Reading over my liveblog of the House Finance hearing on the state budget, the next morning, it occurs to me to highlight that, as limited as it is, the liveblog pretty well captures the feel of the event and therefore provides an illustration of the peculiar way of doing business, in this state. The hearing is a long wait (until well into prime-time TV) followed by a mad dash to offer quick summaries of the ways in which the state is going to spend $8 billion.
Many of the provisions come from legislation that may or may not have been heard during the session. Some of them appear out of nowhere and therefore get no hearing. That’s only not an outrage if even cynics like me are understating the degree to which legislative hearings are simply show trials to make the public feel like it has participatory government (and has a reason to pay lobbyists).
What ought to happen is that the articles are made available and the press can ask and have answered questions in a conference like the one that happens before the hearing, except not behind closed doors. That should start the 48-hour clock for the hearing, and then the hearing could consist of Rhode Islanders’ actually asking questions and raising concerns. As far as I’ve noticed, there isn’t even a sign-in sheet to testify on the budget at the hearing. It’s certainly never presumed that anybody will actually speak.
The feel of the room — among legislators, in the lobbyist-saturated audience, and at the press table — is that the event is one that we all must see through, but that shouldn’t be disrupted with anything not according to the annual script. A resident stopping the final vote of approval by requesting time to discuss how some millions of dollars are going to be spent? Come on, man. It’s almost midnight. You ought to know that your comments aren’t going to make any difference, anyway.
The budget is the single most significant piece of legislation every year, and the system is designed to minimize public awareness and participation. The one opportunity for response in the House (and it isn’t much of one, given the speaker’s strong grip on the chamber) comes on the floor, via elected representatives and floor amendments.
I suppose people could target the Senate Finance hearing, although that tends to be squeezed into the schedule. Last year, Senate Finance heard and approved the budget immediately after it passed the House Floor… some time after I left at 2:25 a.m. In previous years, Senate Finance has heard the bill and moved it directly to the Senate Floor.
The point being, if the people of Rhode Island really want to have an effect, they’ve got to mount an unprecedented and nigh upon impossibly consistent movement. Taking the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls as an example, the people of the East Bay would have to stop listening to legislators who tell them to limit crowd size and testimony length at hearings — as Rep. John Edwards told the folks at the latest hearing regarding an alternative plan to tolls — and who offer them the telethon challenge of getting 100 emails to the Speaker of the House by 5:00 on Tuesday and instead impress upon their neighbors the importance of filling the State House with angry residents for the entire House floor session on the budget, next Tuesday night (6/25).
If there were still hundreds of people lining the chamber galleries and hallways of the State House at 3:00 a.m. Wednesday morning insisting that the tolls be stopped and ready to see the sun come up outside of a Senate Finance hearing, if need be… if the East Bay senators and representatives weren’t so easily turning their failure to adequately warn their constituents before toll legislation passed last year or agitate against them this session into common wisdom that they’re “working hard” to stop the tolls through tepid legislative maneuvers… then maybe they could be stopped.
But people are busy living their lives. Given the way the government in Rhode Island is designed to tamp down and trip up democratic action, the hurdles are not much less difficult than would be violent revolution.
That’s not the way the American system of government is supposed to work, but it is the reason the state of Rhode Island is in its current condition of losing productive residents and wallowing in economic stagnation.