Rod Driver

From Rod Driver's Legislative Report, 1991-92

This Ain't Civics Class

In high school one learns how a legislature works: A bill introduced in the House is sent to a committee for study. If the committee approves, it then sends the bill-possibly with amendments-to the full House for further examination, discussion and a vote. Any bill passing all this scrutiny goes to the Senate where the process is repeated. If passed by both the House and Senate, the bill goes to the governor for his signature. A similar process starts in the Senate for Senate bills. If you watch the General Assembly on cable TV, you'll "see" this happening.

Forget it! That's not what's happening

A committee does hold hearings on bills. But it does not decide which are worth sending to the full House. The committee "holds the bills for further study."

Translation: The committee chairman must wait for instructions from the Speaker of the House saying which bills to approve and which to let die in committee.

It's part of the accepted system, and every member knows it. So, to get their bills passed, most representatives visit the Speaker to ask his blessing. To improve their chances of getting bills approved, they become "team players."

To be a team player, just vote aye on virtually all bills which come to the full House. A bill wouldn't have got out of committee if it hadn't been approved at the highest level. So don't bother reading the bills or listening to the debate or thinking. Just keep pushing the green button.

Early in my first term in the House (87-88) I decided that I could not pay this price to get my own bills passed. I had to have the freedom to vote against bills which didn't look right.

The results: Sometimes silly, sometimes disastrous!

  • Chocolate a felony
  • In 1988, the House approved 10-year prison terms for possession of ``cocoa leaves.

  • If Sunday falls on Saturday
  • A 1989 law requires cities and towns to register voters on Saturday if the registration deadline falls on a Saturday. But the deadline is "the 30th day preceding an election." And 30 days before a Tuesday is always Sunday!

  • The rules don't matter
  • After hearing my complaints for four years, the House adopted a new rule in 1991. It required that bills be distributed to members the day before they are voted upon. (Not much time for reading, but better than no time!) But in June 1991 the House suspended this rule and passed 250 bills unread in two days. This happened again in July 1992. Despite an embarrassing history of bad laws, only 7 members voted against suspending the rule!

  • The laws don't matter either
  • Rhode Island law, Sec. 45-13-9, provides that the state pay the costs when the state imposes mandates on the cities and towns. But, the General Assembly routinely suspends Section 45-13-9, forcing local school districts to pay the costs of new mandates.

    Rhode Island law, Sec. 41-9-4, requires voter approval at both the state and local levels before a gambling facility can be established. (In November 1990, the voters overwhelmingly rejected off-track betting.) No problem! To initiate off-track betting in 1991 and video gambling in 1992 the General Assembly simply exempted itself from Section 41-9-4.

  • "More" may mean less
  • A 1991 law was "explained" to the legislature as a move to increase the fines for driving overweight trucks in Rhode Island. But this law actually reduced the fine for a truck five tons overweight from $5,675 to $800.

  • "More" may mean nothing at all
  • In 1987 credit unions were required to maintain liquid assets equal to five percent of their savings account deposits. Then a new law in 1988-explained as "increasing" the liquidity-reserve requirement-actually eliminated it! And the credit union system collapsed 2 1/2 years later. (The televised hearings of the $4-million "RISDIC-Commission" -dominated by legislators-made little mention of the bad credit-union bills passed by the legislature.)

    There is hope

    Despite this litany of complaints, there were signs of change in the 1992 General Assembly.

  • Amendments not so easily killed
  • For years the leadership killed unwanted amendments (almost automatically) by "tabling" them. But a rule which I first proposed in 1987 was adopted in 1992. It gives the sponsor of an amendment an opportunity to rebut the move to table before a vote is taken. By July 1992, 30 of the 100 members of the House were routinely voting against the motion to "table." Quite often the motion was actually defeated.

  • Leadership bills no longer pass automatically
  • In prior years, no more than one bill a year was defeated on the House floor. In fact 85 percent passed unanimously or with at most two "nays." But in the final weeks of the 1992 session half a dozen bills supported by the House leadership were actually defeated.

    Some of my efforts

    My efforts to reform the system have been recognized by Operation Clean Sweep (top category) and Common Cause (91 percent).

    When a member casts the lone "nay" vote as often as I have, it becomes harder for that member to get his own bills passed. Nevertheless, in addition to many local bills, several of my state-wide proposals have eventually been adopted-not necessarily under my name.

  • The war on drugs
  • One of the legislature's favorite activities is increasing prison sentences for drug offenders. Never mind the cost of building prisons or the cost of housing a prisoner ($35,000 per year) or the lack of drug treatment in the prison. (We must prove we're "tough on crime"!)

    My approach has been different. A law I wrote in 1988 put a tax on cigarette rolling papers. It has generated about $1 million- from sales of 60 million rolling papers, mostly used for marijuana. Some of the tax proceeds go to drug-abuse prevention programs.

    The deadliest drug in our society is tobacco. More than 400,000 Americans die each year due to smoking. (Imagine three Boeing 747s crashing every day with all aboard killed.)

    Ninety percent of today's smokers became addicted to nicotine as children. Each day 3,000 American teenagers start smoking. Of these, 23 will be murdered, 30 will die in traffic accidents, and 750 will die from the effects of smoking.

    For years I have sponsored bills to ban smoking in schools. This year, despite continued opposition from the tobacco lobby and teachers' unions, such a ban finally became law-to take effect September 1994.

  • Revolving-door legislation
  • In 1991 my motion to bar legislators from taking any of several new judgeships within a year of their service in the legislature was "tabled." But in 1992 a revolving-door bill passed which included most judgeships.

  • Solid waste
  • I was part of the successful effort to impose a moratorium on the construction of incinerators in 1992. It is now more urgent than ever that Rhode Island get serious about recycling and source reduction of solid waste-projects I have been working on for six years.