UPDATED: Legislation to Restore Ethics Commission Oversight of General Assembly Introduced

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


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House and Senate leadership are introducing ethics legislation to restore Ethics Commission oversight of the GA.

House and Senate leadership have put forth legislation to restore the Rhode Island Ethics Commission oversight over the General Assembly -- and it has the support of the current and former heads of Common Cause to put before Rhode Island voters in November.

The legislation, which was introduced at a press conference with leadership from both chambers at the State House on Tuesday, seeks to eliminate legislative immunity from Ethics Commission oversight through a constitutional amendment. 

See the House bill HERE

“No elected official is above the law,” said Mattiello.  “Some contend that legislative immunity yields a fuller debate, but that debate must be safeguarded against conflicts of interest and self-interest. The state’s Ethics Code sets forth high standards and I believe all legislators should be held to those standards. If this bill passes, I will be asking all Rhode Islanders to support this constitutional amendment in November’s General Election.” 

The proposal includes additional changes to the Ethics Commission and Ethics Code, including requiring two-thirds of commission members to change any rule or regulation of the Commission. There would also be a prohibition of filing a complaint with the commission once the filing deadline for a given election begins in order to "prevent frivolous complaints and the politicization of the Ethics Commission."

"We are concerned with the level of trust in government," said Mattiello, who said he wants to "concentrate on creating jobs and moving the economy forward." "I believe this will go a long way for restoring that trust."

Common Cause in Support

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Will the GA approve legislation to restore ethics oversight of the GA?

Both former head of Common Cause Rhode Island Phil West and current Executive Director John Marion spoke in support of the measure on Tuesday. 

"I think this is a huge step forward," said West. "The challenge now is to craft constitutional language that can go to the voters and resolve the problem in a unique way for Rhode Islanders. I think the hole [in the Ethics Commission] has been the absence of jurisdiction over members. I think this will restore the jurisdiction in a way that will make Rhode Island proud."

Marion said on Tuesday that the legislation a solution he can "live with."

"It's the Constitution, we have to have lawyers look at it," said Marion. "It does what we want to do, which is restore the full jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over the Assembly. "

"There are some other things it does," said Marion. "It puts a moratorium on complaints, [which] we think that should be in law not in the Constitution -- but that's not something that would stop us from supporting this constitutional amendment by any means. After seven years we see a bill that seems to have the support of both chambers." 

Rhode Islanders React

"While not perfect, the House amendment represents a reasonable compromise on the ethics reform issue.  Most critically, it finally closes the 'legislators loophole,' after a seven year hiatus, by restoring the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over the General Assembly," said Senator James Sheehan.

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea applauded the legislation.  

"I applaud Speaker Mattiello and President Paiva Weed for introducing and supporting legislation to restore the RI Ethics Commission's jurisdiction over the General Assembly. Upon passage, it empowers Rhode Island voters to amend our constitution on Election Day to ensure that our state is run ethically and the rules of engagement are clear," said Gorbea. "This legislation, along with my proposed lobby reform legislation, are historic steps toward restoring Rhode Islanders confidence in their government."

The Libertarian Party of Rhode Island also lauded the proposal. 

"This proposal is a solid step forward. Ethics oversight of the Legislature is restored to its rightful place, the Ethics Commission. With its oversight powers restored, the Ethics Commission regains its position as one of the most powerful governmental reform organizations in the country," said LPRI Chair Pat Ford. "The moratorium on ethics complaints during the election cycle does not concern us. For the same reason slapp lawsuits are prohibited, politically motivated ethics complaints should not be a weapon in any candidates arsenal. Additionally, allegations of criminality will still be prosecuted by law enforcement"





Related Slideshow: 10 Things to Watch This General Assembly Session in RI

The 2016 Rhode Island General Assembly convenes on Tuesday January 5 - here are just some of the things to watch for in the upcoming session. 

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Statewide Teachers Contract

Critics of a potential statewide teacher contract are warning of implications should the state move away from district level negotiations, as a Senate committee is currently considering its potential and is expected to report on its findings in January,” wrote GoLocal in November.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions before anything could happen, so it certainly wouldn’t happen this year,” said Purtill. “I think there has been a lot of interest in the discussion, including NEARI, on how to make starting salaries competitive and some uniformity across the state so districts aren’t competing for teachers based on salary and benefits. State wide health care plan may be the logical place to start; keeping good quality health care benefits while lowering, or at least controlling the costs.  This discussion should also lead to how we attract people to the profession, including more minority teachers and those who want to teach in urban areas.”

At least one group, however, warned against the implications of a wide-reaching approach.  

“The Center believes there can be a state role in saving money for local school districts. Negotiating and offering a large group health insurance option, that local districts can choose to participate in or not - as opposed to a mandate that would surely be part of any statewide contract - is one such concept,” said Mike Stenhouse with the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity. “Consolidating control over another large piece of our education and taking it away from taxpayers and local officials, however, we think that's dangerous.   We saw it with RhodeMap RI, and the fire unions, now we're talking about teachers -- it would tie the hands of municipalities through mandates.”

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Corporate Taxes

Last session, the General Assembly lowered the minimum corporate tax for businesses in RI from $500 to $450 — making it no long the highest in New England (the distinction goes to Massachusetts) but not as low as Vermont and Connecticut at $250.  

RI’s perennial placement on the Tax Foundation and other “worst tax climate” ranking has one business advocate calling for a much more drastic reduction in the tax. 

"To improve the business climate, the General Assembly needs to do three things," said URI Distinguished Professor of Business Edward Mazze. "(1) reduce the annual fee of $450  charged to businesses back to $50 whether they make a profit or not to encourage/support entrepreneurship, (2) make sure any new   economic development legislation or initiatives are transparent so that businesses can operate on a level playing field and (3) align the state’s estate tax exemption to the federal exemption amount to help family businesses and farms.

Whether or not the GA would make such a bold (and bottom-line) affecting move for a short term loss in hopes of long term gains seems like a reach, but as RI tries to improve its business climate, look for outside-the-box ideas.

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2016 is an election year — and casinos in Rhode Island are slated once again to put before voters in Rhode Island  This time, the Tiverton Town Council voted in November to allow legislators to put a local and statewide referendum on the ballot for a new casino proposal for the town - by Twin River, who purchased Newport Grand, and is now eyeing the the location.

Newport Grand faltered to gain approval in Newport (but got the statewide nod) the last two times it was put on the ballot to increased its offering from just slots to a full-scale table games casino.  Expect to see the legislation gain little objection from the rest of the state, as gambling opportunities increase in Massachusetts -- and the fear factor of loss of revenue in RI continues -- but the x-factor has always been at the local level.   

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Earned Income Tax Credit

Last session, the Economic Progress Institute pushed for an increase of the Earned Income Tax Credit — and saw it go up from 10 to 12.5 percent of the federal earned income tax credit.  And this year, it’s pushing for another bump.   

"Our legislative priorities include policy changes to help working families make ends meet by increasing the state's Earned Income Tax Credit to 20% from 12.5% and making child care more affordable by making the "exit income limit" permanent and raising the "entry income limit,” said EPI Executive Director Rachel Flum.

Last year, they had shot for 15% — and got the balance.  Could this year’s approach be another “big ask” to meet somewhere in the middle?  Stay tuned

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HealthSource RI

In 2015, Speaker Mattiello entered the General Assembly session wary of the cost of the state’s Obamcacare vehicle (“The General Assembly will ultimately have to make the decision as to if and how we fund it, through budget appropriations or through some type of fee,” said Mattiello at the time. “That's our jurisdiction.  If it's not efficient, we'll certainly look to turn it over to the Feds.”)

Mattiello hedged on an individual and small employee fee as proposed by last year by Raimondo, and Raimondo’s appointment of Anya Rader Wallack to head the agency has been moved to head up the state’s Medicaid office — the future is uncertain.  

“Obamacare exchange in Rhode Island limping along in need of more funding,” wrote Justin Katz for Watchdog in November

Wrote Katz, "HealthSource is a central piece of the state’s Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP), which will link all government services and welfare programs through a single exchange. The state government is therefore sure to find some way to keep it under local control for another year, and then another. Under UHIP, with all services flowing through the same processes, the state might achieve some degree of scale, but perhaps more significantly, the exchange will just become part of the ballooning costs of social services in the Ocean State."

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Rhode Island House Speaker Mattiello Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed have an A+ and A rating from the NRA respectively.  Even visiting the Rhode Island statehouse, it should be no surprise general assembly members will proudly flaunt their support of the NRA with posters and stickers hanging on their office windows, wrote Guest Mindsetter Matt Fecteau in November.

Governor Raimondo in a joint press conference with Senator Reed however called for “action to prevent gun violence” in October. 

“Gun violence is hurting our children and our communities, and we must commit ourselves to building safer neighborhoods and schools,” said Raimondo. “Thanks to Senator Reed, Rhode Island is a leader in taking a stand to reduce gun violence.  And while there is still much more work to do, he is committed to continuing to champion ways to reach across the aisle and build coalitions to make our communities safer.”

With renewed calls from gun control advocates to take action, Raimonodo’s pro-gun control stance will be at odds with the more gun-rights leadership. "Standing up to gun extremists" has been a focal point for Raimondo.  

"The gun extremists are at it again. There's a video going around Youtube comparing Gina to Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot because she wants to implement a big, bold progressive plan for the state of Rhode Island -- one that includes a ban on military-style weapons," wrote her campaign

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In August, USA Today put out a list of “next states to legalize marijuana” — Rhode Island came in at number nine.  Massachusetts?  Number one.

Both states have legalized medical marijuana. Of RI, USA Today wrote the following:

Marijuana use in the small New England state is pervasive. An estimated 20% of Rhode Islanders aged 12 and up used the drug at least once in 2012. No other state in the country had wider use.

According to an April 2015 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, 57% of respondents in the state support changing the law to regulate and tax marijuana similarly to alcohol.

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Drivers Licenses for Immigrants

Speaker Mattiello in the fall of 2015 warned Governor Raimondo not to usurp the legislative process by issuing an executive order to provide licenses to illegal immigrants in Rhode Island.  

In December, Coventry Representative Bobby Nardolillo questioned Raimondo’s intentions to "honor the legislative process should she decide to move forward with her campaign promise to provide drivers licenses to immigrants who are in Rhode Island illegally".

“The people’s voices are meant to be heard through their representatives and senators in the legislative branch of government. That is the appropriate place for this highly controversial matter to be debated and determined if the Governor chooses to act following the recent rally held by a group of self-proclaimed illegal immigrants demanding that she make good on her campaign promises,” said Nardolillo.

Raimondo has been on the record in support of the issue since her campaign.

"I was the first candidate in the gubernatorial race to explicitly call for drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants. This is an issue of fairness and public safety," said Raimondo in an ACLU questionnaire last year during the campaign.

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The prospect of truck tolls to fund an infrastructure bond — and how the plan is rolled out, and the reception it receives — is high on everyone’s list of uncertainties for the 2016 legislative session.  Having faltered on the last night of the 2015 General Assembly (after only being floated in May), the plan to fun a $500 million revenue bond came under public and political scrutiny throughout and the summer and fall, when the prospect of a joint fall session to address a now-defunct Providence stadium proposal — and tolls - fell by the wayside. 

All eyes are back on the General Assembly - with no PawSox distraction at this time — and with it being an election year, how elected officials grapple with funding much needed bridge and road repairs (with the Republicans continuing to advocate for a pay-go model), could have direct ramifications at the polls in November. 

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While at least one legislator called last year's budget the "Most Business Friendly Budget in Decades," other political watchdog groups begged to differ. 

"Every year, Rhode Islanders are making the decision to leave their state because it does not appear to be getting any better.  If they look at this budget, they see more debt (including municipal debt without voter approval), they see some refinancing wizardry, and they see one-time fixes," said Justin Katz with the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity at the time. "Meanwhile, the instances of tax reform are so targeted that they're practically special interest give-aways offset by tax increases elsewhere."

"Although the Center appreciates that some principles around taxation, regulation, and freedom that we support are at least shuffled into the deck in small ways, with this budget, it is overall a bad deal for Rhode Islanders," continued Katz. "The fact that it passed the House so quickly and with such little debate should be seen as terrifying, not encouraging."

Now, the state awaits Governor Raimondo's second budget proposal as Governor, following taking credit for a FY15 budget surplus.

"Gina M. Raimondo today announced that the FY15 Preliminary Closing Statement, issued by the Department of Administration's Office of Accounts and Control, shows the state ended fiscal year 2015 with a $166.4 million General Fund surplus. General revenue expenditures were $21.5 million less than budgeted and general revenues were $23.9 million more than estimated," announced her office. 

"In my jobs plan, I made it clear it is time to reinvigorate Rhode Island and state government with fresh ideas and new ways of doing things so that we can enhance accountability, control costs, and get better results for our citizens," said Raimondo. "We're focused on improving efficiency within our agencies, modernizing our way of doing business, and increasing collaboration throughout state government - we're already seeing results. I am grateful for the work of all of my cabinet directors and all state employees on these efforts."


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