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Donna Perry: Another Shameful Session

Thursday, June 14, 2012

 

“What is so rare as a day in June? Then, if ever, come perfect days…” - American poet James R. Lowell’s often cited tribute to the month of Juneimmortalized our collective appreciation for the perfect weather conditions which can be experienced during this month of the year. Aside from the weather however, Lowell’s famous lines bear no resemblance to what this month has come to reallyrepresent in Rhode Island for far too many years now. Since June in Rhode Island is truly when far reaching public policy, and major public spending decisionsare set, perhaps it’s time to scrap the costs and burden of staging the previous five months.

If major decisions and legislation that affect everything from the state’s management of the gambling sector that provides our third largest source of revenue, to how policies will be set governing the entire public education system can be crafted behind closed doors with only lobbyists present and no public vetting, over a period of a few short chaotic days, then why schedule a session from January 1 to June? If all the hearings, long hours of testimony taking, and grinding of the legislation proposal machine are just for show, and the major decisions are going to get crafted in offices and huddled meeting rooms late at night, then just schedule a weeklong June session that runs nightly from 9 PM- 3 AM.

The passage of the $8 billion dollar budget and handling of the more than 100 bills that moved through the RI General Assembly in the final days, represent a betrayal of transparent, accountable government in a litany of ways, but unfortunately it’s all how the June game is played.

Proper consideration of the centerpiece legislation connected to the state’s third highest source of revenue, casino gambling, that holds decades of impact, would seem to dictate that a greater opportunity for review was needed than what just occurred. But since the lobbyist constructed final bill intentionally only emerged Tuesday, legislative voices like House Minority leader Brian Newberry, who was correctly issuing concern over the comparatively low 18% rate set as the state’s take on the proposed table games, was drowned out in the flurry of final activity.

The Legislature’s treatment of public education initiatives was likewise the victim of the June treatment as a far reaching and ill-advised measure that willdownsize the scope of the public policy setting boards which oversee the state’s entire public education system from preschool through college only emerged within the past ten days with no chance for public input or substance based review. Though the governance of the Board of Regents and the Board of Governors for Higher Ed has hardly been without flaws, current day complexities dictate two separate and fully engaged Boards for grade school education and the college system and it is shameful that the Legislature has so carelessly, rapidly and with no public input, reconstituted them.

In the meantime, forward looking education reforms submitted months ago, like the solid bill from RICAN, (RI Campaign for Achievement Now)to move the pink slip date from March 1 to June 1 to avert unnecessary staff chaos in local schools, could not garner real traction and was abandoned for this year. The bright spot on education coming out of the session supposedly is the $33 million in education aid approved for local school districts, and it’s true the aid is needed. However, sending aid to cities and towns for the school districts but ignoring their pleas for legislative relief to their top budget pressure, the pension contribution payments, does not qualify as a session that helped local communities in an area where they critically need it. Once again, the dog and pony hearing show was staged over the winter and spring months but what really counted came in June and in the final tally, the meat of the Governor’s Municipal Relief and Pension Reform legislation was not acted on, and only marginal pieces, like year to year level funding were advanced.

But there was no greater insult to the state taxpayers than the Legislature’s failure to look at the elephant in the room. It is a failure of leadership that the session closed down with no visible, tangible General Assembly plan to seek accountability for the far reaching and staggeringly costly public-private misadventure between the EDC and 38 Studios. A legislative proposal that surfaced in the final days from Senator Nicholas Kettle to abolish the EDC in the immediate term while federal probes and a state police investigation into the financial practices of 38 Studios proceed, received little attention.

But meantime, the June game of favor granting to various General Assembly alumni or insiders played out. Former Speaker Bill Murphy’s lobbying for the loan shark styled Advance America cash loan operation succeeded in holding off interest rate changes which were being sought by a large, broad coalition of reform groups. Lifelong plum appointments to the court system were also squeezed in during the final rush as former Senator Charles Levesque was given a Family Court Magistrate post and John Flynn, legal counsel to Speaker Fox was doled out his, as Magistrate to the Drug Court, just to name a few.

In the coming months, as re-election season heats up, Rhode Islander scan expect to hear the refrain that you won’t achieve different results if you don’t change the people in the seats. But as recent days have proven, changing the faces without changing the process ---won’t really change much I’m afraid. A campaign mantra needs to emerge that will be aimed not just at changing some of the faces-- but will be aimed at changing the shame of June.

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

 

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