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Reform Caucus makes its recommendations for House rules



The Reform Caucus, made up of the Democrats who opposed Representative Nicholas Mattiello (Democrat, District 15, Cranston) as Speaker of the House yesterday, today unveiled their recommendations for changing the House rules, which govern the way legislation makes its way through the process.

“The Reform Caucus is a group of Democrats, some more conservative than others, some moderate, like myself, and some progressive, but we are all joined together for one common goal. And that is to create an open, fair and transparent legislative process,” said Representative Deborah Ruggiero (Democrat, District 74, Jamestown).

The Reform Caucus today presented their four proposed rule changes:

Suspension of Rules: Right now, towards the end of session, the rules governing how bills make their way through committee and are brought to the floor can be suspended if the Speaker of the House and the House Minority Leader (currently Representative Blake Filippi (Republican, District 36, Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly) agree to do so. This results in a chaotic few final days of session, where bills are rushed through and committee meetings are called minutes before they meet, giving the public and the press (and even legislators) no time to understand exactly what bills are moving towards passage and what bills are not. The suspension of rules in the final days of session, says the Reform Caucus, ” hinders the public and legislators’ ability to read bills, process changes, and make thoughtful decisions, bills need to come to the floor earlier in the legislative session.”

Recommendation: Rules may be suspended only by a 2/3 majority of votes in the House. The 2/3 majority allows the rules to be suspended if there is a true need to do so.

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Sub A (Substitute Amendments): Sub A’s are the way the General Assembly differentiates between an original bill and subsequent rewrites. Sometimes Sub A’s are substantially different from the original bill, to the extent that it can completely shift the intent of the bill. “Legislators need to be thoughtful and deliberative and not rushed into last minute votes to end the session,” writes the Reform Caucus. “The public and advocates deserve the same time to review and understand what their government is doing. As legislators, we have a duty to ensure there are no unintended consequences.”

Recommendation: Proposed Sub As shall be posted online and made available to the public for 48 hours prior to any vote in committee or on the floor.

Two-year bills: Right now bills are submitted and if they do not pass, they need to be reintroduced again the following year. The Reform Caucus recommends that bills be kept alive for the full two-year term. “This would provide greater efficiency for the committee process and not force the public to return each year to testify on perennial bills,” writes the Reform Caucus. “This would free up time for committees to work more in depth on legislation and have substantive hearings to debate Sub A proposals.”

Recommendation: Every bill introduced during year one of the legislative term shall remain before the body for consideration in the second and final year of term.

Discharge Petitions: Whenever a bill has the support of the majority of the Representatives (38 or more House members), the bill clearly has enough support to pass the House and deserves a vote. With a discharge petition, a Representative needs to get the signatures of fellow House members to force a bill to the floor. Under current House rules, a Representative cannot carry the petition from desk to desk, asking their fellow legislators to sign. Instead, the discharge petition must be left on the desk under the Speaker’s dais, where he can watch who signs with a disapproving eye.

Recommendation: Any prime sponsor of a bill would be allowed to circulate a separate discharge petition. If the sponsor has gathered 38 or more signatures on the petition, then the bill would be brought up through the regular committee hearing process. The committee would vote to either recommend that the full House pass or send the bill to the floor without recommendation. The committee would not be able to hold the bill for further study. Then the bill would proceed to the floor for a vote. Importantly, the sponsor of the bill could obtain signatures for the discharge petition in the normal course of business. The petition would not have to “sit on the desk” which is the current rule.

The Reform Caucus also supports creating an Office of Inspector General and enacting a Line-Item Veto.

As described by legislators supporting the idea last year, an Office of Inspector General would serve “as an independent organization designed to investigate and root out any allegations of abuse, fraud, waste, or mismanagement of public funds at the federal, state, and local level. The inspector general will have the power to subpoena records and testimony from government agencies, quasi-public bodies, and contractors receiving public funds.

“If the inspector general’s office discovers fraud or abuse, they will work with the attorney general to file civil or criminal charges.”

A line-item veto would allow the Governor of Rhode island to reject or veto individual provisions of a bill.

The Reform Caucus consists of Representatives Edith Ajello (Democrat, District 1, Providence), Moira Walsh (Democrat, District 3, Providence), Rebecca Kislak (Democrat, District 4, Providence), Raymond Hull (Democrat, District 6, Providence), John Lombardi (Democrat, District 8, Providence), Joseph Almeida (Democrat, District 12, Providence), Arthur Handy (Democrat, District 18, Cranston), Justine Caldwell (Democrat, District 30, East Greenwich), Teresa Tanzi (Democrat, District 34, Narragansett, South Kingstown), Kathleen Fogarty (Democrat, District 35, South Kingstown), Mary Messier (Democrat, District 62, Pawtucket), Katherine Kazarian (Democrat, District 63, East Providence), Liana Cassar (Democrat, District 66, Barrington, East Providence), Jason Knight (Democrat, District 67, Barrington, Warren), Susan Donovan (Democrat, District 69, Bristol), Terri-Denise Cortvriend (Democrat, District 72, Portsmouth), Deborah Ruggiero (Democrat, District 74, Jamestown) and Lauren Carson (Democrat, District 75, Newport).

As this story went to press I learned that Representative Katherine Kazarian was removed from the House Committee on Rules.

Rebecca Kislak
Katherine Kazarian
Jason Knight
Liana Cassar

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.