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'Reform Democrats' Unveil Proposed Changes To Legislative Process

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A self-described group of reform Democrats in the Rhode Island House of Representatives released a series of proposals Wednesday that they say will improve the legislative process.

The concepts include requiring a minimum of 48 hours to consider any changes to legislation ahead of a vote.

“Forty-eight hours -- it’s not much to ask of a legislative body that meets six months out of the year,” said Rep. Katherine Kazarian (D-East Providence). “As it stands now, a bill that is introduced by a legislator in January can be changed during the last minutes of session and rushed to the floor for a vote. Oftentimes no one is more surprised by the changes than the sponsor of the original bill.”

Roughly 15 of the 19 Democrats who abstained from a vote for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello on Tuesday used a news conference in the Statehouse Library to unveil their ideas.

Other proposals from the opposition Democrats – who dub themselves ‘The Reform Caucus – include:

-- Allowing submitted bills to remain in consideration for an entire two-year term of the legislature (rather than just one year);

-- Requiring a two-thirds vote, instead of a simple majority, to suspend House rules – a practice that happens at the end of session, as bills are passed en masse, sometimes with limited attention.

-- Allowing bills to be discharged for a floor vote if they have support from 38 of 75 state representatives.

-- Creating an office of inspector general and passing a line-item veto.

Speaker Mattiello has kept the door open to making changes in the legislative process. But he has declined to commit supporting any of the concepts backed by Democrats critical of his leadership.

“The Rules Committee was appointed today and it will hold a public hearing on the rules in the near future,” House spokesman Larry Berman said in a statement. “All legislators are welcome to offer proposals to amend the rules and those will be considered by the committee.”

Berman said the vote on rules governing the 2019 and 2020 House session "has not been scheduled yet. It will be at least a few weeks because the Rules Committee needs to hold a public hearing first and then a second hearing to pass the rules before coming to the floor."

The new membership of the House Rules Committee was announced at the start of Wednesday's House session. Kazarian, previously a member of the committee, was not named to be a member of the new group; no other members of the "Reform Democrats" group was named to the Rules Committee.

While the 19 Democrats who abstained from supporting Mattiello are outnumbered by the speaker’s 47 supporters, ‘Reform Caucus’ members contend the public is on the side of changes to the legislative process.

Kazarian said many lawmakers are concerned about the issues related to the legislative process, and might sign on to efforts to make changes.

“We’re hopeful that more of our colleagues will join us,” added Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown), who said the time is right for change since this month marks the start of a fresh two-year legislative term. “We know that there is broad support for these proposals.”

Rep. Edith Ajello (D-Providence), who has served in the House since first winning election in 1992, said ideas that did not advance in the past have a better chance now due to heightened public interest in the legislature.

“I don’t remember in the past walking door to door and being asked, what is this thing called ‘hold for further study’?” she said, referring to a practice by which many bills are consigned to legislative oblivion. “What does that mean? The public is watching much more carefully.”

This story has been updated.



Rep. Liana Casssar of Barrington speaks during a news conference in the Statehouse Library
Rep. Liana Casssar of Barrington speaks during a news conference in the Statehouse Library