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Sunday, July 24, 2022

Held for further study

State House rules need to be democratized

By Kate McGovern in UpRiseRI

When I moved to Providence from New Hampshire a few years ago, I was surprised to find that the legislative process here was much less democratic than what I expected. The process starts out in a typical fashion – bills are introduced and public hearings are conducted by legislative committees, but in the next step, the process diverged.

In the New Hampshire legislature, committees made recommendations on every bill. The committees had several options – they could recommend that the bill be passed as written, passed with an amendment, rejected entirely, or held for further study. 

If the members of the committee didn’t agree on a recommendation, summaries of the majority and minority viewpoints were included in the report. The Senate committees sent their reports to the full Senate and House committees to the House. 

The reports were published in the chamber’s calendar and votes taken on each bill to approve, defeat, amend, or study. While the committees’ recommendations carried weight, the full body decided whether to accept or alter them.  

I was disappointed to find that legislative committees in Rhode Island hold hearings on the same issues year after year without the matter coming before the House or Senate for a vote. 

While it would be irresponsible for lawmakers to act without due diligence, some proposals have been in “study” status for years. The sponsors reintroduce them each year. These public hearings are like the movie Ground Hog Day. 

Study is an important option because genuine legislative study can facilitate the development of effective public policy. While voting to study a bill could still be used for avoidance rather than inquiry, that choice should be made by the full chamber. Advocacy groups should not need to march around chanting “it’s time for a vote.”

Consider this: In a “blue” state, after Sandy Hook, Parkland, and Uvalde, why it is still legal to purchase assault weapons? 

What if the General Assembly’s rules required committees to issue a recommendation on every bill which would then be considered by the full chamber? There could be debates on a wide range of issues. 

Should payday loan interest rates be as much as 260%? Would a return-deposit on bottles and cans benefit the environment? Should the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBoR) be reformed or repealed? Could an audit of the use of managed care organizations (MCOs) in the Medicaid program lead to millions in potential savings? Should solitary confinement be banned? Should there be equal access to reproductive health care? 

Consider the progress that could be made if the process was reformed so that every bill that is introduced is heard, studied, debated, and put to a vote.