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Dan Lawlor: RI General Assembly: Fundraising or Lawmaking?

Monday, February 25, 2013


Dan Lawlor argues that RI's General Assembly should pass legislation limiting in-session fundraising as a basic matter of ethics.

Should the state's political decisions be made based on checks signed at the Providence Marriott or in the Garden Room at the Biltmore?

Money, and access to it, makes doors open. Currently, lobbyists and the public can make campaign contributions throughout the General Assembly session. While the legislature's leadership are deciding which bills will rise and fall, advocates can, within limits, organize a fundraiser, donate a bit of money, or share some food at a nice restaurant with our elected officials.

Since the new year started, political fundraisers have been scheduled at Camille's on Federal Hill, Local 121 downtown, a Mile and Quarter by the River, and the Roger Williams Casino, among other places. Considering that officially over 10 percent of the people of Rhode Island are currently jobless, it seems a bit perverse that elected officials are able to gain money for their campaigns while they should be focused on hearings, drafting legislation, and preparing the state's budget.

South County State Representative Spencer Dickinson has proposed a bill (H5074) which requires, " no member of the general assembly shall accept a campaign contribution during the period from January 1, through the day of passage of the state budget by both houses of the general assembly." The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

Emily Koo, of the good government student group Democracy Matters, writes, "Drawing the focus away from fundraising and back towards constituents and legislating is certainly the right sentiment. However, we don't think it would function well as a standalone reform. Perhaps if it spurred more reform (like public financing of elections), but I doubt that would happen. Mainly, we're worried that prohibiting legislators from accepting campaign contributions would encourage outside spending.

A filmmaker from Pawtucket, Andrew Cabral, notes, "I approve of this bill because the budget should reflect the needs of the state and not the needs of the interest groups that the lobbyists represent. If a politician accepts monetary contributions from a lobbying group, there is a possibility that while constructing the budget a proposal benefiting that group would be placed within it. The money that would be used to satisfy their proposals is money that is taken away from spending in infrastructure, education, police and firemen salaries, and more. Things that can benefit us all have to be sacrificed because a lobbyist represents a group of people with a lot of money."

Lobbying the State House is a lucrative business for General Assembly alumni. As Dan McGowan reported last July, the highest paid lawmakers turned lobbyists include former Senate Minority Leader Robert Goldberg, former Senate Finance Chair Stephen Alves, Former House Majority Whip Chris Boyle, former House Majority Leader George Caruolo, and former Legislative researcher and Representative Rick Rosati. Robert Goldberg is married to State Supreme Court Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg.

The web of connections has worried another Representative, Gregory Costantino of Cranston. Costantino has proposed a bill (H5502) which would prohibit any lobbyist who donates more than two hundred dollars ($200) to any legislator from appearing before any legislative committee or commission on which that legislator sits. It would also prohibit the lobbyist from using a surrogate (like a spouse or business associate) to circumvent the law's prohibitions. 

Over 20 years ago, in a documentary on American politics "Vote for Me," Mary Ann Sorrentino once described Rhode Islander's tolerance for eyebrow-raising politics thus, "I think people accept what works. If they have a job and they have their little dream house, and their mother-in-law gets to have the mayor send her a happy birthday card every year, and the garbage is collected, and the school works, and the cops are there when they need them, then life is wonderful. And now they find out that the person who made all of that possible -.the governor, mayor, their state senator, who ever - has got his hand in the cookie jar, they say, "Well you know what - shh! don't say anything, because if we maybe overturn this apple cart, our situation will change. Let's leave it alone. If it's not broke, don't fix it.

Now, in 2013, not so many people have their little dream house, a good school, or a job, or even receive a happy birthday card from their legislator. The tolerance that we once showed for buddy, buddy connections must end. Former legislators should not be making money off their inside knowledge - and at the least, advocates shouldn't be donating to campaigns during the legislative session.

Representatives Dickinson and Costantino's proposals, however imperfect, are aimed at limiting the influence of shadow players on the people's business. Let's hope they succeed.


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