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Donna Perry: Campaign Trail Transparency

Thursday, June 21, 2012

 

Prominent local journalists, led by Channel 12’s Tim White, as well as regional and national representatives of Freedom of Information coalitions were among those who brought RI taxpayers the opportunity for an important victory at the close of the 2012 legislative session. Although average citizens may be unaware of what transpired on their behalf, they will understand the value of a pending new law when the next round of pension changes inevitably emerges in any one of the state’s financially deteriorating communities in the days to come.

It’s a growing concern that as of this writing, Governor Chafee has not signed it into law. He and his advisers should recognize he will quickly lose the ground he gained as appearing to be working on the taxpayers’ behalf this year, if he vetoes a bill which, among other purposes, will improve the ability of news organizations to shed light on taxpayer subsidized compensation to the public workforce. In addition to White, in his role as head of a regional freedom of the press coalition, the collaborative effort to push through the Access to Public Records Act (APRA) bill also involved the RI Press Association and was supported by good government advocates like Common Cause. Citizen taxpayer advocate organizations like RISC, which pushed openly and over a many months period for the legislative on-line vote recording system that is common practice by other states but only went into effect here this past session, applauds the advocacy of this effort.

Seeing this enacted into law can go a long way to erase the well-earned Rhode Island stigma of being operated more like a cozy club than a professionally managed public government, with insiders “protecting each other” and shielding records, whether from within local police departments or within state and local government departments and agencies. During the previous year’s comprehensive media coverage of the proposed changes to the state retirement system, for example, it was apparent that news organizations often had incomplete access to the records of taxpayer subsidized pay and pension benefits for employees or retirees who would be subject to the new statewide pension reform law.

The 2012 APRA bill would enhance the work of news organizations in that type of record heavy reporting. However, what makes the APRA passage by the General Assembly so notable is that its legislative victory stands as a bright spot which emerged simultaneously in the midst of many darker, far less transparent moments of the closing days of the session. The eleventh hour, closed door discussions with lobbyists, especially with alumni of the Legislature itself, hammering out bills on important matters like the state’s financial agreements with its growing casino gambling industry, a classic last minute surprise bill favoring auto body shops vs. auto insurance interests, the turning back of a coalition against loan shark styled interest rates against payday loan lenders, to name a few, represent the very opposite of a transparent legislative process.

In the final analysis, the General Assembly approved a bill to expand transparency of public records, while at the same time ignoring basic principles of a transparent legislative process as they raced to conclude the session’s business. It will be this piece of transparency that taxpayers should keep in mind as they encounter their hometown lawmaker when he or she knocks on their door for re-election in the coming months. The list of questions which taxpayer voters should begin to consider posing to their local rep or senator on the 2012 campaign trail should include some pointed ones about transparency shortcomings within their own chambers, and the reverential treatment reserved for the “alumni club” of the Legislature, just for starters.

Citizens seeking a more accountable state government must begin by requiring both first time candidates for the Assembly and those up for re-election to pledge to make the budget crafting process of June one that is done in the “sunshine” of the daytime—not in the unaccountable, bleary-eyed middle of the night. Taxpayer voters should also ask rank and file legislators why the agenda of former mayors-turned lobbyists and lawmakers-turned lobbyists, (former Speakers included), should take precedence over the priorities and needs of the citizen taxpayers. The critically needed APRA bill, which hopefully will be signed by the Governor, needs to be followed up by transparency on the campaign trail in the months ahead.

Donna Perry is Executive Director of the taxpayer organization, RISC, RI Statewide Coalition. (http://www.statewidecoalition.com)

 

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