“It is holding itself out to be something to exercise the authority of the House. The Speaker’s gone on radio and said, this Task Force is going to exercise the House’s constitutional oversight function. So it’s essentially standing there and saying that it is speaking on behalf of the House when it has no legal authority to do it, and all that this committee is doing is giving the perception that the legislature is doing its job when it’s simply not.”
Right towards the end of the nearly three hour hearing of the new Joint Legislative COVID-19 Emergency Spending Task Force, House Minority Leader Blake Filippi (Republican, District 36, Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly) got his hands on a microphone and raised a point of order, asking to be recognized. As House Minority Leader, Filippi is an ex officio member of all House Committees, so his presence at this committee was completely proper.
“You are an ex officio member of the House Finance Committee, that is true,” said Representative Marvin Abney (Democrat, District 73, Newport), who along with Senator William Conley (Democrat, District 18, East Providence) chairs the Joint Legislative Task Force. “But this is a joint committee that’s been appointed by the Speaker and the Senate President and as such, clearly we had on the announcement that we weren’t taking any public testimony and because both the Speaker and the President appointed people to do that. I’m going to overrule your, your, your, your, uh, your point of order.”
Filippi protested, but Abney would not back down.
“I appreciate the Chairman. I think we should follow our rules and the law and I think it’s unfortunate that we’re not,” said Filippi.
The Joint Legislative Task Force was ostensibly formed to review the Raimondo Administration’s “emergency spending on the COVID-19 response, including administration testimony on the emergency declaration timeline and executive emergency authority, expenditure and encumbrance data, and prioritization process and distribution of resources.” Reviewing State spending of money is a routine function of the House Oversight Committee, which Republicans in the House have been calling on House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (Democrat, District 15 Cranston) to call into session. Instead, Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence) created the Joint Task Force.
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I spoke to Leader Filippi by phone about what happened at the Task Force meeting, and about the General Assembly during this pandemic.
UpriseRI: I was watching the Joint Legislative COVID-19 Emergency Spending Task Force last night and I think I was almost falling asleep and then all of a sudden you got up to speak and then I was suddenly very much awake. So you were in the room from the beginning? How long were you trying to get the attention of the Chairs?
Filippi: I literally got there right as the introductions were being made. So I was there for the whole meeting. And so probably for about an hour and a half, I was trying to get Chair Abney’s attention. I then, you know, when the cameras weren’t on, I walked up to Abney, I said, Chairman Abney, are you’re going to call on me? And he’s like, no, this is a Task Force. You’re not a member of this committee, this is Task Force. You’re not on it. I’m like, Chairman, this is a committee. I’m ex-officio. If you don’t call on me, I’m going to call you to order. The choice is yours. I don’t want to embarrass anybody, but if you don’t call on me, I’m going to be calling you to order. And I gave him another half hour where he didn’t recognize me and then I raised that point of order.
UpriseRI: You later went on Twitter and called this an unlawful meeting.
Filippi: Yes. It doesn’t exist. There’s no lawful establishment. There’s no legal authority to establish this committee.
Amazing the Speaker would use an unlawful “task force” – which he has no legal authority to create – to review Govt’ spending during this crisis, rather than our lawfully constituted Oversight Committee. Lawmakers breaking laws is the height of hypocrisy. https://t.co/TTkOJ7YWcB— Rep. Blake Filippi (@Blake_Filippi) May 1, 2020
UpriseRI: So does this happen a lot? Because I see other joint tasks forces, or joint committees anyway, and you’re a member of those committees no problem, right?
Filippi: I’m a member of all committees, except study commissions that are formed by a resolution.
UpriseRI: My point being that like if there was another joint committee formed, you would be a member of that with no problem.
Filippi: Definitely. That’s why they’re calling it a Task Force. It doesn’t have any of the trappings of the office. You look at our Rules, the House has the constitutional authority for oversight. We delegate some of that authority to the Speaker and our Rules. We never delegated him the ability to create informal task forces, only given the ability to create committees. And that includes the joint committee where there’s a committee of the House and a committee of the Senate.
UpriseRI: Now leadership didn’t call the House Oversight Committee or the Senate Oversight Committee and put together a joint committee of those two, which would have been completely possible…
Filippi: Completely. And we’ve called for House Oversight to reconvene and issues a letter with 24 items that it needs to oversee.
Speaker has stated publicly this “task force” will exercise House’s constitutional oversight function. That awesome power can only be wielded by our House Rules, which don’t allow “task forces” – they only allow him to create committee which I serve on per 11(b). #illegitimate https://t.co/qQiI12qCBq— Rep. Blake Filippi (@Blake_Filippi) May 1, 2020
UpriseRI: I’ve seen that letter. So, by calling an informal committee, this is a committee that basically no teeth has no ability to do anything, correct?
Filippi: Correct. But, here’s, I think, the insidious nature nature of it. It is holding itself out to be something to exercise the authority of the House. The Speaker’s gone on radio and said, this Task Force is going to exercise the House’s constitutional oversight function. So it’s essentially standing there and saying that it is speaking on behalf of the House when it has no legal authority to do it, and all that this committee is doing is giving the perception that the legislature is doing its job when it’s simply not.
UpriseRI: I noticed that some of the questions to the administration officials, in my opinion, had the appearance of being insightful and confrontational, but they really weren’t. There was not really that much going on with these questions. Does that make sense?
Filippi: Yeah. And maybe Administration’s just playing along because they know they’re in front of a kangaroo court. It’s like, let’s let’s play along with this fiction, this farce, because we sure as heck don’t want to actually be called in front of a lawful committee, where there’s all these rules governing what we can and can’t say.
UpriseRI: What kinds of questions do you think a lawful committee could have brought that weren’t brought last night?
Filippi: I think like a lawful committee would be looking at the 24 items we’ve highlighted. One question I have is: Why can I go to Walmart, but I can’t go to the 5,000 acre Arcadia Park? What’s the rationale for these things that severely restrict the freedoms of the people? It’s like, whether you’re religious or not, we all agree it’s a fundamental constitutional right, whatever you believe, I don’t care, but we’ve taken away people’s ability to go to church, but they can go to the Home Depot. I want to understand the basis for this. I want public explanations and a serious inquiry to get to the truth of the matter.
Filippi: I really want to dig into the $1.25 billion of federal money. This whole meeting was looking back at what have we done. I want to know what’s the plan going forward. What are the controls on this money? And a a lot of my questioning was going to be, what is the plan for this money? How is the procurement process going to work? Who’s responsible, what type of disclosure? I also want to ask about the field hospitals.
UpriseRI: Because they cost a lot and they might not be used, because it looks like we won’t need them?
Filippi: I don’t really mind using the North Kingstown Lowe‘s and the Convention Center. At first when I heard it, I was like, Oh, that’s cool. But then I had conversations with people and they explained it to me: The Convention Center is always in the red. We’re going to have to appropriate money to bring it up to the black no matter what, but we can now use federal money, part of that $1.25 billion to pay the lease to the Convention Center, which is going to reduce the amount of money you’re going to have to appropriate. You know what? That actually makes sense, right? The North Kingstown Lowe’s, that’s a subsidiary of the Quonsett Development Corporation, a subsidiary of Commerce, that’s putting more money in the state agency’s pocket. That’s less money we’re going to have to appropriate. I want to know what the procurement process was for the private developer who we’re leasing office space from.
Filippi: Like Carpionato Group. Great company, good people. But were there other state or local facilities we could have used? Could we have used Hope High School? Pay the City of Providence a ton of money to lease it. A ton of federal money. So lease Hope High School put a field hospital there, and then the City which is strapped for cash, which needs it, which we’re going to have to subsidize anyway with state aid up to $300 million a year. We could have paid the City of Providence $30 million for Hope High School, federal money, and that would be $30 million less we’d have to appropriate in this year’s budget.
UpriseRI: That all seems to make sense. I was also concerned because I had questions about what we can and can’t use this federal money for. And when I put these questions to the administration, I’m told, Oh, we can’t use this money to, let’s say, give emergency pay to frontline workers, right? Why can’t we help out people who are on the front lines and who have to work, give them a little extra money? Because right now, if you sit at home unemployed, you get an extra 600 bucks a week. But if you go to work at a healthcare facility, if your job is helping people on the front lines, you don’t get any extra money.
You’re getting paid less than if you were laid off. So I was like, so could we use some of this $1.25 billion to help out like a person working on a rescue, or a person helping people in a shelter or something? And I’m being told, well the money is not for that. But then it turns out, yeah, some of the money could be for that. That was a question Representative Paolino brought up at the Task Force early on, but then it didn’t go anywhere.
Filippi: You can imagine if we had a real, robust Oversight Committee Hearing with very diverse views, you know, on the House Oversight Committee you have everyone from Mike Chippendale to Anastasia Williams on it. You got a lot of different views and that’s what we do. That’s what we’ve learned over the years is how to do proper oversight. The Oversight Committees is schooled at that and had a lot of practice.
UpriseRI: So early on during the Task Force I put out a kind of a snarky Tweet about Marvin Abney because he opened the Committee and said that even though the General Assembly has not been meeting, they’ve been doing a lot during this pandemic and the stuff he noted that they’re doing isn’t anything that we elected our General Assembly members to do.
“We as legislators have been playing an important role,” says House Finance Chair Marvin Abney, but not as Representatives, apparently.— Steve Ahlquist (@steveahlquist) April 30, 2020
Filippi: It’s all the Speaker and the Senate President. I’m an assembly member, I’m not getting grief.
UpriseRI: Right. Representative Abney said, here’s a bunch of things that the General Assembly is doing, and it’s stuff like, they’re delivering groceries and they’re listening to the constituents and stuff like that. But this isn’t exactly what we pay them for or elect them to do. We elect them to go in and run the General Assembly. Govern. So what do you think about that? What have you been doing and do you think the General Assembly is doing its job?
Filippi: The General Assembly clearly is not doing its most critical function. Its most critical function is oversight during this time of emergency. We are the statutory oversight of the Governor’s near unbridled authority. She can make law by executive order backed up by criminal penalties. That is an incredible power that should never be wielded by one person without restrictions or oversight. And that’s the House and the Senate Oversight’s job. So our most critical function, we’ve walked off the field and our members are delivering groceries. It’s a complete cop-out.
I think it’s absolutely shocking that in the most critical time in a generation, where the State faces the most challenges it has faced in a generation, that our General Assembly leaders would put up the farce of oversight with some informal, non-legal entity. It’s shocking that they would insult the people of Rhode Island like that by putting up something that doesn’t even have legal status to review the governor’s actions. It just shows they’re not taking this seriously or they do not want proper checks and balances within government.
UpriseRI: I know you’ve currently have a lawsuit about the JCLS. Are you considering a lawsuit over this joint committee or is that kind of moot?
Filippi: No. I know the courts would never get involved in the internal rules of the house. But the JCLS issue is different because it’s a committee established in statute. It’s in the law. The the Speaker is violating the House Rules, the court would never get involved in.
UpriseRI: It seemed to me that even if the court were to get involved, the Task Force accomplished so little that there’s no real harm.
Filippi: Yeah. What’s the remedy? They’re gonna say, listen, don’t meet? They just can’t even fashion a remedy even if it was just justiciable.
UpriseRI: I was thinking about it last night. It’d be like charging cotton candy, it just disappears as you eat it, you know?
Filippi: It’s funny, I had Democrat members reach out to me after the Task Force, members of the Democratic caucus, even members of his leadership team, saying, thank you for doing that. Saying, he doesn’t have the authority. That’s the House’s power. Everything I just spoke about, actually reaching out to me and I’m like why don’t you guys do something about it? You know I’m here raising these issues and you’re on your leadership team. He should listen to you, but you guys are just signing! There comes a point where you have to stand up for the rule of law and like stand up for your constituents. When you ran for office, if you told the people whose vote you’re asking for that,you’re going to go up there and just lay down and do whatever the Speaker says, they wouldn’t have elected you.
UpriseRI: Well I think in some districts that might help, but yeah, you’re right about that. This is what the whole critique against the Speaker two years ago was based on. It’s like, wait a minute, we’re electing a person to represent us, not to support the Speaker, and I just don’t get the cowardice that’s going on here. It’s just crazy.
Filippi: Yeah. A total abdication of responsibility. The Speaker’s abdicated his responsibility to the people of Rhode Island and to the members of the House and the members of the House have abdicated their responsibility to their constituents by letting the Speaker get away with it so blatantly.
UpriseRI: Well, thank you. This has been really helpful and I really appreciate the call.
Filippi: I love what you do, Steve. We’re on obviously on the other side of some social issues, but it’s so good to see you out there kicking ass, man. It’s just awesome.
UpriseRI: I feel the same way. It’s great when we can get together, at least on good government issues.
In response to a query about Filippi’s comment during the Joint Task Force, House Spokesperson Larry Berman sent the following comment:
“The House, Senate and Governor have a long history of creating task forces and commissions that meet to review relevant issues. Leader Filippi is referring to a House rule that the Speaker, Majority Leader and Minority Leader are ex-officio members of all House standing committees. This is not a committee solely created by the House, but a joint House and Senate task force that is reviewing a very serious issue of the state’s spending of hundreds of millions of dollars. The Senate President and House Speaker each appointed a member of the minority party to this task force. Unfortunately, Leader Filippi interrupted a very serious meeting and erroneously referred to a House rule that does not apply. While the members were adhering to Department of Health regulations, he inappropriately added his presence to the room and compromised their ability to properly keep a social distance. This task force will continue to focus its attention on an unprecedented health crisis that is causing great strain on the state’s economy.”
Here’s a picture of Speaker Nicholas Mattiello inappropriately adding his presence to the room and compromising the ability of the Joint Task Force to properly keep a social distance: