Dan Lawlor: How Speaker Fox Can Turn Around His Legacy
Monday, July 30, 2012
Upon election as Speaker of the House in 2010, Gordon Fox said, “We have an enormous amount of talented people who have lost their jobs, and some are leaving Rhode Island for good because they can’t find work. It is my top priority to make sure that Rhode Island can attract high-quality jobs and train its workers so they have the skills to succeed.’
Ian Donnis, in a 2007 profile "How high can Gordon Fox go?", wrote, "Fox joined the House as part of a large incoming class in 1993, serving on the House Finance Committee and later chairing it before he became majority leader. Among his accomplishments, he cites helping to have passed the statewide smoking ban, the state historic tax credit program, the establishment of an affordable housing fund, a mental health parity law, and enhanced protection for victims of domestic violence."
Despite his challenges as Speaker, I believe Gordon Fox has the ability to be a transformative leader for the state. As Speaker, Fox can be a major leader in helping to reform and break the web of connections between the legislature, the courts, and the lobbyists. He can help end the insider culture that has lead to drubbings like 38 Studios.
The RI State Constitution, Section 2, declares, "All free governments are instituted for the protection, safety, and happiness of the people. All laws, therefore, should be made for the good of the whole; and the burdens of the state ought to be fairly distributed among its citizens."
With effort, the machine ways, the ways of Joseph Bevilaqua, Matthew Smith, and John Harwood, heck, the ways of Charles Brayton from the 19th Century, can finally end their grip on the state's political culture.
1. 10 year ban on legislators serving as lobbyists.
2. Ban legislators (for life), their staff (for a period of 5 years after leaving office), and their immediate family (for life) from appointment as court magistrates.
3. Ban registered lobbyists from serving as members of the Judicial Nominating Commission, the committee which nominates judges.
4. Establish a fixed calendar, allowing 48 hour notice and public hearings of bills. Bills should not be voted on in a rush in the last 24 hours of session.
5. Term limits on the office of Speaker and Senate President (no more than 8 years).
Power derives, ultimately, from the people. All elected officials gain authority by receiving the majority of votes from their neighbors at the ballot box. Once in office, our representatives' task is to create a budget and laws, as the RI Constitution says, "to secure and to transmit" laws for "civic and religious liberty". The opportunity to serve as legislator should not be a gateway to be a magistrate or life as a lobbyist.
Once in office, temptations to more power are prevalent. That's natural. The unfortunate thing is that the results of our political culture don't seem to be working for many Rhode Islanders.
If I eat too much ice cream, my stomach hurts. If the rewards for being silent and being promoted are greater than the rewards for serving and problem solving, then preventable mistakes happen and people in RI get hurt.
As of this past May, Providence had a 12.8% unemployment rate, Newport an 8.3% rate, and West Warwick 11.4% At the same time, Manchester, New Hampshire had an unemployment rate of 5.4%. The jobless rate was the same in Nashua.
In Connecticut, Hartford had a depressing 14.4% jobless, Bridgeport 11.9%, and New Haven 11.6%.
In Massachusetts, while some areas are struggling, many cities were performing bett or excellent. New Bedford suffered with 11.3% jobless, Springfield had a 9.5% jobless rate, Brockton was at 8%, Somerville at 3.8%, and Worcester, larger than Providence, had 7.6% jobless.
The overall jobless rate in Boston? 5.8%.
Everyday people are hurt because of the perception, reputation, or reality of our political culture. Our ability to be a thriving community, to attract business, and to distribute opportunities more fairly means we need to be more transparent.
Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed made a good step in the right direction in opening up our political culture with the with the TIPS Act, which requires political advertising to disclose donors.
Now, it's time to prevent the revolving door that lets many leaders become well-paid lobbyists or well-paid magistrates, while our political climate stifles entrepreneurs, cuts bus lines, and cuts back on non-profits.
It’s time to end the backroom culture of Rhode Island politics. I, and alot of people, believe this state can be thriving. For that to happen, we need to change how our political culture works. Speaker Fox can lead the way on this.