed a bill (1988 H 8907) after being told that it would increase the liquidity-reserve requirement for credit unions. It actually eliminated the requirement, and the subsequent banking crisis cost Rhode Island taxpayers $500 million. Our sales tax, raised to 7 percent to pay off the depositors, is unlikely ever to return to 6 percent.

I doubt that a House speaker purposely endorses silly or harmful bills. The trouble is that legislators don't read bills -- and this apparently includes the speaker. They may read the brief explanation at the end of the bill -- but that explanation is often wrong.

If you think the General Assembly has reformed, look at this year's bill S-2338, to allow Harrah's to operate a gambling casino in Rhode Island. The bill violated both the Rhode Island and the U.S. constitutions. And it declared that the courts could not consider challenges to the wording of the ballot question. (This ridiculous bill was written and advocated by lawyers.) Governor Carcieri vetoed it; then the General Assembly overrode the veto.

Professional lobbyists love the system. They don't have to talk to 113 legislators; they just meet with the House speaker, and perhaps the Senate president. And to make sure that their voices are heard, every major lobbyist buys tickets for $125 to $200 whenever the speaker or the president has a fundraiser. (When an ordinary legislator has a $25 fundraiser, a few of his or her best friends may show up -- scarcely enough to pay for the cheese and crackers.)

To protect their bills from the governor's veto, the House speaker and the Senate president wait each year until the end of the legislative session. Then they send 300 to 400 bills to the governor, knowing that the state constitution gives the governor only seven days to act before a bill automatically becomes law. Also, since Rhode Island has no line-item veto, they insert dubious non-financial bills in the proposed budget.

And the speaker has another power: When a vacancy occurs in the office of secretary of state, attorney general, or general treasurer before the end of the official's term, it is filled by "the grand committee" of the House and Senate -- which virtually means by the speaker of the House.

Operation Clean Government was the leading advocate for Question 2 on the Nov. 2 ballot: for a constitutional convention, to address some of these problems. But the question's opponents -- a coalition of special-interest lobbyists and Common Cause -- scared voters into believing that 75 elected citizens at a convention would do "political mischief," while legislators will not. The resulting defeat of the question means that Rhode Islanders must now wait until 2014 to vote for a possible constitutional convention -- in 2016. The nonsense in the General Assembly will continue for at least 12 more years.

Opposition by special-interest lobbyists to a constitutional convention is understandable; they like dealing with just one or two legislators. But it is unclear why a "reform organization" would join them: Does Common Cause have a plan to convert the General Assembly into a "deliberative body" before 2016? Or does it consider the status quo a good way to run a legislature?

Rod Driver, of Richmond, a delegate to the 1986 constitutional convention and a state representative from 1987 to 1994, is legislative chairman for Operation Clean Government.