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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron): Time to let good ideas have a fair fight

June 11, 2012

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@jim_baron) know I was getting a bit churlish during the budget debate in the House of Representatives as late Thursday night slogged into early Friday morning.
I want to apologize for that, or at least explain myself, because I realize now, having finally gotten several good hours of sleep, that I was misplacing my anger at the well-meaning representatives who were persevering in the righteous cause of offering amendment after amendment (after amendment after amendment) that they genuinely believed would improve the 2013 state budget that you and I and all other Rhode Islanders are going to have to fund to the tune of $3.3 billion (that is from a populace of just over 1 million men, women and children, more than 11 percent of whom are unemployed).
In my surly Tweets, I was wondering after 40 or 50 or more amendments were brought up, debated incessantly, only to be shot down one after the other like little ducks in a carnival booth, whether the people making the amendments were unable to grasp the concept of futility. After all, every amendment – and I mean every amendment – that wasn’t proposed by House Finance Committee Chairman Helio Melo or someone else acting under the color of leadership went down to defeat by big margins, often 2-1 or more. Nonetheless, one by one, the dissidents indefatigably stood back up and proposed another one. Now I say: Good for them!
Many of those amendments were very good ideas that deserved to be passed. They would have helped Rhode Island and many of us who live here. But they were routinely, dismissively rejected by wide margins by a high-handed majority that knew what it wanted and was impervious to argument, debate or reason.
That is as good a description of the majority as any during the budget debate: unreasonable. They paid no attention to the appeals of their colleagues because they didn’t have to. They had the votes and that was that.
Woonsocket Rep. Lisa Baldelli Hunt put it in a nutshell, when, late into the night, she stood up and asked the powers-that-be, "Why do you have to feel like you've got so much power that nobody else can have a good idea?"
Good question, that. Is it possible that, of the scores and scores of amendments that were brought up on the floor during the 11-hour marathon session, not a single one would have been an improvement to the budget? Not even one? Really?
It didn’t matter. The people making the amendments could have been channeling James Madison and Henry Clay, the bosses had the room stacked – they were going to win every vote and they were going to win them big. Debate was meaningless; resistance was futile.
Whose fault is this? Who can fix it?
The answer to both those questions is you, faithful reader, particularly those of you who vote. Those people are there, that system is in place, because you voted for it to be that way, in election after election after election. Perhaps I was wrong just then, maybe it isn’t especially the fault of those of you who vote as it is those of you who don’t vote. It is apathy and lack of public participation that lets the same group of politicians and insiders loot and plunder the state year after depressing year, having their way without question or challenge.
We as an electorate have to start electing people to the General Assembly who will balance the scales of power in that building. Vote for Republicans. Vote for Libertarians. Vote for Moderate Party candidates. Hell, vote for Communists, vote for John Birchers. Vote for ANYBODY who won’t go along to get along with the foul system that has run this state for too long and has run it into the ground. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and Democratic majorities have held absolute power in the Rhode Island legislature for almost a century now.
It is time to let good ideas have a fair fight in our corridors of power.
I’m not saying the Democrats who run the show are bad people; to the contrary, most are good, even conscientious, men and women. House Speaker Gordon Fox was scrupulously fair in running the budget session, letting everyone have their say, at length, even those who were dumping on him and criticizing him. He even kept a sense of humor with some of his sharpest detractors. It’s just that he knew that every time he called for a vote, he knew his side was going to win and no other result was going to be allowed. It was we voters who gave him that army of loyalists who were going to do what he wanted, come Hell or high water. It is we who have to take that power back.
As Justin Katz, who was live blogging the budget session for Ocean State Current, observed: “There has GOT to be a better way to budget and legislate.”
A big part of the problem is the legislative schedule.
The governor presents a budget in January and hearings are held for months on that document before it is crumpled up and tossed into the wastebasket. Then, sometime in late May or early June a new budget appears as though plucked whole from the head of Zeus in full battle gear. NO hearings are held on that baby, and the House Finance Committee members who have patiently sat through hour after endless hour of hearings on the phony budget are told to vote on it – no, make that vote FOR it – within an hour after it is put in front of them. Then it is brought to the full House where members are allowed to talk about it into the night until they flop on the floor from exhaustion, but absolutely no changes are permitted, as though it were carved on stone tablets rather than printed on a small forest’s worth of copy paper.
That’s because the budget vote is the Pavlovian bell that signals the end of the session, when the lawmakers can get out of the increasingly hot and humid Statehouse and go home for the rest of the year. This is particularly so in election years and especially so this year when lawmakers have to campaign in newly redrawn districts, one year after the contentious pension reform vote.
As I pointed out in an earlier column, this is a completely artificial deadline that harkens back to the time when General Assembly members were only paid for 60 legislative days. Now they get paid a part time salary that inches ever closer to what a Rhode Islander with a minimum wage job is paid for a full year of 40-hour weeks. Lawmakers get their free health insurance (although some voluntarily co-pay small percentages) all year long, whether they are working or not.
Nobody says the legislature has to go home in June, or, if they do, that they can’t come back in September and do more work. There is no need for the stupid 150 to 175 item calendars we are going to see in the next couple of days as our elected officials make a mad rush for the door.
In November, get out and vote, and try to put a little thought behind it. It is called self-government for a reason.

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