The Good and Bad of 2013 RI General Assembly

Jul 5, 2013

Rhode Island’s 2013 General Assembly made history by legalizing gay marriage. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders why lawmakers don’t handle other issues in the same manner.

After a vigorous debate, the Assembly made history in April when it approved same gender marriage, making Rhode Island the 12th American state to sanction gay unions.

Regardless of where you stand on what is an emotional and divisive topic that reaches deeply into the religious and cultural beliefs of many Rhode Islanders, it is nearly impossible to criticize the way lawmakers tackled this matter. Many hearings were held in the House and Senate. Hundreds of citizens, pro and con, thronged the State House and had their say. Lobbying on both sides was intense but mostly respectful.

The process was remarkably transparent. At the end, 113 politicians not known for their profiles in courage thwarted the temptation to duck a tough vote and send the legislation to a voter referendum. Instead, they did what voters sent them to Smith Hill for: explain their reasoning to constituents in debate  and stand up and be counted.

That same-sex marriage was handled in such a open  and responsible manner surely stunned some of us who have become skeptical, even cynical, about the Smith Hill crowd’s ability to get anything done. Even more astonishing is that a legislature that usually can’t agree on any hot-button   topic until the waning hours of a session, dealt with gay marriage in April.

Now, here’s the bad news. Rather than using the marriage decision as a model  for handling other difficult issues, the Assembly reverted to its usual pattern of sloughing off serious study, negotiation and votes until the eleventh hour, when bleary-eyed lawmakers are forced to vote on hundreds of bills in a marble State House that in June and July becomes a sweaty sauna.

Assembly leaders, such as Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed,  retreated to their ancient rituals: skirting  tough decisions by postponement and procrastination, making grubby deals with individual lawmakers to secure votes for the state budget and scheduling hundreds of measures for wee hours consideration.

The legislative leadership knew in January that next year’s budget had a scheduled $2.5 million bond payment due on the ill-fated 38 Studios video game deal. But they waited until June to bring the issue to the House and Senate. On the complex and complicated problem posed by a default  and Wall Street’s response, the can was booted down the sidewalk once again with legislation that makes the first payment on this $90 million fiasco but also requires a study of the financial implications of walking away from the debt.

Leaders were also aware in February  of the rebellion brewing on the East Side of  Narragansett Bay  over putting tolls on the Sakonnet Bridge. Yet this for whom the bridge tolls controversy was put off until the last-minute and then left unresolved. There will be yet another study, a 10-cent toll and lawmakers will face the topic again next year.

The state budget that finally emerged left most of Governor Lincoln Chafee’s priorities intact, except for cutting Chafee’s plan for more aid to Rhode Island’s struggling cities and towns. There are no income or sales tax increases in the spending plan, a welcome relief to recession-racked Rhode Island. Yet, homeowners and local businesses won’t be happy about property tax hikes that may be needed in some communities to preserve services.

And lawmakers spent a lot of time talking about the state’s struggling economy, but once again left major decisions on the composition of state economic and job-creating efforts until the very last minute. Everyone knew in January that Rhode Island had New England’s highest unemployment rate but consideration of change sputtered and stalked until the end.

This eleventh-hour flurry of legislation has become far too ingrained in how the Assembly does business. In the 21st century there is no reason that voters should accept their lawmakers ‘  shrugged shouldered response: ``Hey we’ve always done it this way.’’

The outdated rites that gum up the wheels continue, such as the need to salve House and Senate egos by wasting time taking action on duplicate bills in each chamber.

Our lawmakers seem to have learned nothing from the marriage debate. Why does Rhode Island have to be a state that clings to nothing so tightly as the status quo, even when it is clear it isn’t getting us very far?

There may be one silver lining: At least our Assembly is not as dysfunctional as the U.S. Congress, which has managed to pass just 15 legislative items in 6 months, according to PoliticusUSA.