Moderate Party gubernatorial candidate Ken Block says the speed with which the House Finance Committee votes on an $8.2 billion budget -- just hours after learning the details -- is a backwards way of doing things.
As Block notes in a news release, Tuesday's committee vote on the budget stands in contrast to the typical hearing process:
"The General Assembly holds endless hearings on straightforward, obvious decisions like eliminating the master lever or allowing voters to decide on Ethics oversight," Block said. "But when it comes to the longest, most complex and most important bill - our state budget - the hearing process evaporates. The General Assembly is doing things completely backwards."
Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker Gordon Fox, responds by calling Block's criticism politically motivated:
“Once again, gubernatorial candidate Ken Block is criticizing the General Assembly for his own political gain. The House Finance Committee held dozens of public hearings on the issues covered in the budget through direct hearings on the Governor’s proposals and on separate or related bills. The members spent hundreds of hours listening to testimony and debating the issues. Additionally, the five-month budget process continues to include extensive analysis and documentation, most of which is available on the legislative website. This year that was further enhanced by the availability of on-demand streaming of all Finance Committee proceedings.”
Block's criticism follows similar notes by observers from the left and right side of the local blogosphere.
On Wednesday, Bob Plain of RI's Future noted how citizens shouldn't blink in June since, "If we do, we might just miss much new state policy being swiftly passed in the annual budget bill."
Meanwhile, Justin Katz of Anchor Rising offered this suggestion as a better way of doing House Finance's speedy budget vote.
What ought to happen is that the articles are made available and the press can ask and have answered questions in a conference like the one that happens before the hearing, except not behind closed doors. That should start the 48-hour clock for the hearing, and then the hearing could consist of Rhode Islanders’ actually asking questions and raising concerns. As far as I’ve noticed, there isn’t even a sign-in sheet to testify on the budget at the hearing. It’s certainly never presumed that anybody will actually speak.
House Minority Leader Brian Newberry offered this explanation of why he abstained from the 12-0 vote in House Finance, rather than voting "no":
"I have abstained from every finance committee pension vote since I have been on the committee – three now. I do so regardless of what is in the budget and whether I plan to vote for it on the floor or not. The reason is simple: It is absurd to be asked to cast an up or down vote on an $8 billion budget that I haven’t even seen let alone had time to read and digest, regardless of what “highlights” may have been verbally conveyed to me a few hours earlier. Basically it is a way to draw attention to the process. Patricia [Morgan], who is on her first year on the committee, had the same reasoning."
Whatever the shortcomings of Rhode Island's budget process, they're probably quite similar to those in most states -- and unlikely to change without an outpouring of concern by citizens.
This post has been updated.