Rhode Island’s Most Transparent Lawmakers
Friday, October 26, 2012
The General Assembly’s commitment to open government and campaign transparency improved significantly during the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions, but lawmakers still fall behind when it comes to judicial selection and ethics reform, according to the annual Common Cause legislative scorecard released Thursday.
The report broke down 28 House votes and 27 Senate votes that focused on campaign finance and election reform, ethics and lobbying reform, judicial selection, open government and separation of powers and scored legislators based on how they voted.
The average score for House lawmakers was 68 percent while Senators scored 66 percent. Both average scores increased significantly from the previous two years, when the General Assembly received record-low rankings (48 percent in the House and 51 percent in the Senate).
"We are happy to see the average scores rise in 2011-2012," said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. "The legislature is serious about tackling the consequences of the Citizens United decision that unleashed unlimited, undisclosed money in our elections."
Progressives Score High
Some of the state’s most liberal Democrats topped the list on the House side, with first-term Providence Representative Maria Cimini leading the way at 85 percent. Along with Cimini, Representatives Teresa Tanzi, Donna Walsh and Charlene Lima were the only four members of the House to score at least 80 percent on the scorecard.
In the Senate, Providence’s Paul Jabour topped the list by voting in favor of Common Cause-supported legislation 77 percent of the time. Senator Josh Miller and Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin finished second and third, respectively, while Harold Metts, Hanna Gallo, Michael Pinga, Dominick Ruggeio, John Tassoni and James Doyle all tied for fourth place at 72 percent.
House Speaker Gordon Fox said he was proud to see the scores improve from the previous two years. He touted a campaign finance disclosure law and the new open records law as examples of increased transparency in government.
“I am pleased that the House scores significantly improved under my first full term as Speaker,” Fox said. “I co-sponsored campaign finance reform legislation offered by Rep. [Chris] Blazejewski and strongly supported Rep. [Mike] Marcello’s open records’ bill, both of which greatly improved transparency in government. I am very proud of my colleagues for putting forth such good government bills. Clearly we are moving in the right direction and I will strive to achieve even higher scores for myself and the House in the future.”
Republicans Criticize Scorecard
Still, several lawmakers who did not receive favorable scores from Common Cause accused to nonpartisan organization of favoring liberal Democrats. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, who scored 51 percent, said he wasn’t surprised by how the list breaks out.
“Despite their pretense that they are somehow ‘above it all’ they are no different than any other lobbying/advocacy group,” Newbery said of Common Cause. “Some of their ideas are good ones and some aren’t. Given their rather left wing tilt, the numbers on their scorecard are neither surprising nor revealing.”
Although the worst score this year went to retiring Democratic Rep. John McCauley (McCauley will serve prison time for tax fraud), other Republicans suggested they were pleased to not be near the top of the list.
“I got 100 percent on ethics and reform,” State Rep. Doreen Costa said. “That’s a good thing. Look, this is a leaning left group. You have ultra left wing progressive tax and spend Democrats at the top of the list. I am happy to be at 45 percent. I do not want to associate with anyone that would have a high score on here. The lower the score the better. It shows who is watching out for the taxpayer. I will take the 100 percent on ethics anytime for any organization.”
But Marion disputed the criticism that Common Cause favors Democrats. He said his organization has supported a number of proposals that do not fall along party lines, such as working for an independent judiciary, and others that are favored largely by Republicans, like eliminating the master lever.
“For a long time, when Separation of Powers was a leading topic in this state, we had Republicans at the top of our rankings,” Marion said. “As campaign finance has risen to prominence, and become increasingly a partisan issue, we're in a different period.”
More Work to be Done
Despite the improvement over the last two legislative sessions, lawmakers still have plenty of room for improvement, according to Marion, who noted that “once again inaction by the Assembly means that there is no ethical oversight for abuses of legislative power.”
Because lawmakers never voted on restoring the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over General Assembly, Marion said they couldn’t rate the members on that issue. Similarly, Marion said the last-minute merger of the state Boards of Education illustrates the ongoing problems with Rhode Island’s legislature.
“Every year there are important issues that come out of nowhere in the final hours of the session,” Marion said. “We've seen it with issues as diverse as education policy, legalizing fireworks, and even the state's receivership law.”
For Ocean State Tea Party in Action President Lisa Blais, the “devil is in the details” when it comes to legislative report cards. Blais said voters should read the legislation Common Cause supports before criticizing or praising their Representatives and Senators.
“The nuances of the legislative process are not what it seems on its face,” Blais said. “The process of government leads to misleading results and given where we are today the facts may suggest that Rhode Island has a long way to go to achieve truly transparent, clean government. The aggregate score of 68 [and 66] percent would translate into a “D” by traditional academic grading.”
For a complete breakdown of the votes Common Cause analyzed, click here.
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