Rhode Islanders who don’t closely follow policy debates in their state may have found the contentious fight over Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s toll-and-borrow RhodeWorks infrastructure plan to be clarifying. Even those who do pay regular attention got an unusually clear look at how the legislative process works (or doesn’t).
Lobbyists Back Away from Clients
One strange turn of events that emerged around the edge of public awareness came on Friday, January 29, when the Rhode Island Trucking Association, which opposed the truck tolls that Raimondo’s plan has implemented, announced that it had parted ways with its lobbyists at the Mayforth Group and True North Communications. That turned out not to be the only such separation to occur right in the middle of the debate, and in fact, one group’s executive director claims to have lost his job due to political pressure.
According to now-former Executive Director Bob Lafleur, Rhode Island Independent Contractors and Associates (RIICA) President Mat Olson and its board forced him out after lobbyist Terrance Martiesian, of Martiesian & Associates, dropped the group in response to pressure from his larger clients.
In an interview, Lafleur told The Current, “Mat indicated to me that my name and Terry’s name were mentioned in a meeting of some reps with [Speaker of the House Nicholas] Mattiello.” Lafleur quotes Olson as saying, during a February 11 call, that the speaker told the legislators to let Martiesian know that he could “forget about any support for legislation,” after lobbying against RhodeWorks.
While RIICA paid Martiesian & Associates $10,000 in 2015, according to filings with the Secretary of State, other clients paid the firm much more. The Rhode Island Hospitality Association, for example, paid the lobbyists nearly $50,000, while T-Mobile’s contribution exceeded $80,000.
At the same time, according to Lafleur, “mom and pop” members of RIICA had been expressing concerns to Olson that standing against power brokers in the State House could hurt them going forward. “They know retaliation and intimidation are always out there, and they can’t afford to fight back,” Lafleur said.
Neither the head of RIICA nor the lobbyists in either case responded to emailed requests for comment. Asked whether he was aware of any meeting in which Speaker Mattiello specifically told legislators to ensure a lobbyist knew future legislation would be harder to move if he was associated with an anti-toll organization, House spokesman Larry Berman replied: “Absolutely not.”
The Context of Controversy
The disruptions in lobbying are just another area of controversy to erupt from elected officials’ forceful push to impose tolls. In the spring of 2015, when Mattiello was not yet on board with the plan, some officials were suspicious of the decision by the Rhode Island Dept. of Transportation (RIDOT) unexpectedly to close a bridge right by his law offices. Later, after Mattiello switched sides, South County officials cried foul when the speaker cancelled a meeting with them, they said, because of their opposition to the RhodeWorks plan.
Heat picked up when House Finance Committee Chairman Raymond Gallison (D, Bristol, Portsmouth) prevented Committee Member Patricia Morgan (R, Coventry, Warwick, West Warwick) from completing her questioning of RIDOT Director Peter Alviti and then forbade her from asking questions when an amended bill came forward. Meanwhile, multiple legislators were apparently telling their constituents that they feared RIDOT would retaliate against their districts if they didn’t vote for the legislation.
The controversy continued after the governor signed RhodeWorks into law. Mattiello proceeded to bump three legislators down to lower-profile committees. In the executive branch, the governor and her appointees have very publicly worked to soften the opposition of one high-profile opponent of tolls, Ocean State Job Lot, with millions of dollars of incentive payments.
Toxic State House Environment
In a press release issued this morning, Bob Lafleur states, “Never in my many years of involvement at the State House have I ever seen a more toxic culture of bullying and fear mongering by the leadership.”
Ken Block, chairman of Watchdog RI, sees the political environment as a matter of economic development: “The real job killer in Rhode Island is the political intimidation that regularly occurs in our state. Business owners do not want to be held hostage by an aggressive political class. Any politician who claims to be pro-business but then proceeds to threaten and punish businesses for speaking out on an issue should be run out of the state tarred, feathered and on a rail.”
The environment of the State House may have deteriorated in recent years, or the urgency to pass the toll-and-borrow plan despite three plausible non-toll alternatives may have pushed the inside players out of their comfort zone. Either way, similar threads have long been visible.
In 2014, for example, Martiesian actually testified on behalf of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association against legislation that would have reduced sales taxes for the association’s members. As The Current noted at the time, while the sales tax reduction would have benefited the association’s members, its education foundation typically receives well over $100,000 per year from the state in grants from the Governor’s Workforce Board.
The twin questions arising from such observations are who represents whom and how much Rhode Islanders really have a say in the policies of their government. Legislative hearings are difficult to attend, and Rhode Islanders who do so have reason to doubt that their testimony will have much effect. Businesses and organizations that join associations cannot have confidence that their “voices” at the State House will put members’ interests before those of the State House.
Now, it appears that even those associations have to worry that their hired lobbyists will choose to maintain the favor of powerful politicians over the patronage of their individual clients.
UPDATE (2/29/16 1:38 p.m.):
Affirming that Martiesian did have an agreement with RIICA for this legislative session, The Current has obtained an apparent copy of the signed document. Titled “2016 Legislation/Representation Agreement,” the contract is dated December 21, 2015. According to metadata within the PDF provided to The Current, the file was created on December 23 and has not been modified. (Click here for file.)
Photos of Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Terrance Martiesian, and Governor Gina Raimondo from Ocean State Current stock footage.