The first thing I noticed when I walked out of the State House last Wednesday was the birds chirping: it was 4 a.m. Driving home in the pre-dawn light, I had little of the hope and optimism that I usually feel when I see the sun rise and consider the promise of a new day. Instead, I reflected on the experience I've had since putting my professional life on hold two years ago in an attempt to help improve Rhode Island as a member of the State Senate.
It remains a tremendous honor to have the trust and confidence of my community; and I am proud of my record: engaging in thoughtful debate on substantive issues and responding to the concerns of my constituents in a diligent manner. The legislature itself, however, has been a serious disappointment. New taxes, fees, and tolls for our constituents. Education reform thwarted, despite “graduates” who are not adequately prepared for work or college. More Rhode Islanders out of work now than when we took office. I cannot argue with the man on the street who asks, "What in the world are you people doing up there?"
When I entered the Senate in January 2011, I just couldn't wrap my head around the lack of urgency from the majority to conceive and implement solutions to our state's problems. Despite already having one of the highest unemployment rates in the country on the day we were sworn in, the first few months were generally spent offering resolutions of condolence and congratulation.
While we did nothing to help the taxpayer or the unemployed, the high dollar fundraisers started almost immediately. Priorities, I suppose. So it went, that first year, placing divisive social issues center stage while letting our economy and government stumble along at the status quo. When I shared my frustration at our slow pace with colleagues, I was frequently told to be patient – not much happens here until May or June. With two and half legislative sessions now under my belt, I still can't understand why. Only seven members of the Senate were new this term, and five of us were Republicans. Almost all of the issues being deferred until late in the session had been before the Senate in prior years, and could easily be put to a vote in January, February March, April, or May. One such initiative, championed by my distinguished predecessor in the Senate seat I now hold, is an effort to make legislators subject to the Ethics Commission. This bill has come up empty year after year in the Senate with no committee vote, the same type of quiet death endured by many other good ideas.
The saddest tradition of all at the Rhode Island General Assembly is to hold important legislation, and plenty that is not so important, until the very end of the session. Ultimately, it is all pushed through in a series of very fast, very late nighttime sessions while Rhode Island sleeps. The process that drives this is secret, but the legislative masters fully understand that after midnight, most senators and representatives are too tired to stand up and fight, even if they are so inclined. More importantly, they know no one is watching.
This environment of late nights, backroom deals, and fast-moving bills is what gave us 38 Studios, Deepwater Wind, and countless other bad decisions. Yet even amidst the public outrage over the EDC vaporizing $75 million of taxpayer money, and legislators' only excuse being, "We did not have all the information," there was no inclination to do anything differently this year.
Anyone who stayed up all that Tuesday night into Wednesday morning watching the Senate chamber saw what can only be described as an undignified, undisciplined, and irresponsible approach to our state's governance, and a general lack of thoughtful deliberation given to important public business. This experience generally, and the 3 a.m. vote on the Petrarca Family Auto Body Bill in particular, left me disgusted with the process. As we considered legislation further and further past midnight, my fellow senators were so tired and confused that they offered descriptions of the very bills they were introducing that were just plain inaccurate. I could see the exhaustion in my colleagues' faces, and hear it in their voices if they rose to speak at all. No significant decisions should ever be made in such a manner, never mind the detailed and complex responsibility of running a state government.
Most legislators will run for re-election this year. To those Rhode Islanders who find themselves paying more for taxes, fees, tolls, and auto insurance; to those in our state who cannot find work to support themselves and their families; to those who see their government refusing to treat them with the respect and dignity that comes with every citizen being equal under the law, it is time for you to demand more. Please support candidates for office who will stand up to the way things have been done and fight for the way they should be done. Whether they are Republican or Democrat, a veteran legislator or a rookie candidate, ask your candidate who they are going to endorse to lead their chamber. Will they support the status quo, or will they demand accountability? Despite how it may seem, most legislators are kind, intelligent, and well meaning. What is missing is a general willingness to step away from the herd and take a risk on behalf our citizens. Please elect legislators who are willing to stand up for you, even if it means losing their perks, or even their office, because of it.
* I'd like to thank the Patch editors for the invitation to contribute. This first post is a commentary piece I submitted to various newspapers with some thoughts on my first term in the state Senate. In the future, I promise brevity!