RI Assembly leaders Ruggerio, Mattiello battling over hiring, spending

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio are battling once again.

The issue this time: control of the General Assembly’s purse strings. Ruggerio is accusing Mattiello of failing to green-light the hiring of Senate employees despite his chamber’s status as “a coequal, independent body.”

“I have grown more and more concerned with the General Assembly’s approach to personnel,” Ruggerio, D-North Providence, said in a statement. “The speaker routinely obstructs the operations of the Senate.”

Mattiello, D-Cranston, called Ruggerio’s charges “meritless” and alleged Senate leaders were retaliating “because they don’t approve of the House’s position on the PawSox’ stadium.” He added, “The House will honor the will of the people and will not be bullied or threatened by the Senate.”

The controversy revolves around the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS), an obscure five-member body that has authority over the Assembly’s more than $40 million annual budget. State House insiders have been buzzing about the dispute for more than a week, after the Senate began the year without a successor to its former policy adviser, Marie Ganim.

The House has long held three of the five seats on JCLS, giving the speaker effective control over the Assembly budget through the committee’s executive director, former state Rep. Frank Montanaro Jr., a key Mattiello ally.

The Senate has pushed back at the structure of JCLS multiple times over the years, saying it should have separate authority or at least an equal say over legislative spending. But the House has always won the day.

Despite its official name, JCLS almost never meets as an actual committee; according to Ruggerio, it has not done so in nearly nine years. Its five members are the speaker, the House majority leader, the House minority leader, the Senate president and the Senate minority leader.

In a letter sent to Mattiello on Tuesday, Ruggerio and Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, asked for a private meeting of JCLS to address the current impasse. Ruggerio told The Providence Journal he was looking at the possibility of taking Mattiello to court over the dispute.

Pushing back Friday, Mattiello said JCLS has “approved several of [Ruggerio’s] requests to increase his staff and authorized his requested pay increases” – including the vacant Senate policy adviser role. But Ruggerio said the speaker’s team told him filling that job “was conditional upon the Senate ‘behaving’ for a month.”

“These antics fly in the face of our democratic principles,” Ruggerio said.

In addition, Mattiello acknowledged he wanted the combine the House and Senate policy offices into one shared staff rather than two separate ones.

“Although this consolidation would have saved the taxpayers money, JCLS acquiesced to President Ruggerio’s request to keep the offices separate and fill the position,” Mattiello said. The speaker did not say who would have run the joint policy office; the House’s director of policy, Lynne Urbani, has worked for Mattiello since he became speaker and volunteered on his 2016 re-election campaign.

“I am trying to protect the state’s taxpayers at a time when we are struggling to close a significant budget deficit,” Mattiello said. “The public has a right to expect efficient operations in the Senate, which JCLS has a statutory obligation to monitor.”

A separate letter from Ruggerio called attention to an even more obscure body, the Legislative Council, which is supposed to oversee lawyers hired to work for the Assembly. Ruggerio claims it has not met in decades even as the number of those lawyers has grown. “This is no way to conduct the people’s business,” Ruggerio argued.

In the second letter, Ruggerio informed the Senate he is appointing three senators – Algiere along with the No. 2 and No. 3 Senate Democrats, Maryellen Goodwin and Michael McCaffrey – to Legislative Council.

This isn’t the first time tempers have flared between Mattiello, who took office in 2014, and Ruggerio, who succeeded Teresa Paiva Weed last spring. Passage of the state budget was delayed by roughly a month last summer after the Senate tried to amend the tax-and-spending plan and Mattiello refused to take up their changes. The Senate eventually backed down and passed the House’s original budget bill.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook