Last week the Senate Rules Committee unanimously voted to send the newly revised Senate Rules to the Senate floor, recommending passage. It was a meeting that lasted over three hours, as Senators Donna Nesselbush (Democrat, District 15, Pawtucket) and Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence) spent quite a bit of time going through the complex bill and challenging everything from the elimination of the filibuster to the Senate President’s ability to remove Senators from committee assignments “with cause.”
The public also testified, including this reporter, who added some context to a rule that would allow committee chairs to remove cameras from the room in the event that the cameras blocked doorways or caused a “distraction.” Distraction, I said, needs to be defined more clearly.
The public was there because in recent years advocates for a variety of issues have come to realize that the rules that govern the way the House and Senate conduct its business and the way power becomes concentrated not in a democratically elected and accountable legislative body but in the hands of the Speaker of the House and the Senate President, has repercussions that impede the progress of important legislation, whether that legislation concerns economic, environmental or social issues.
John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island and Steven Brown of the Rhode Island ACLU both testified on the bill, recommending changes and highlighting issues. Brown noted that the ACLU was not fond of the part of the legislation that bans the public from bringing signs into committee hearings.
Rhode Islanders for Reform a group of Rhode Islanders concerned about fair process in the General Assembly, calls the new rules a “power grab” by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence). They are encouraging people to attend Wednesday’s Senate floor vote in the Senate Gallery, “to keep the pressure on as the Senate deliberates over the new rules package, and stand in solidarity for all floor amendments that reverse the damage President Ruggerio is trying to inflict.”
You can see the Rhode Islanders for Reform event here.
Senator Bell sent the following statement explaining some of his opposition to the proposed rules:
“On Wednesday, we have a big vote coming up: the Senate rules that consolidate power in the hands of the Senate President.
“Leadership has changed this proposal a bit. They dropped the vote-changing and rules suspension changes, but they kept the most important ones. They still abolish the filibuster by setting a 5-minute timeline, which fundamentally changes the Senate.
“But most importantly, they double down on the proposal to remove Senators from committees, making it much worse. The big change is that now when the Senate President removes Senators from committees, it carries a determination of personal wrongdoing.
“If this passes, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio will, on his own, be able to decide which Senators deserve to be punished for personal misconduct by getting kicked off our committees. And letting Ruggerio be the sole judge of Senatorial wrongdoing is more concerning than letting him kick people off committees for political reasons.
“If Ruggerio were someone of unimpeachable integrity and scrupulous ethics, it would be bad enough. But he isn’t. He has perhaps the worst record of misconduct in office of anyone in the Senate.
“His history is very long, but here are a few of the highlights: He vandalized a car of a businessman who wouldn’t meet with him by scratching up the paint with his keys. According to the businessman’s account, he told him that he’d “take care of” him if he reported it. He did. The court ordered Ruggerio to pay restitution, but they mysteriously forgot to collect within the one-year timeline. Ruggerio refused to pay, saying “it will be a cold day in Hell before I pay for something I didn’t do.”
“He got a special low-interest mortgage on his home–an interest rate not available to people without political connections. One of the conditions of the mortgage was that he use the house as his primary residence. But there was a problem–the house was in Smithfield, far away from his district. After AG Arlene Violet’s investigation, he had to pay it back and refinance at market rate.
“Famously, he was also arrested for shoplifting condoms from a CVS. Unusually, both CVS and the Cranston Police chose not to press charges. And the he had his office raided in Rhode Island’s last major mob bust, but charges were only filed against lower-level people in the organization. A few years ago, Ruggerio was pulled over for a DUI, and another Senator pulled up to the scene to threaten the Barrington Police with pension cuts, saying: “You think you got pension problems now? This guy voted against you the last time. It ain’t gonna get any fucking better now.”
“These things are quite a bit more serious than the kind of things that Ruggerio might kick people off committees for. (He’s suggested he’d use it for campaign finance violations.) I really think it’s hypocritical for him to ask to be the sole judge of misconduct.
“And there’s an easy fix to this: just make the Senate vote to remove people from our committees. Our state constitution reserves for the whole Senate the power to “punish contempts” and “punish its members for disorderly behavior.” Constitutionally, Ruggerio can be given the power to kick Senators off our committees for purely political reasons, but if it’s a punishment, then the whole Senate has to vote. So we should just let the Senate vote.
“I understand that Ruggerio’s ethics issues are an awkward subject for many of my colleagues. But we can’t pretend that this issue doesn’t exist. So please contact your Senators and ask them to vote no on these rules. If enough Senators commit to voting no, then Leadership will have to back down.”
Sadly, the camera in the room during the Senate Rules Committee hearing failed me, and all the footage was lost.
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