2015-05-14 / Opinion

Crunch Time at the Statehouse

Every year at this time, we begin to hear from one news source or another that it’s “crunch time” at the Rhode Island General Assembly.

The term “crunch time,” of course, may mean different things to different people. If a legislator's bill wins approval in both the House and Senate, crunch time is a good time. If not, things may not be so good.

Many Rhode Islanders, it often seems, look down their noses at the state's legislature. Too many Democrats, some say. Just a part-time political playground where the insiders always win and everyone else loses, goes another often heard, and unfair, lament.

As for being part-time, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a legislative advocacy organization, puts Rhode Island’s legislature with Vermont, Maine and seven other states as “Gold Lite” states. These are states that the organization calls mostly “traditional” with relatively small staffs and lawmakers who must work at other jobs as well to make a living. New Hampshire is fully “Gold” with low-paid legislators, according to NCSL.

In contrast, NCSL describes neighboring Massachusetts as a “Green Lite” state with well-paid larger staffs and full-time lawmakers. NCSL lists 10 “Green” states, with Massachusetts the only one in New England. Connecticut’s legislature sits in the “Gray,” or “hybrid,” column.

Rhode Island lawmakers begin each annual session on the first Tuesday in January and most sessions are done by late June. As far as we’re concerned, that’s time enough to get necessary state business done.

We say that because experts in these matters all pretty much agree that Rhode Island’s General Assembly may be the strongest state lawmaking body in all of the United States. That is, strong relative to the power of the governor.

Rhode Island’s chief executive may be full-time and may be accorded the personal respect that is appropriate for a governor.

But when it comes to power and authority, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is the kingpin and Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, despite being a Democrat in a heavily Democratic state, is not. One of the big reasons for that is that under Rhode Island’s system, the House–and in particular the House Finance Committee–annually gets the governor’s state budget proposal and has its way with it. The Senate, and its finance panel, usually gets the budget from the House with little time to make major adjustments before adjournment. Of course, that’s not to say that House and Senate Democratic leaders do not confer much earlier about what each branch’s majority party wants in the document, because they do. Unlike 44 other governors, Rhode Island’s chief executive does not have line-item veto power over the legislature’s final budget product.

Does the system work? Mostly, we say.

And, it always has. On May 4, 1776, the Rhode Island General Assembly formally renounced its allegiance to the British Empire. We were the first of the 13 colonies to do so.

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