The 2016 Rhode Island General Assembly session kicks off tomorrow. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay has a preview of what to expect and some New Year's resolutions to suggest to the returning lawmakers.
As predictable as a winter chill, lawmakers throng Smith Hill tomorrow for the new year. There will be the usual mélange of grandstanding, pomposity and first-day-of- school style greetings.
On opening day, they’ll do little more than say hello, reclaim their seats and adjourn. Then head to one of Providence’s fine eateries or watering holes to get seriously re-acquainted for the session.
It is neither the best nor the worst of times for Rhode Island. The economy has made a comeback from the ghastly recession. Yet our state hasn’t gotten all the jobs that were lost after the 2008 Wall Street crash. Our neighbors in Connecticut and Massachusetts have.
This we know: the cast of characters remains the same. Governor Gina Raimondo, House Speaker Nick Mattiello, and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed all return. This trio is good at the political minuet of publicly showing a united front. When the cameras are rolling and the media present, they pledge to work together for the betterment of the Ocean State. But when the oak doors close at the Statehouse, they bicker like pre-schoolers in the sandbox.
Exhibit A is the state’s infrastructure woes. The leadership was great at the news conference under the crumbling bridge; not so good at hammering out a solution. When we last saw them in June, the House refused to enact Raimondo’s truck toll plan that would have raised the money to fix roads and bridges.
Since the crash of the toll plan, there has been much talk about resurrecting a repair program. Yet the details are fuzzy as the morning after New Year’s Eve. Now might be the time for the governor to give the House the details, including locations of tolling gantries, that Mattiello wants so his members don’t have to vote on blind faith on an issue that could be used against them at the polls in November.
After the 38 Studios fiasco, there isn’t much stomach at the Statehouse for trusting the lobbyists or the governor. That will be particularly true in an election year, when every lawmaker’s seat is up but the governor isn’t.
Speaking of 38 Studios, it is well past time for Rhode Island to put this relic of the Don Carcieri-Gordon Fox era behind us. The House Oversight Committee should wrap up the hearings quickly, so that whatever they are trying to decipher doesn’t hamper the state’s strong legal case to recover money from the financial advisers who helped Carcieri and Fox foist this deal on our state’s hard-pressed taxpayers. Curt Schilling, especially, should not be given a stage to generate sympathy for himself while the state’s suit against him is pending. Rhode Island has already recouped about $17 million from law firms due to the lawsuit and is on track to get millions more if lawmakers don’t mess it up.
Lawmakers should move quickly to fix the huge loophole they left in the state’s Good Samaritan when they hastily adjourned last year. This provision protects citizens from prosecution when they alert emergency services if someone is in danger of a drug overdose. At a time of rampant opioid abuse, this measure is crucial.
It’s also time for a serious debate about legalizing pot, a la Colorado and other states. Why not be the first New England state to do this and harvest the tax revenues that will flow to the state? It is inevitable that the Ocean State will take this route after another New England state does so, particularly if it is Massachusetts. There would no way to stop legal marijuana from spilling over from Massachusetts to Rhode Island, so why not be first with a regulation and taxing plan?
This session will hopefully address in a thoughtful way the cost of health care and the future of HealthSourceRI, the Obamacare program. And dig into education issues, with an emphasis on sorting out the financial implications of the charter school movement. Maybe it’s time to limit the number of charter schools until a path can be cleared for ensuring that these experimental schools don’t drain money from the rest of public education.
Don’t hold your breath on this one, but hopefully, lawmakers will find a way to put themselves back under the umbrella of state ethics and campaign finance laws in a manner the public finds reasonable.
This is probably too much to wish for, but it would also be wonderful if the Assembly leaders could avoid the last-minute rush to pass hundreds of measures in the wee hours when rules are out the window and lawmakers haven’t a clue on what they are voting for.
In 1907, a liberal reformer from Providence’s East Side began his first term in the House. A Brown University professor and lawyer, he was appalled by the Assembly’s last minute shenanigans and tried in vain to stop it.
The rep was Theodore Francis Green, who would later become the state’s New Deal Democratic governor and U.S. Senator. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:40 and 8:40 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org