By STEVE FRIAS As first reported by WPRI, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello ordered a performance audit of the R.I. Convention Center Authority. The timing of the audit coincided with personnel troubles for James Demers, a longtime friend of Mattiello,
As first reported by WPRI, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello ordered a performance audit of the R.I. Convention Center Authority. The timing of the audit coincided with personnel troubles for James Demers, a longtime friend of Mattiello, who is now no longer employed at the Convention Center.
Subsequently, House Minority Leader Blake Filippi filed a lawsuit challenging Mattiello’s authority to unilaterally order an audit when state law requires that the audit have the approval of a majority of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS). The JCLS is a five-member committee consisting of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the House Majority Leader, the House Minority Leader, the Senate President and Senate Minority Leader.
Within hours of the lawsuit, Mattiello canceled the audit. Now, a grand jury is investigating Mattiello’s unlawful audit. Although what the grand jury will do remains a mystery, this controversy has highlighted the JCLS, the State House’s most powerful committee.
The JCLS, which manages General Assembly’s $46.3 million budget and its nearly 300 full-time employees, has not met since 2009 and operates primarily at the whim of the House Speaker. To help prevent future abuses of authority, the JCLS should be reformed so that it operates openly and with its power less concentrated in one person. Furthermore, the JCLS should order a performance audit of the General Assembly in order to reduce its high cost.
Until the late 1950s, the General Assembly employed only part-time committee clerks, doorkeepers and pages. Its budget for 1959 was only $189,371. Then, in 1958, a study commission recommended the establishment of a legislative council to hire staff to assist the General Assembly. This legislative council was to be “divided equally between the two branches of the legislature and both parties” and to meet at least quarterly.
In 1959, legislation creating a legislative council passed the Senate, but Senate Republican Minority Leader James Donnelly declared: “I warn you that you are going to create a Frankenstein that you’re not going to be able to get rid of” and cautioned that “the director has a blank check to hire as many assistants as he wants.” Afterwards, a budget was adopted which appropriated funds for a Legislative Council, and a fiscal advisory staff to the House Finance Committee.
In 1960, as part of the budget, Joint Committee on Legislative Affairs (JCLA) was created. (The JCLA changed its name to the JCLS in 1988). The JCLA was a five-member body, in which the House of Representatives had a majority. It controlled General Assembly spending and staffing. For 1961, the General Assembly’s budget was set at $375,061 with six full-time employees.
After the General Assembly began to spend more on itself, it sought the freedom to spend as it pleased. In 1968, the General Assembly passed legislation which exempted the General Assembly from executive branch budget and personnel controls. Fearing “a runaway legislature,” Senate Republican Minority Leader George DeStefano opposed the legislation and warned it “will come back to haunt the legislature” because it is open to abuse. Gov. John Chafee vetoed the bill stating that “this bill permits the General Assembly to create for itself as many jobs as it wishes, to set the salaries for those jobs as high as it chooses and to spend the taxpayers money for whatever purpose the General Assembly wishes, all subject to no practical restrictions whatsoever.” The General Assembly overrode Chafee’s veto.
Over the years, the General Assembly’s budget grew rapidly, faster than the rate of inflation and faster than the stock market, as more patronage jobs were doled out, and more money was spent on food, liquor and travel. As the General Assembly’s budget regularly increased, scandals periodically erupted.
In 1974, the JCLA voted to lease property owned by Senate Majority Leader John Hawkins. After it was exposed, Hawkins retaliated by evicting the media from the Senate floor.
In 1977, the JCLA purchased furniture, carpeting and draperies from a company whose president was a high school friend of House Speaker Edward Manning at double the cost of what it should have been. Subsequently, in 1980, Manning resigned and was indicted for his role in the carpeting purchase.
In 2002, the JCLS paid $25,000 to resolve a claim by Wendy Collins that she performed sexual favors for House Speaker John Harwood. A grand jury investigated and Harwood decided not to seek re-election as Speaker.
Exposés and scandals led to attempts to reform the JCLS. In 1978, during the carpeting scandal, Senate Minority Leader Lila Sapinsley advocated for the JCLA to vote on legislative spending. In 2001, after a Providence Journal exposé on legislative spending, Senate Majority Leader William Irons called for an audit of the General Assembly. In 2002, during the Wendy Collins scandal, Irons pushed for equal representation for the Senate on the JCLS to prevent “one individual,” the Speaker, from having “omnipotence.”
Unfortunately, these efforts did not lead to any fundamental changes to the JCLS or how the General Assembly operates. Perhaps Filippi’s lawsuit, combined with Mattiello’s legal troubles, could cause the Senate to align with House Republicans to bring about fundamentally changes to the JCLS.
Fundamentally reforming the JCLS begins with the JCLS holding regular public meetings and voting on legislative spending, contracts, staff, and salaries. Next, to reduce the Speaker’s control over the JCLS, the Senate should have equal representation on the JCLS, which was what the 1958 study commission originally recommended. Also, to reduce patronage hiring, the JCLS should have equal representation from both parties, which was also recommended by the 1958 study commission. Lastly, to reduce the General Assembly’s cost, the JCLS should order a performance audit of the General Assembly and set a goal of bringing the General Assembly’s budget down to the level of states like New Hampshire, where its state legislature operates at less than half the cost of Rhode Island.
Unless the JCLS is reformed, taxpayers should expect the General Assembly to spend more, and the politicians who run the JCLS to get into more scandals.
Steven Frias is Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman, a historian, and recipient of The Coolidge Prize for Journalism.
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