By Dee DeQuattro
Moderate Party Chairman Ken Block is right: Something in the state legislature needs to change, but what is it?
Block says we need to cut the six month a year session back to three months. He makes the argument that because of the overwhelming time commitment in the General Assembly many businesses and professions are not represented. He uses information from the National Conference of State Legislatures to show that 30 states meet for a shorter session than Rhode Island. Block argues that Rhode Island’s General Assembly lends itself to attorneys but many other professionals are unable to make the time commitment.
The over representation of attorneys in the RI General Assembly, particularly defense attorneys, probably has some bearing on why Rhode Island tends to be lenient on criminals, for instance the “Good Time Law” but that is another case for another time. There is a benefit to having attorneys in the legislature, more than anyone (besides maybe a judge), these people are trained in reading and interpreting the law which is a skill that naturally lends itself to “making the law.”
But Block is right: there is a benefit to having more professions represented in the General Assembly but is the three month session the answer?
Block has some valid points but there are proponents on the other side of the issue too. In the past, recently retired Senator John Tassoni has tried to make the case for a full time legislature. He said that being a legislature is a big commitment and if lawmakers were full time they could truly focus on the business of the government. Full time legislators would not have to recuse themselves from legislation that would benefit them professionally since they would not have other full-time jobs. This might help cut down on some of the special interests. On the other hand, the last thing most Rhode Islanders want is more career politicians.
The only way a fulltime legislature could work is if the state cut down the number of lawmakers, which, could run the risk of disenfranchising voters who may not feel adequately represented. It also could encourage a more prominent aristocratic sentiment among lawmakers, exactly what we don’t need. We already have too many elected officials pulling the “do you know who I am, card.”
That brings us to the third option, a legislature that meets biennially. Three states have biennial legislatures: Montana, Nevada, and North Dakota.
If the Rhode Island legislature were to meet once every two years instead of every year there would be some real concrete benefits. First, how many laws do we possibly need. It’s always amazing how many frivolous laws the state manages to invent in the six month legislative period. Second, our lawmakers could spend the time between sessions actually vetting out legislation, studying the impact of proposed bills and actually reading potential bills. Not to mention costs. The state would save on legislative staffers, on vehicles for the Senate President and House Speaker and on other costs incurred when the legislative body meets.
The state would be disadvantaged when it comes to addressing immediate issues, however, a biennial legislature would not mean the state couldn’t call a special session as we have in the past ie: pensions. Rhode Island would be slower to react to Federal Laws that need state compliance however it is very rare that the Federal Government demands IMMEDIATE compliance. In fact it is very rare that even with an annual legislature that anything would happen immediately.
A biennial legislature may also be more conducive to professionals who cannot commit 6 months out of every year but could commit 6 months every two years.
The truth of the matter is whether they cut the session or expand the session something has got to give. The current system lacks transparency and it is frustrating to Rhode Islanders to watch legislation get pushed through at all hours of the night.
I can imagine it is frustrating to lawmakers too who have families and personal lives. If anything lawmakers need to at least revisit the legislative process in Rhode Island since the suspending of rules in the final hours of the legislature has led to nothing but chaos, frustration, and confusion.
Health & Wellness
News & Tips for staying fit in the Ocean State
Free, local print & mobile savings
Go Green RI
News & Tips for sustainable living in Rhode Island
RI Pet Center
News & Features especially for animal lovers