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An old law for a different time: We need the General Assembly, not the DEFB



Is the decision to convene the Disaster Emergency Funding Board instead of opening the entire General Assembly online a calculated, political move?

The section of state law that established the possibility of convening a Disaster Emergency Funding Board (DEFB) was written in 1975, during the cold war. The law is under “Military Affairs and Defense” because, let’s face it, back then the most likely disaster was some kind of limited nuclear war or other military attack. The idea behind the law was for Rhode Island to be able to convene a small group of legislators to do the important work of borrowing emergency cash if some large scale disaster prevented the full, or at least a quorum of legislators, from getting to the State House.

The present COVID-19 pandemic would certainly have met the criteria to convene the DEFB in 1973, but today, in 2020, there is no need to, because today we have the Internet. Today, we have the technology to convene important meetings online, whether by Zoom or phone or any other of may technologies unimaginable in the days of rotary phones.

The government is well aware of this. Governor Gina Raimondo‘s executive order that alters the Open Meetings Act and allows for boards, commissions and legislatures to convene online, and establishes some protections for Rhode Island residents to be involved. It should be noted here that when the General Assembly passed the Open Meetings Act, they exempted themselves.

At yesterday’s online daily press briefing, UpriseRI asked Governor Raimondo why the state is convening the DEFB when the state could call the full General Assembly together online. Raimondo dodged the question as to why and merely restated what she was doing:

We need to access a line of credit for the state the same way that most businesses are accessing a line of credit,” said Governor Raimondo. “There’s a statute, a law on the books, that provides for the Disaster Relief Funding Board to be used in exactly this scenario. So I have requested that the leadership convene that board and do the work that’s necessary.

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Both House Minority Leader Blake Filippi and the Rhode Island Republican Party have objected to convening the DEFB, but for different reasons. State Senator Sam Bell has also registered concerns about not convening the full General Assembly to help deal with the crisis.

Rhode Island functions best as a Democracy, not an oligarchy. We need the full force of the General Assembly to tackle the big issues and big questions facing the state during the COVID-19 pandemic. I wrote the following on Facebook yesterday:

Is the decision to convene the Disaster Emergency Funding Board (DEFB) instead of opening the entire General Assembly online a calculated, political move? If the General Assembly opened online, with most people sitting at home, and all meetings broadcast (not just some) and public participation available by phone or Zoom or email, it may be one of the most closely monitored General Assembly sessions ever.

In the midst of the current crisis, when much of what passes for standard politics has failed, or would be immensely unpopular (think tax cuts for the rich and further cuts to Medicaid, for example) would a push to the left be uncontrollable, unstoppable during a more open General Assembly process?

Think about what needs to pass: A path to $15, better medical coverage for Rhode Islanders, paid sick leave for all, higher pay for elder and child care workers, a more robust online presence for political bodies… the list is endless, and the list is not filled with ideas conservatives like our General Assembly leaders would like.

Better, it would seem from their perspective, to prevent the General Assembly from meeting until sometime after the crisis is resolved, and only allow four people – the Speaker of the House, the Senate President and the two Finance Committee chairs – to meet and decide on everything, that way their conservative political ideologies can be protected from this singular point in time.

The Disaster Emergency Funding Board is meeting today, Thursday, March 26 at 11:30am. You can watch online here.

Here’s the agenda with instructions on how to participate by email.

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.