The Rhode Island Senate can pass a public records bill with lightning speed when its leaders want to.
Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed’s upper chamber is a major roadblock to passage of Rep. Michael Marcello’s widely supported public records changes. The Senate Judiciary Committee has finally scheduled a vote for Monday on a weaker alternative by Sen. James Sheehan, more than three months after he introduced it and just days before lawmakers adjourn.
There was no such delay when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, decided he wanted to make his own public records changes – he pushed a bill on the topic through the Senate Labor Committee last Thursday, just two days after he introduced it. The vote was 5-0, with five members absent; the full Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill Monday.
“In my four sessions at the General Assembly I’ve never seen a public records bill in the Labor Committee,” John Marion, who heads Common Cause Rhode Island, told WPRI.com on Sunday. Despite Common Cause’s longstanding advocacy on public records, Marion didn’t hear about the bill until a few days ago.
The bill would change the law to make the payroll records of contractors and subcontractors’ employees a public record if they’re on a public works project. Government contractors are a bête noire of Rhode Island’s public-sector unions, and contractor shenanigans caused controversy on the Warwick City Council.
“I’m not really sure about the rationale behind this,” Marion acknowledged.
McCaffrey, who’s on the short list of potential successors to Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, appears on course to move his legislation from introduction to passage within the span of a week because the Senate has once again suspended its rules in the waning days of the legislative session.
“This isn’t surprising at all,” Marion said. “We’ve seen significant legislation in the last few years emerge sometimes even in the final hours of the Assembly session and pass with no vetting at all.” Not surprisingly, Common Cause thinks that’s the wrong way to handle public policy.
“When you start breaking the rules and the process becomes more opaque even for the professionals who follow these things like myself, the professional watchdogs, there’s a greater chance for mischief,” Marion said. “There’s a reason why the legislative process is designed to have a variety of choke-points, and that’s so people have the ability to have their say. When our legislature allows things to speed through and suspends those choke-points, we all suffer.”
Postscript: The Senate passed McCaffrey’s bill on Monday and the House followed suit on Tuesday, exactly one week after the Senate Judiciary chairman first introduced it.
• Related: Senate the roadblock on long overdue RI public records reform (June 7)
(photo: R.I. Senate)