While Rhode Island's new House speaker, Nicholas Mattiello, has vowed to instill a new focus on jobs and the economy, he's avoiding specifics for now on precise steps to offer improvements, and asserting that the remainder of the 2014 session won't be enough to evaluate his performance in the powerful post.
Asked what he'll do in the short term to bolster Rhode Island's battered economy, Mattiello says, "The first thing I'm going to do is be myself. I think my election sends a strong message to the business community. I would suggest that the business community today feels much more comfortable than if my competitive team had been elected. So that helps us. They no longer have to worry as much. They know they have someone in the speakership who's going to protect their interests."
In winning the speakership Tuesday, Mattiello defeated a faction led by Representative Michael Marcello (D-Scituate) that touted good government issues and reforming the culture of Smith Hill. Mattiello himself has pledged a more collaborative approach in the House, and he quickly appointed one of his GOP supporters, Representative Doreen Costa (R-North Kingstown) as vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
During a taping Thursday of RIPR's Political Roundtable and Bonus Q+A, Mattiello said he supports looking at the state's tax and regulatory structure, but he didn't get more specific. (During his first speech as speaker on Tuesday, he also cited a desire to scrutinize Rhode Island's unemployment tax and disability insurance.)
Mattiello, who first won election to the House in 2006, was non-committal when asked if the chamber will vote this session on the proposed settlement of the state pension system. He says the process has been frustrating for lawmakers since they thought the issue was resolved when they voted on the 2011 overhaul of the state pension system.
“We passed the bill that we were informed had to be designed a certain way to shore up the pension system," Mattiello says. "We were told it would sustain legal challenge, and I believe it would or it will. The court then forced mediation. The court and mediators then drafted a piece of legislation.”
The new speaker offered this answer when asked if the House will vote this session in favor of restoring the state Ethics Commission's oversight of the General Assembly: "Not sure. That's going to be something we have to take a look at. I'm not sure if I'm going to have time to even consider that."
Mattiello says he going "to try to give the attention it deserves" to the question of repealing the so-called master lever, which offers a boost for ruling legislative Democrats. "That's going to be something that I'm going to try to give consideration. Once again, unfortunately, time constraints. But there seems to some public support for that. Now that I'm speaker, I'm going to give it a little more attention."
The speaker opposes giving a line item veto to the governor, he says, because it would "dilute the interest of the Assembly. Just have the governor write it [the budget] and pass it and give it to the taxpayers. Why do you need the Assembly involved at that point?"
Mattiello won a 61-6 vote on Tuesday to succeed former speaker Gordon Fox, whose East Side home and Statehouse office were raided by state and federal investigators last Friday. Officials have not commented on the reason for the probe.
Asked how the Statehouse can move past the cloud of another such investigation, Mattiello says, "We have to have people with good sound character in important positions. I hope and trust that I am that person in the speakership. I will promise everybody I will work as hard as I can on behalf of the people. I will work as hard as I can not to let them down."
Mattiello says he won't advocate for changing House rules to achieve his stated goal of having members run the chamber. He says the change can be made through better personal relationships among lawmakers.
But Mattiello says Rhode Islanders shouldn't rush to judge his performance. "They should first and foremost consider that I only have 100 days in this session to make my mark. I'm going to do the best I can throughout this session and work as hard as I can to get re-elected. I hope and anticipate being speaker in January, and that's when you can really start judging me."
"One hundred days is not long enough to make your mark," Mattiello says. "I think what we're going to get in this session is the confidence that I have in the community. I'm going to set a tone that's going to better our community, better our state. I'm going to work to do the people's business as hard as I can. But the expectation right now that the world is going to be transformed in 100 days is probably unrealistic."