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Business interests can now anonymously testify by text before House Committees?



I just received a text message,” said Representative Robert Phillips, “a pretty lengthy one, so I’m going to paraphrase it if you don’t mind. Obviously this person is against this bill, so I’ll put it out there right now…

It is well known that lobbyists representing anti-worker and anti-climate business interests have access to the Rhode Island General Assembly leadership that the average person will never have. This access is something that most legislators prefer to keep behind closed doors, but occasionally the arrogance of certain members of the General Assembly allow the public a window into this access.

Case in point:

During testimony on House Bill 7399, which would modify the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 and give teeth to the legislation requiring real action on climate change, Representative Robert Phillips (Democrat, District 51, Woonsocket) revealed on an open microphone that lobbyist Lenette Forry-Menard had texted him to let him know that she would be late to the hearing to testify against the bill.

Forry-Menard, who readers might remember for her consistent testimony against raising the minimum wage and other bills that might benefit low-wage Rhode Island workers, arrived at the committee a few minutes after Representative Phillips texted her back. She then proceeded to testify against the climate bill on behalf of the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce (which pays her $3k monthly), the Rhode Island Mortgage Bankers Association (which pays her $25k annually), and one more group she said she was unable to remember. (Perhaps it was the American Petroleum Institute, who pays her $5,160 per month to lobby against environmental initiatives or the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association that pays her $3166 per month for similar services.)

You can see Representative Phillips’ comments about the text and Forry-Menard’s testimony here:

The access certain lobbyists have to Representative Phillips, who is the vice chair of the House Committee on the Environment, does not seem to be the kind of access routinely extended to environmental groups or the average Rhode Island resident, and had the above episode been the only example of of this kind of legislative access Representative Phillips extended to right-wing, anti-climate action business concerns at this hearing I might not be writing this piece.

But Phillips went much further, and his actions at this committee hearing raise serious concerns about his ability to serve the people of this state, rather than the interests of only a few well-connected lobbyists. After testimony from three people in favor of the bill, Phillips revealed that he had received a lengthy text message from someone opposed to the bill.

“I’ve just got to-” began Phillips, before rethinking his words, “I just received a text message – a pretty lengthy one, so I’m going to paraphrase it if you don’t mind. Obviously this person is against this bill, so I’ll put it out there right now – But in essence what they’re asking is… How many of the people who are testifying in favor of this bill have… replaced all their vehicles with electric vehicles or bicycles… [and] have they changed their houses over to non-emissions kinds of houses and there was a third [question] I forget, I’m sorry… But that’s what he wanted to put out there.”

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Phillips did not reveal who the person who sent this text was or what their interest in the bill was, essentially allowing this unknown person the opportunity to testify against the bill anonymously. Also, this unnamed person was given the opportunity, through Phillips, of interrogating those who were testifying on the bill. Under the normal rules of testifying before General Assembly committees, those testifying do not address each other, but the legislators.

Also, this wasn’t a legitimate question to raise. The question was a purity test of the kind often levied at environmental activists. The underlying assumption of the question Phillips was asking on behalf of his unidentified text mate was that it is hypocritical to advocate for systemic changes to environmental and energy policy unless you yourself somehow adopt a perfect, carbon free lifestyle. The arrogance and elitism of the question is obvious: Not everyone can afford to solarize their house and buy an electric vehicle, but everyone suffers if policies don’t change.

Before those testifying could answer Phillips question, Representative Jason Knight (Democrat, District 67, Barrington, Warren) interrupted Phillips.

“Hang on. Hang on,” said Knight. “I just want to interject, because this testifying by text thing is bothersome to me. If a witness wants to testify and come in here and do so, I think that’s appropriate.”

Knight then proceeded to answer Phillips questions from his personal point of view.

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.