Projo Ridicules Legislator as “No Show” While He is at Military Service

Monday, May 23, 2016


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Representative Carlos Tobon was at U.S. Coast Guard training when called a "no show" at a subcommittee hearing and chastised that he "must have had something better to do with his time" by the Projo.

A state legislator who was serving at required training in the U.S. Coast Guard was one of the members of a General Assembly House Finance subcommittee who were publicly chastised en masse by the Providence Journal for missing a hearing on legislative grants on Thursday. 

Representative Carlos Tobon, who has served in the U.S. Coast Guard since 2012, said he was shocked to see his picture alongside the headline "R.I lawmakers are a no-show" on Friday; the Projo then ran an unprecedented front-page editorial on Sunday calling out Tobon and four other lawmakers, saying sarcastically that they "must have had something better to do with their time."

"I said, 'Oh, I'm in the paper,' when I saw my photo on Friday. Then I read it," said Tobon, who was serving his annual two-week required service at Pt. Judith, which is in addition to one weekend a month of required training. "I get it, you want accountability. But if you're doing an investigative piece, you should investigate. No one [from the Journal] asked me why I wasn't there." 

The Providence Journal's Tom Mooney wrote of the "no-shows" at Thursday's subcommittee hearing to discuss reforms to the highly controversial legislative grant program:

After the hearing, Naughton, deputy chairperson of the House Finance Committee, was asked where her subcommittee members were. “You would have to ask them,” she said. “I would like [them here] but I am not in the military. I cannot order them to be here.”

Service Omitted, More Oversights

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Tobon's picture, bottom center, in the Projo. Rep. Abney, top-left, has not been a member of the subcommittee since replacing Rep. Gallison as Finance Chair.

Tobon told GoLocal that May 9 through May 20 marked his mandated two-week training period in 2016, which the Speaker's office confirmed.

"Rep. Carlos Tobon serves as a Reserve Petty Officer in the United States Coast Guard.  He is required to serve at the Point Judith Station for two weeks per year, as well as one weekend per month, and was unable to attend legislative sessions or committee hearings on Wednesday and Thursday of last week because of his military obligation," said Larry Berman, spokesperson for Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello. "The reason for [Tobon's] absence was reflected in the House Journal on both Wednesday and Thursday."

That didn't stop the Journal from failing to ask legislators about their absence -- piling on for the front-page editorial on Sunday -- or to realize another of the committee members called out no longer serves on the subcommittee. 

"Subcommittee members Marvin Abney, D-Newport; Anthony Giarrusso, R-East Greenwich; Robert Jaquard, D-Cranston; Scott Slater, D-Providence; and Carlos Tobon, D-Pawtucket; all had more important things to do with their time," wrote the Projo's editorial staff, writing the hearings "insulted Rhode Islanders' intelligence."

Berman added Abney was no longer a member of the subcommittee. 

"[It was] incorrectly reported that Marvin Abney is a member of the subcommittee.  After being named Chairman of the Finance Committee two weeks ago, he no longer was a member of any subcommittee," said Berman. "Chairpersons never serve on the subcommittees because they chair the full committee hearings and they have many other responsibilities."

Tobon on Serving Country

Tobon said it was another Rhode Islander -- and Coast Guard officer -- that prompted him to enlist to serve his country. 

"It was Clay Pell who was influential in my decision," said Tobon, of the grandson of former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell and 2014 gubernatorial candidate, who is a U.S. Coast Guard Officer. 

"I've been on search and rescues, but luckily, it's been nothing catastrophic," said Tobon.  "It's basically an insurance policy. The reason why we do all the training is that we're prepared should something happen. I'm qualifying to be a certified crew member -- I'm currently a Boatswain's Mate, Petty Officer 3rd Class. It's a privilege to be in the armed services."

Tobon was first elected to the General Assembly in 2014 to District 58 in Pawtucket and is employed by Cross Insurance. 

Responding to Critique

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Rep. Tobon

Berman responded further to the coverage of the hearing on Sunday. 

"It also wasn't reported that two members of the Finance Committee – Deborah Ruggiero and Joy Hearn -- who are not members of the Human Services Subcommittee, attended the hearing as well," said Berman. "[It was written] to appear that Chairwoman Naughton was alone at the hearing."

"The House Finance Committee is by far the busiest of all legislative committees, holding several hearings per week in reviewing every budget article and every department and agency budget, as well as holding public hearings on hundreds of legislative proposals.  The committee meets three nights per week after each legislative session and often holds subcommittee meetings in the afternoon," said Berman. "Members sometimes have work commitments in the afternoon and try to make as many meetings as possible, but this is a part-time legislature and most members have full-time jobs that can preclude them from attending every afternoon subcommittee hearing. Thursday’s hearing began at 1 p.m. and most members have day jobs they are required to fulfill in order to support their families."

Members of the part-time General Assembly currently make $15,414 a year.

“The Journal editorial board last June continually urged Speaker Mattiello to immediately approve the RhodeWorks legislation.  Instead, he took his time and studied the issue, and in the end, came up with a much improved proposal to better serve the citizens of the state.  He is not going to rush because [someone] wants him to," said Berman.

Speaker Mattiello told GoLocal what he intends to be the next steps on legislative and community service grant reforms.

“I will be taking action on community service grants, but not before the hearings are completed and we have the fourth and final one scheduled for Tuesday.  When the hearings are finished, I will review the testimony and then make a determination on how to move forward," said Mattiello. "In determining public policy, you have to be thoughtful, deliberate and consider all options.  It is not my nature to act hastily.”


Related Slideshow: What Will (and Won’t) Get Accomplished in RI General Assembly in 2016

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Truck Tolls: Adopted

The highly contentious, much-debated RhodeWorks legislation was approved by both chambers in the middle of February, after a heated start to the session which saw RIPEC say the plan would raise too much money, Job Lot to threaten to hold an expansion plan hostage, and truckers all but promise a federal lawsuit upon implementation. 

Truck tolls had been one of the lingering questions at the end of the 2015 General Assembly session, and rather than wait to deal with it in the waning days of 2016, House and Senate leadership tackled it head on right away.  The big question now is whether the issue will have traction come November, when the opponents who said “remember the tolls at the polls” see if voters turn out in numbers to unseat incumbents. 

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Tiverton Casino on Ballot: Adopted

With expanding gambling opportunities, and gaming receipts, ramping up in Massachusetts, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved legislation to put it to voters in Novembers whether they want a casino (and hotel) in Tiverton — or not.   The measures passed overwhelmingly — 33 to 2 in the Senate and 69-4 in the House. 

Now, the state is banking on voters supporting the move of Newport Grand, which failed to get table games on multiple attempts on the ballot, to Tiverton, where it will have to gain approval both in the town, and statewide.  An anti-Tiverton casino group had popped up when the proposal was first made, and while quiet for a stretch, is jump-starting its social media presence once again.  

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Ethics Reform: Likely

Both House and Senate leadership joined forces on May 10 to put forth legislation to restore the Rhode Island Ethics Commission oversight over the General Assembly — with the support of the former and current head of Common Cause.  If approved, the measure will go before Rhode Island voters on the ballot in November. 

The House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on Tuesday May 17 on the legislation. “This resolution does, in fact, restore the full jurisdiction of the ethics commission despite the speech in debate clause.  Common Cause argues that the controversial [campaign] moratorium should be set aside and placed in a separate statute. This is an important piece of the puzzle of good government in the Ocean State,” said Mike Stenhouse with the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, one of the nearly two dozen groups part of the new Clean RI coalition. 

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Community Service Grant Reform: Likely

In the wake of the resignation of former House Finance Chair Raymond Gallison, whose nonprofit Alternative Educational Programming has received nearly $2 million in community service grants from the General Assembly in ten years, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said that he would be taking a look at how the legislative body directed funding to them.

“Right now we’re doing an audit of them,” said Mattello when he announced Gallison’s resignation in early May. “Some of the smaller organizations that don’t have the necessary administrative systems, I have concerns with. You’ll see grants being cut out, the smaller ones I might get rid of.”

Most likely, the changes will be in the form of the Speaker announcing new grant policies and procedures rather than legislation, but there is a good chance that there will be a shake-up in the way that community service grants are distributed — and who gets them — in 2016. 

Image: Flckr - Giang Hồ Thị Hoàng

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Tax Relief: Likely

Speaker Mattiello has signaled that he will be looking at tax reductions as the General Assembly nears the end of session, although not specifying what that will look like at this time. 

"Last year, the House passed an historic and unanimous budget in record time because of our care and deliberation and focus on jobs and the economy," said Mattiello on Monday. "We will do the same this year by continuing to look at further tax relief and other tax reductions for Rhode Island’s middle class. "

In 2015, GoLocal put small businesses on the budget “winner” list as the budget reduced the corporate minimum tax from $500 to $450 placing Rhode Island between Massachusetts and Connecticut and fast-tracked the phase out of the sales tax non-manufacturing businesses pay on electric, natural gas, and heating fuel bills. 

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Lobbying Reform: Likely

Speaker Mattiello has indicated that he is keen on pursuing lobbying reform this session, as has Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. 

"We are finalizing an important lobbying reform bill to close loopholes that existed in the 38 Studios matter," said the Speaker on Monday. 

Gorbea, who issued a statement in support of the ethics reform legislation recently put forth by leadership, signaled that the offices were working together on her lobbying reform bill.

"This legislation, along with my proposed lobby reform legislation, are historic steps toward restoring Rhode Islanders confidence in their government," said Gorbea following the ethics announcement. 


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Line Item Veto: Unlikely

While Speaker Mattiello has addressed two of the biggest political abuses that have plagued Rhode Island for years by overseeing the removal of the master level and advocating for once again placing the General Assembly under the purview of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, he has not signaled that he is open to giving the Governor the power of a line-item veto, despite mounting political pressure. 

Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell recently called out the Speaker on the issue.

“The Gallison scandal has exposed how the grant programs controlled by Mattiello and the General Assembly and the General Assembly leadership can be misused,” said Bell in a recent statement. “A line-item veto could be utilized to stop grant money from being wasted or used for corrupt purposes.  No one can call themselves a reformer who does not support a line-item veto here in Rhode Island.”

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Marijuana Legalization: Unlikely

Proponents of marijuana legalization in Rhode Island once again introduced legislation — the fifth year now in a row — to allow Rhode Island to become the first New England State to legalize recreational marijuana, but once again, it looks like the proposals will fall flat.

“I think this year more than ever the conversation has been when it should be legalized, as opposed to if it should be done,” said Jarren Moffat with RegulateRI. “We continue to see that we get more and more folks to show up [to testify], whereas you tend to hear from the same three or four opponents.  You see our coalition growing while the opposition does not.

Moffat said that he is optimistic that the Speaker might be open to consideration if marijuana is legalized in Massachusetts this November.

“I think the most interesting public comments the Speaker has made was that if Massachusetts moves forward, then the legislature could take it up in early 2017,” said Moffat. “He says he’s neutral, but he’s under public pressure with what’s happening in Massachusetts.”

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Superman Building: Unlikely

At a recent press conference held inside the vacant Superman Building downtown in Providence, Rhode Island business, labor, and political leaders turned out to express their support for “saving the building” - but the owner refused to put a price tag on the ask of the city and state, saying a proposal would be forthcoming shortly. 

The same ownership group had tried to exact $39 million from the state in 2014, but was unsuccessful in its effort.  The 11th hour proposal in 2016 looks as thought it will face the same fate, as neither the Speaker nor Senate President was present at the press conference, nor was Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor. 

Despite the lack of information on a proposal, Senate Republicans quickly came forth to say they would oppose any taxpayer funded rehabilitation; community opposition groups cropped up as well. 

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Licenses for Illegal Immigrants: Unlikely

Governor Raimondo campaigned on the promise of providing licenses for undocumented immigrants (via executive order), but Speaker Mattiello in 2015 warned Raimondo not to do an end-run around the General Assembly on the issue. 

In 2016, license supporters once again upped the pressure at the State House to make it happen, with multiple rallies taking place during the session, but it appears there is little political capital pushing the issue forward during an election year. 


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