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Dan Lawlor: Political Machines are Ruining Rhode Island

Thursday, November 01, 2012

 

The machine mindset, in short, is opportunity for the well-connected, even as outsiders suffer. In addition to being harmful, it is a way of think that is also very attractive.

The machine mindset has compromised Progressives like Gordon Fox and Conservatives like Don Carcieri. Both Carcieri and Fox have close associates who have received Judicial appointments, and both had a role in the 38 Studios implosion.

Left and Right Wing activists groups in RI, while focusing on their core issues, have unintentionally kept this mindset humming. So have all of us on the sidelines.

Very understandably, every group is focused on success for "their" issue -everything from the private school bus program to funding for the arts. As a result, the legislative leadership promises everybody something - just enough to keep people in line, just enough, perhaps, to question the need for more good government reform.

Our political system is based on compromises - yet, when everyone starts compromising to achieve individual "success", the machine mindset coldly works its ways with the people on the inside. Instead of focusing on the broken system as a whole, the focus is put on preserving or advancing the piece of the budget or legislation that is "the issue." With the focus on yearly success, big picture fixes seldom come up, because upsetting the leadership hurts the chances of "the issue," whatever it is.

Whether the Speaker is Harwood or Murphy or Fox, the mindset stays the same. I give big credit to Paula Hodges from Planned Parenthood for openly stating at Netroots Nation how decision-making in our assembly works: "Pre-Ordained, Private, and Paternalistic."

I would imagine that all of Rhode Island's activist groups - Planned Parenthood, Right to Life, Ocean State Action, RI Chamber of Commerce, RI-CAN, Marriage Equality, the labor unions, the Tea Party, the small business associations - have a stake in making our legislative process more transparent. Honestly, how many people like staying up past 1:00am on the last day of session to see if their bill (or their opponent's bill) will become law? I can hear the crickets.

There are several key ways the current process in the legislature is working against common sense. I bet many legislators are frustrated by the process as well. Here are two possible solutions:

1. By legislative rule or executive order, declare all legislative proceedings must end by 10pm. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick recently issued an executive order declaring "formal session" must close by midnight on the last day of session.

2. Establish a clear, public calendar for hearings and votes to prevent last minute bottle-necks or surprises. In the past, Speaker Fox has called the last minute rush a mess, announcing, "I strongly believe that if bills, particularly non-budgetary items, are introduced earlier in the session, it helps the House of Representatives to fully vet and consider the information in an orderly manner."

Despite Speaker Fox's stated goal of an "orderly manner", the final General Assembly session for last fiscal year began on a Tuesday evening and wrapped up at 3:38 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

If all the activists groups of all shapes and stripes present a united front on good government issues, supporting legislators working for change, demanding greater transparency, then maybe, just maybe, the machine mindset will weaken, and final decisions will be made before the bewitching hour. That would be a nice treat.

 

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