Guest MINDSETTER ™ Sen. Raptakis: Forget Trucks—What’s the Toll of Secrecy?

Thursday, November 05, 2015

 

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If you care about open government in Rhode Island, if you’re a fan of having decisions made in a transparent manner, and if you just want to be able to hold elected officials responsible for their actions, things are not looking good for our state.

We have the Raimondo administration taking a major step back in terms of refusing to release basic government records—from the timesheets of state employees that were treated as open records by her predecessor to emails surrounding a controversial hiring by the Governor that skirted the state’s revolving door law. We’ve also had a new round of revelations about the 38 Studios debacle, documents revealing that key state officials knew a $75 million loan guarantee program created in the dead of night near the end of the 2010 legislative session was designed to benefit the failed video game company. 

In this environment, where we are still dealing with the consequences of that ill-fated scheme which put Rhode Island taxpayers on the hook for paying back $74.3 million in 38 Studios bonds, we have a Governor who thinks nothing of asking the legislature to approve $600 million in new revenue bonds to fund her RhodeWorks plan to finance bridge repairs. Oh, and did I mention the details of the toll plan will come later, after we approve the bonds?

I guess that’s progress. This time, we’re not being asked to blindly approve a deal to throw millions at a company run by a business newcomer in an industry with a high failure rate. Instead, we’re being asked to trust a Governor who already isn’t being forthcoming on releasing public records. Instead, we’re being asked to approve $600 million in revenue bonds—sight unseen—and then hope that the administration will put together a plan to start tolling trucks in a manner that will generate enough revenue to support the bonds. We don’t basic details on the amount of the tolls or where the tolling gantries will be located before approving the bonds. 

While the Governor is selling this “truck toll two step” as a reasonable effort to pass some simple enabling legislation (handing over the money) and then work out the details in what she calls a “separate public process” down the line, there’s another way to look at this. She’s giving the legislature plausible deniability, setting it up so they can take an easy vote to approve the $600 million in bonds without having to take responsibility for the details of the final program. It is an attack on good government, essentially turning the General Assembly into an accountability-free zone, when it should be the place where tough questions are asked and all the details are provided before new bond obligations are created.

We’ve already learned the hard way that when the General Assembly isn’t held accountable for votes to approve bond deals, bad things can happen. Let’s learn from our mistakes and recognize that when it comes to issues as important as fixing our roads and bridges, we need a transparent and open process, where all the decisions are made in the light of day and with a full understanding of where we are headed and what we are doing. After all this time…after all we’ve been through, I don’t think the people of Rhode Island should expect anything less.

 
 

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