04/26/12 – Senate Floor and House Finance


4:00 p.m.
Seeing as Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed was good enough to postpone the vote on the controversial National Grid legislation while I was at the Mitt Romney town hall, I figured I should cover the vote, today. I had hoped to make it to the Senate Finance committee, but since it was at 2:00 p.m., and I was elsewhere, I’m apparently free to find another assignment… perhaps House Finance or Labor.

4:09 p.m.
The press desks are kind of neat, as old furniture adapted for computers often are. I’m sitting at the (apparently rarely used) Newport Daily News desk. I’ll have to see about getting my own plaque put on the front of it… wonder how that’s accomplished.

4:16 p.m.
Well, Sen. Communications Director Greg Paré swung by to tell me that the National Grid bill has been tabled again… guess I’ll go wander the halls aimlessly.

4:35 p.m.
It was a close call. I thought I’d try to sneak in House Labor, tying teacher tenure to effectiveness, but there are a number of interesting bills bearing on unfunded mandates and school funding maintenance of effort in House Finance, so here I am. The room is largely empty, as yet, but the sense appears to be that the floor session is going to be a long one.

4:44 p.m.
You know, I passed Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine in the hall while changing rooms, so it’s possible that Senate Finance was continued through the floor session. Meanwhile, the folks from Ocean State Tea Party in Action have been distributing their assignments (so to speak), and I’ve heard several other lobbyists on their cell phones discussing who should go where.

Link that all to the regular occurrence of committee members’ clearing out as the bills come up, and it’s difficult not to conclude that business in this place could operate much more effectively — that is, in a way that makes it much easier for people to be involved with their government.

I was thinking, today, that it might cut down on legislative traffic to require at least a second to put bills in the system.

The mitigating consideration to all this the strong suspicion that important decisions are made outside of the committee hearings, and only in rare circumstances will testimony change votes. The feeling one gets is that hearings are mainly to test the community interest in a particular issue and to give us all the sensation of democracy.

There’s a classic commercial jingle that would fit well, here, if this were a videoblog.

5:12 p.m.
While I wait and let my mind wander…

Also in the hallway on the way over, somebody expressed some disappointment that I didn’t cover the Senate Labor hearing, yesterday, concerning the teacher merit-for-tenure legislation that House Labor is hearing today. It turns out, though, that the folks at RI-CAN had me covered with a liveblog of their own.

As folks who’ve been watching new media for a while have been saying (me among them), the Internet can create a disaggregated press corps. The Providence Journal can have a reporter in every significant hearing, but the Internet corps separate based on interest.  What’s needed now, is a centralized editing force. I don’t know whether I should agree with Coventry parent Rachel Juaire’s comment, as reported by RI-CAN, that “great teachers should be a rule, not an acception.”

Me, I’m just happy to see that the liveblogging thing has been catching on. I notice that, since I stopped managing the hyperlocal liveblogging of Tiverton town meetings, local Patch editor Matthew Sanderson has taken up the practice, and he uses some sort of fancy liveblogging software. Kids these days have it so easy. (Soon the expression may change to “kids these hours.”)

5:26 p.m.
In another form of hearing-room torture, the televisions are showing the floor session, but there’s no sound. As tech savvy as I may claim to be, I wasn’t able to figure out how to unmute it.

5:30 p.m.
On the TV, Rep. Lisa Baldelli Hunt is showing a bunch of clothes and/or bedding in clear plastic packaging. Looks like they’re having a lot of fun, perhaps discussing recent shopping ventures. I haven’t read all of the legislation that’s on the schedule, today; perhaps they’re mandating that all dry cleaners switch from loose-fitting, light, and non-reusable plastic covers for the clothes that they service to thicker, zippable, and reusable bags, to be taxed at 9.99 cents (rounded to the nearest dime) per dollar.

5:37 p.m.
Room 35 is filling up a bit, with about a half-dozen identifiable firefighters.

On TV, it looks like the representatives are pointing out guests in the gallery and around the floor.

5:48 p.m.
The representatives are shuffling in, now.

5:50 p.m.
With three representatives in their seats, Rep. Rene Menard is introducing his legislation to eliminate unfunded mandates that aren’t tied with federal money (7372).

5:51 p.m.
First example Menard offers is requiring teaching in multiple languages if students request it. “That’s a local decision.”

Something about local funding for charter schools. He says that Lincoln taxpayers help to pay for full-day K for charter schools even though public schools don’t have that service.

“There are twelve pages of mandates, and the community should determine whether they would like to continue that mandate or not.”

5:53 p.m.
Sam Kolbyk from Ocean State Tea Party in Action supports the bill.

We’re up to eight committee members.

OSTPA would like to see the governor’s distressed-community mandate relief apply to everybody.

5:56 p.m.
All bills held for further study.

Rep. Agostinho Silva is introducing 7417, requiring state to pay for receivership costs.

No testimony.

Rep. Bob Watson wasn’t here to introduce 7944, and nobody wanted to testify on it, so Chairman Helio Melo declared that they would consider it heard.

By contrast, Rep. Karen MacBeth isn’t here to introduce a bill of hers, but the clerk is calling upstairs to get her down here.

6:00 p.m.
Rep. John Carnevale is introducing a bill (7711) to repeal the minimum age (55) for police and fire to retire into the Municipal Employee Retirement System (MERS)

“Looking around this room, I’m sure most of us would agree that 55 is not an old age,” but police and fire have “some of the most stressful and difficult jobs.”

6:02 p.m.
“Stress and heart attacks” are the “silent killer” of police and fire. He cited some statistics suggesting that the average age for police and fire and death is 41 (across the country) and between 8% and 51% die of heart attacks. (I could have misheard.)

6:05 p.m.
Carnevale says the state police are not included in the minimum age requirement (were removed at the last minute during passing pension reform). He wants it to apply to locals, too.

6:06 p.m.
Fire union rep Paul Valletta supports the legislation. “There shouldn’t be a mechanism in the law that forces them to say. When it’s time to go, they should be able to go.” Tom Petaza (police union rep) says there are only so many non-patrolman positions, so there are going to be 55-year-old patrolmen. He says that those who can’t retire younger will wind up with disability pensions.

6:09 p.m.
Petaza says no police forces were consulted about the retirement age limit. [I’ve long wondered why police and fire couldn’t shift careers and then get their pensions when they’re old enough.]

6:10 p.m.
Dan Beardsley says the League of Cities and Towns opposes the bill (that is, supports a minimum age for retirement). “To revert to no age requirement would result in taking a step back from the forward progress” of pension reform.

Sam Kolbyk is back up, opposing the bill, because it would “dilute” the pension reform.

6:13 p.m.
Rep. Malik asked how Beardsley would feel about retirement at 50 but collecting at 55. Beardsley says he’d have to see actuarial studies and consult with League members.

Silva says Beardsley has lost his “bounce” in the State House halls as he’s gotten older. “How would you feel being a police officer at age 55.”

Beardsley: “I could have stayed home and gotten this kind of abuse.”

6:16 p.m.
Rep. Scott Guthrie isn’t here to introduce his bill 7418, so it moves straight to Beardsley’s testimony. The League opposes the bill because it would discourage defined contribution plans.

6:19 p.m.
Now up are two bills from Rep. Michael Chippendale on the agenda that would prevent completed debt service from inflating school budgets based on maintenance of effort.

He believes 100% in public schools. But he uses new computers as an example of a one-time expenditure. “Currently, that money is being kept on the operational budget,” so the next year, that money “is showing up” on school budgets.

He says when you’re done paying your mortgage, you don’t want to have to see the bill showing up anyway.

6:22 p.m.
“This creates a condition that a budget will always grow; it will never shrink.” [Having watched the local and state governing processes, I’d suggest that’s very much the intention.]

Chippendale: this is unsustainable.

6:24 p.m.
Buster Steere, Ed Burlingame, and Sam Kolbyk are called to testify.

Burlingame is on the town council in Glocester. He used to be on the school committee.

6:26 p.m.
He says it didn’t used to be this way. It sounds like a local school department did have a reduction at a financial town meeting based on debt, and he wants that to apply to regional schools, as well.

6:27 p.m.
Steere says under current law, even if a school committee wanted to give up its extra money, it requires ed. commissioner approval, and he doesn’t think it should require any approval. It ought to be automatic.

He says that anybody who wants to pay for a car indefinitely should see him for a financing deal.

6:29 p.m.
OSTPA is for the legislation.

6:30 p.m.
Malik asked about student population and maintenance of effort in regionalized schools. (He covers Bristol-Warren.)

Burlingame is explaining the law for reductions under maintenance of effort.

6:31 p.m.
Burlingame says his local schools were receiving more state money than they deserved (due to declining population), but the regional school built a $60 million facility to serve a disappearing student body.

“We need some kind of sensible relief on this.”

Steere offers an anecdote from a local party at which a school committee member said they’d find a use for the extra money. “It shouldn’t be that way.”

6:34 p.m.
Now 7714, having to do with binding arbitration and pension plans (disallowing a binding arbitrator from getting involved in pension relief plans).

Kolbyk says OSTPA is for the bill.

6:36 p.m.
Beardsley is testifying that the League agrees with the intent of Rep. Joe Trillo’s legislation, but believes that it doesn’t accomplish what really needs to be done. He says it has to reference the particular laws addressing binding arbitration. He says “you don’t want” to prohibit binding arbitration from resolving grievances.

When Beardsley approached the table, he feigned being feeble, and the clerk rushed forward to pretend to offer assistance.

6:39 p.m.
Valletta: “Some leaders in this state want to go backwards and take away workers rights to bargain, and this bill would do exactly that.” “Let’s keep Rhode Island” a place where workers have rights and not go back to circumstances a century ago when “nobody had rights.”

6:40 p.m.
Jennifer Overin, environmental police officer, supports 7731, which “would [according to the official summary] include the deputy sheriff, capitol police, airport police, and DEM police within the department of public safety, as it relates to retirement on service allowances.”

6:42 p.m.
While she summarizes their training, I want to note that this room is tough for simultaneously liveblogging and taking pictures, because the witnesses sit with their backs to the audience. So, maybe I’ll try taking pictures of the witnesses via the TVs that show them from the front.

Now that’s high-tech ingenuity.

6:44 p.m.
She says she’s turning 40 this year and can already tell how difficult it would be to keep up with her job until she’s 65.

Edward Kabral is in his 27th year with DEM’s police force. I think he said that he started his job when he was 18. When he took the job, he assessed the pension system, and it’s been trimmed over the years. Over half of the officers in his division would have to work over 40 years to receive their full pensions under the current law.

6:47 p.m.
He says their job has also become more of a law-enforcement job (as with homeland security). In particular, they spend a lot of time on boats, which (he says) may sound enjoyable but takes a toll in the dead of winter.

6:48 p.m.
Jim Cenerini (union lobbyist) offers “conditional” support for the legislation.

6:49 p.m.
It seems like the “condition” is that this bill should be one of a series of bills to “correct inequities” of pension reform.

6:50 p.m.
Surprisingly, the hearing is done already.