The Rhode Island House Rules Committee approved Thursday a minimum 24-hour waiting period to review significant changes to legislation in House committees. But critics said the Rules Committee failed to go far enough in making more changes to improve the legislative process.
“I think there’s a substantial improvement in the SubA process,” said House Minority Leader Blake Filippi (R-New Shoreham), referring to the new one-day delay on considering big changes to bills in House committees. “That has been a Republican initiative for four years. We had put a similar amendment on the floor two years ago that was defeated."
But the 24-hour waiting period does not apply to the House version of the budget – the most important matter considered by the chamber each year – or amendments that “are not substantive or substantial in nature.”
Filippi said the Rules Committee should have also made it easier to move bills out of House committees. While House rules allow for a discharge petition, they haven’t been used in years. Critics blame the situation on how signatures must be placed on petitions near where the powerful House speaker is positioned on the rostrum.
The Rules Committee approved the new rules governing the House on a 14-to-3 vote, with the three Republican members of the committee voting in opposition. The bill is expected to win approval from the full House next week.
John Marion, executive director of the good government group Common Cause of Rhode Island, called the new 24-hour waiting period for significant changes to bills in committee an important change for the better.
Marion said the revised rules also include more details on a new sexual harassment policy. “But there is still not very much detail in that,” and it needs further work, he said. Marion also lamented how the 24-hour waiting period doesn't apply to the House budget, the most detailed and complex matter taken up in the chamber each year.
Rules Committee Chairman Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) said he was comfortable with having the Rules Committee vote on the revised rules, which were not publicly unveiled prior to the committee meeting. “I believe that this is something that had to be done early in the session for the orderly conduct of business,” he said.
While an unusually large of citizens came to the Statehouse Tuesday to call for more openness and transparency in the legislative process, Corvese said, “There is more concern in certain quarters, politically, regarding the rules.” (That was a reference to how a group of 19 ‘Reform Democrats,’ who abstained from supporting House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello last week, have been vocal in calling for changes to the rules. He noted that many of the Democrats who are now critical of the rules voted for similar rules in the past.)
Alex Kithis of the citizens group Rhode Islanders for Reform pointed to the exceptions in calling the new 24-hour waiting period meaningless.
“It doesn’t apply to the budget and it doesn’t apply if the committee chair deems the change – what was the language that was used, minor?” Kithis said. “Because the committee chairs are appointed and removed by the speaker, and that language allows their complete discretion in deciding what is and isn’t minor, that means that the 24-hour rule can be abandoned in any case that the speaker decides.”
But Corvese dismissed the possibility that legislative chairs would try to sneak legislation through committees under one of the exceptions.
“There’s no chair worth their salt who’s going to play around with that …” he said, “and anyone who does that is obviously putting their chairmanship in jeopardy.”
Three members of the ‘Reform Caucus’ called the new 24-hour waiting period a partial victory.
“I don’t believe you would have seen the House rules in this committee on the fourth day of the legislative session,” without pressure from the caucus, said Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (D-Jamestown). “It’s unprecedented. We asked for 48 hours knowing that it was a reach, but you know how you negotiate – you always settle. So we are thrilled and we thank the House Rules Committee and the speaker for recognizing that the public has a right to know what’s in a bill and legislators need to be able to read that.”
Rep. Kathy Fogarty (D-South Kingstown) acknowledged for voting for the House rules last year, but said concerns grew as the session continued. A major irritant was how a pay equity bill introduced by Rep. Susan Donovan of Bristol was reshaped and returned to the House floor without her advance knowledge.
“We’re going to put our bills in and we’re going to continue to try to get more transparency for the public, for everybody, for all the voters who live in the state of Rhode Island,” Fogarty said. “They deserve that. That’s what we’re doing. We’re not really trying to be some thorn in the speaker’s side. We’re just trying to be transparent.”
Rep. Lauren Carson (D-Newport) said the public is on the side of change. “I’m getting people stopping me on the street in Newport, thanking me for taking this step and standing up for this,” she said. “So let’s be clear. It’s not just 19 or 20 people. There’s a lot of people in Rhode Island who want to see these changes.”