Labor & Business

Problematic Senate minimum wage study commission passes out of committee

“Unwittingly, I gave the Senate President a way to give the proposed commission the appearance of more fairness by putting Senator Ciccone in charge. But the same anti-minimum wage lobbyists were all going to be on the commission, passing judgement, voting on findings, asking misleading questions of those coming in to testify, and contributing to the final report…”
Photo for Problematic Senate minimum wage study commission passes out of committee

Published on May 4, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist

Pardon me for being a little less journalistic here and more personal:

Legislative study commissions at the Rhode Island General Assembly are too often formed to get to a pre-established point of view, and judging by the writing of Senator Leonidas Raptakis (Democrat, District 33, East Greenwich)’s Senate Resolution 2414, which proposes a “Special Legislative Commission to Study and Review Rhode Island’s Minimum Wage,” this is one of those commissions.

The bill, unanimously passed out of the Senate Labor Committee on Wednesday, now goes to the floor for a Senate vote. The bill was altered at the last minute, not in the way it is written but in the way it will be executed upon passage. This happened because I reached out to Senator Samuel Zurier (Democrat, District 3, Providence), who was a sponsor of the bill and is a member of the Senate Labor Committee. I live in Senate District 3, Senator Zurier represents me.

Let me explain what happened:

When initially reading this bill, which has been submitted in one form or another by Senator Raptakis for years, I saw that the proposed membership of the special commission is intentionally stacked with opponents of the minimum wage, including the President of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association (RIMA), the State Director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), and an owner of a local restaurant. Add in a conservative Republican Senator and a couple of conservative Democrats (like the sponsor, Senator Raptakis, or any of the three listed sponsors who may be opposed to minimum wage, such as Senators Frank Lombardi, Frank Lombardo or Steven Archambault), and it becomes obvious that the commission is built to be both unscientific and anti-worker with at least a 6-5 majority against worker’s rights.

And this is exactly the point. Commissions are machines. They can be constructed to find truth, or they can be constructed to find a predetermined answer.

One of the members of the proposed commission is the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, a position currently held by lobbyist Christopher Carlozzi. Carlozzi appears before House and Senate Committees every year to repeat untruths about the minimum wage.

Another member of the proposed commission is Dale Venturini, the President of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association. Venturini both hires lobbyists and lobbies herself against all sorts of worker’s rights bills, including minimum wage, before House and Senate committees.

David Chenevert, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, would also sit on this committee. He has publicly opposed minimum wage increases and other worker’s rights provisions.

Every one of the these people, and Senator Raptakis himself, have spread misinformation about the minimum wage, misinformation that has been debunked in the economic literature for decades.

Dale Venturini and David Chenevert

Beyond stacking the deck with anti-worker advocates, the commission Senator Raptakis is proposing doesn’t have one economist or minimum wage worker on the commission. Only one commission member will be from the public, a person to be chosen by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. In commissions past, when given the option of choosing a “member of the public” the Senate President has chosen people like Senator Harold Metts, who lost his elected position to primary challenger Tiara Mack in 2020. In other words, the “member of the public” is likely to be a politically connected ally to the Senate President.

The proposed commission, as outlined in the Senate Resolution, is an embarrassing attempt to trick Rhode Islanders into believing that a fair and unbiased inquiry is underway.

Wednesday night’s Senate Labor Committee hearing was held in room 211, a room with no cameras. You can’t watch the hearing on Capitol TV, but an audio recording might be made available. I brought in a camera, but the acoustics in the room are pretty bad. The video can be seen below.

The only other person to testify on the bill, Alan Krinsky, a policy analyst with the Economic Progress Institute, had testified much earlier. When it came time to introduce the resolution, the Committee Chair, Senator Frank Ciccone (Democrat, District 7, North Providence) made the unusual decision to have me testify before Senator Raptakis introduced the bill. Normally, a legislator introduces their bill, then the public is invited to testify on it. Reversing the order was unusual.

In my testimony, I basically repeated most of the objections I raised above. After I finished, Senator Ciccone said, “Just to respond, I discussed this bill with leadership yesterday. I will tell you that I was notified that I will chair the commission.”

I should note that it is extremely rare for a study commission to have someone other than the bill’s prime sponsor as the Chair, unless the commission is sponsored by the Senate President or the Speaker.

I have to confess that it took me a moment to realize that this Senator Ciccone was going to chair the commission in whole or in part because of the objections I had shared with Senator Zurier.

Senator Ciccone assured me that he has no predetermined opinions on minimum wage and that he would run a fair commission. I was still catching up.

“Will there be a Sub A?” asked UpriseRI. A ‘Sub A’ would be an amended bill, representing changes to the bill, ostensibly for the better.

“No,” said Senator Ciccone.

“So the same people will be on the committee?” asked UpriseRI.

“The same people will be there but as Chairperson I can bring in any expert necessary,” said Ciccone.

I now realized the bill was going to be passed out of committee. I also realized that had I not brought my objections to the bill to Senator Zurier, the Senate President would have almost undoubtedly made Senator Raptakis the chair of the commission. Unwittingly, I gave the Senate President a way to give the commission the appearance of more fairness by putting Senator Ciccone in charge. But the same anti-minimum wage lobbyists were all going to be on the commission, passing judgement, voting on findings, asking misleading questions of those coming in to testify, and contributing to the final report.

The Senate Labor Committee then passed the bill unanimously. Senator Zurier, who said in an email that he was no longer going to sponsor the resolution and took his name off the bill, voted to pass the bill out of committee, which stunned me. Why take your name off a bill you’re going to vote for, other than to curry favor with leadership?

After the bill passed out of committee, Senator Zurier left the committee room.

When I got home, I had an email in my inbox from Senator Zurier:

“I voted in favor because I believe the significance of the Commission’s findings will depend on the quality of its procedures and the scope and quality of its research and engagement. I also think Senator Ciccone can be an honest broker as Chair. With that said, we will need to watch how it proceeds before I can pass judgment on its results.”

Here’s the video, sorry about the sound:

The full list of people the legislation proposes for the commission:

  • Three senators appointed by the President of the Senate;
  • One Senator appointed by the Minority Leader;
  • The Director of the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, or designee;
  • President of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, or designee;
  • Executive Director of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association (RIMA), or designee;
  • State Director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), or designee;
  • President of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, or designee;
  • A member of the general public, to be appointed by the President of the Senate; and,
  • An owner of a restaurant in Rhode Island, to be appointed by the President of the Senate.

A note on journalism and advocacy:

In general, most reporters don’t testify on bills unless the bills are about issues concerning freedom of speech, freedom of the press, open records, or something like that that directly affects a journalist in the performance of their job. I don’t feel this is enough. Free speech, free press and open government cannot easily exist outside a well functioning democratic governance system that robustly protects the rights of everyone. UpriseRI will always advocate for Democracy, truth, accountability and human rights.

Did you enjoy this article?


More Labor & Business Coverage