Rod Driver

Column from the Providence Journal-Bulletin, September 19, 1995

The more things change...


IN THE "GOOD OLD DAYS" (1991 and earlier), the long and complicated bill called the state budget was rubber-stamped by the Rhode Island House in one session. Revisions mysteriously appeared at the last minute and were accepted if the leaders wanted them. (Proposed amendments that were not approved by the leaders were dead on arrival.) The Senate and the governor then promptly added their approvals.

Welcome to 1995!

In a single session (from 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 2, until just after midnight), the House approved a 366-page budget document from the House Finance Committee and an additional 310 pages of amendments. No changes were made in the document except those 310 pages of leadership-approved amendments. (Had it not been for the persistence of Rep. Susan Iannitelli, many sections of the budget document would have been declared "approved" without even a vote.)

Five days later, the Senate passed the bill, with no changes of any sort. Then it was immediately signed by the governor.

Here, from the summer of 1995, are some reminders of years past:

  • At 11 p.m. on the Friday night before the budget document was to go to the full House, Finance Committee members were handed a new section - by unidentified authors - rewriting state aid to education. The paper was still warm from the copy machine, and there was no opportunity for public input. But the committee approved it anyway. Some communities got more money than they had expected and some got less.

    On the floor of the House, several representatives asked why their communities were getting less money for education than they had been expecting under the governor's proposal. They were told that "the formula determined the aid."

    But instead of saying "the formula determined the aid," it might be more accurate to say "the aid determined the formula." The school-aid formula is not completed each year until the persons tinkering with it are satisfied with the outcomes for various cities and towns. (The chairman of the subcommittee on education is from Newport, which did very nicely under the "formula.")

  • Observers might wonder how much thinking was going on during the House debate on the budget. Look at what happened to a section on "deadbeat dads." It provided that parents who are delinquent on court-ordered child-support payments could lose their "professional" licenses (such as licenses to practice medicine, law, accounting or plumbing) or their drivers' licenses.

    Rep. David Cicilline proposed an amendment to ensure that when a delinquent parent pays the required child support, a suspended "professional" license would be reinstated within 10 days. Another representative who was the floor manager for this section of the budget document agreed that the amendment was a good one. He advised the members to vote "yes." And everyone did!

    Next, Ciciiline offered a corresponding amendment for the paragraph on suspension of drivers' licenses. This time the same floor manager - apparently confused - advised the members to vote "no." And a majority did. They killed a proposal analogous to the one they had minutes earlier approved unanimously!

  • As in prior years, the budget document contained items quite unrelated to the state budget. (Examples include a new law on prescriptions for controlled substances and a law allowing "peace officers" to make arrests when given arrest warrants.) The reason for putting irrelevant bills in the budget is simple. A bill adopted in the House as part of the budget is virtually certain to become law because senators don't amend budgets and governors don't veto them!

    The question of "relevance" soon be-came a convenient parliamentary tool to stifle debate and kill unwanted amendments. A representative would ask the speaker to rule an amendment "not germane" (not relevant to the issue at hand, namely, the budget). If he so ruled, the amendment was killed without debate just as effectively as under the old pre-1992 move "to table." Some examples illustrate the process:

    Ruled "germane" (relevant to the budget) was an amendment to establish a legislative oversight commission for consulting contracts. Also ruled "germane" was a major rewrite of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act (28 pages long and freshly distributed to the members).

    Declared "not germane" was an amendment by Representative Cicilline calling for disclosure of travel expenses. (The sponsor challenged the ruling of Speaker John Harwood - his only recourse. But just 12 of the 83 members present supported him.) Also dismissed as "not germane" was an amendment by Rep. Edith Ajello adding to the reporting responsibilities of the budget officer.

    Whether an amendment was "germane" or "not germane" appeared to depend more on the name of the sponsor than on the content of the amendment.

    Where should we place the blame for the proceedings in the House on Aug. 2?

    Each year the leaders of the House and Senate, the chairman of the House Finance Committee and a handful of other individuals work hundreds of thankless hours to produce a budget that they feel is the best they can do. It is unrealistic to expect them to then sit back and let others rewrite the document in the House floor debate. So I can't blame the leaders for trying to block any changes.

    But what about the other representatives who let it happen? They could change the process any time they like. It does not require a change in the rules -just a decision by a majority of the members to act according to their own best judgment as to what is right.

    In their defense, it should be noted that, with no air conditioning, the House chamber was incredibly hot and humid on Aug. 2. After six or seven hours of debate, almost everyone just wanted to get it over.