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Editorial & Opinion

Who Gets Heard at the State House?



Last April, Karen Baldwin lobbied the General Assembly about a new employment benefit law. There is nothing unusual about lobbyists—usually hired guns—in the State House. What was different was this time it was a direct support professional and a working mother, who took time out of her exhausting schedule to make her case to our state’s elected representatives.

Because Karen, and others like her, exercised their rights as citizens, the General Assembly passed a law that will entitle 100,000 Rhode Islanders to be able to care for a sick child or parent without fear of losing their job.

But that’s not the norm. Well-connected lobbyists know every corridor and backroom in the State House. They patrol the committee rooms, on guard against any attempt to change a law that favors their clients. And their regular campaign contributions ensure privileged access to State House decision-makers.

Citizens like Karen Baldwin do not have the same presence. In ways big and small, the system is rigged against them. The legislature meets on weekdays and begins in the mid-afternoon—when regular people have to be at work. When committee hearings go late into the night, parents with young children must leave. Even when everyday people get through the structural barriers that favor special interests, they run into practical problems.

We are not going to invert the status quo overnight, but new legislation that I am proposing begins to level the playing field and make it easier for Rhode Islanders who can’t afford a State House lobbyist to make their voices heard.

Can we please ask a favor?

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Starting with transportation. Today, it’s difficult for those without special passes to park their car anywhere near the State House. Let’s reserve the necessary free parking spaces for everyday people, not political professionals at the State House, and ensure easier access by bus to the people’s house.

We should also provide child care at the State House when the legislature is in session during long committee hours, so parents can make their voices heard, knowing their children are being looked after.

Transportation and child care are not the only impediments to getting to the State House. That is why we should allow Rhode Islanders to submit remote public testimony at committee hearings. States including Nevada, Washington and Colorado are experimenting with ways videoconferencing can enhance public voice. We, too, should use technology to make our democratic institutions more accessible.

Now let’s talk about the biggest problem: money. Every day after the legislative session adjourns, the fundraisers begin. Money changes hands, and in return lobbyists push the agendas of their clients. We can and should prohibit lobbyists from making contributions to members of the General Assembly during the legislative session, and reduce the yearly amount they can contribute.

Collectively, these measures will make practical progress toward putting regular people on equal footing with special interests.

To be sure, they will not solve every problem in the State House. Unequal distribution of wealth, the catastrophic Citizens United court decision and other structural inequalities give powerful forces great advantages.

But there are common sense reforms we can make to begin to level the playing field. Let’s change the rules so we hear more from the Karen Baldwins of our state, and less from hired corporate lobbyists.

Aaron Regunberg is a former Rhode Island state representative. In 2018 he ran for lieutenant governor on a bold progressive platform, earning 49 percent in the statewide primary. He currently serves as Senior Advisor on Policy to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.

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