One was amazed by the enormous number of bills that get introduced but go nowhere, another by the logjam of legislation at the end of the General Assembly session - and another wondered how the state has a $9.2 billion budget but never seems to have enough money. This week Jim Hummel sits down with four first-term lawmakers - who he interviewed a year ago on the eve of their swearing-in - to talk about what they learned during their first session, and how they will approach their second General Assembly session differently.
A year ago they were trying to learn names, and figure out seating assignments, parking spaces and the process of becoming a lawmaker. They ran for different reasons - but each with the optimism that baseball players have on the opening day of spring training.
Shortly before they were sworn in last January, The Hummel Report sat down with four of the General Assembly’s 16 newly-elected first-term lawmakers: They include Representatives Julie Casimiro a Democrat from North Kingstown, Jason Knight a Democrat from Barrington and Republican Representative Robert Quattrocchi of Scituate - along with Senator Jeanine Calkin, a Democrat from Warwick.
We gathered them again earlier this month to get their reflections on the first session.
Calkin: ``Why can’t we address more of the bills earlier in the session and not wait until the end?’’
Calkin echoed a sentiment we heard from all four: a hurry-up-and-wait feel to the session, where virtually nothing of substance gets done in the first couple of months - followed by a deluge of legislation in the final weeks.
Calkin: ``You hear all the time about bills that get a hearing then get held for further study: year after year after year. And I would love it if there was some other way, whether it be a majority of the senators or the reps could request a vote one way, just to kind of push it to the next level.’’
Casimiro: ``What surprises me also is the number of bills that never leave committee. And I think it’s because you have to have somebody lobbying for them, so I will be lobbying a lot stronger this year.’’
Hummel: ``What about the number of bills?’’
Casimiro: ``Oh it’s insane, it’s insane.’’
Hummel: ``Did you know there were that many bills?’’
Casimiro: ``No, and what was really surprising for me in the first year is that we hear so few bills at the beginning of the session, then that last week it’s an insane amount of bills coming to the floor.’’
How many bills? During the 2017 session more than 2,400 bills were filed - 1,386 on the House side and 1,030 in the Senate.
Quattrocchi: ``I’m not a legislator that feels that we need a real lot more laws being produced. What did we have, like 2,500 proposed coming from both chambers? 2,500 laws? How many laws do people need to tell them how to live their lives?
Knight said as the session progressed he learned where the fate of legislation was actually decided.
Knight: ``We think that the decisions on the bills get made while we’re all debating them in this room. The textbook answer to how we do our jobs is you sit in this chair, listen to the arguments back and forth, make a decision in this chair and press the button. And that’s not how it works. By the time a bill gets to the floor most everybody has made a decision and the real policy arguments have happened in the back rooms - they’ve happened up the Speaker’s office, they’ve happened in leadership’s office, they happen because two reps are sitting in a corner and they grab in another one and say what do you think about this? So the real debate actually happens in the back rooms and the back halls.’’
Hummel: ``So is the rest of this just for show?’’
Knight: ``I don’t think so. When you see the debates up here they are people making their points for the record.’’
Knight says this year he plans to narrow his focus, introducing fewer bills and concentrating his efforts on getting the highest priorities passed. That includes legislation about reproductive rights. Rhode Island law makes abortion illegal, but it has been superseded by The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision almost 35 years ago allowing abortion. He says President Donald Trump’s election last year changes everything.
Knight: ``Now we’re in a time where there’s a possibility that Roe V. Wade could be flipped because of changes upstairs in the United States Supreme Court.’’
Hummel: ``Then it reverts to the states?’’
Knight: ``So if Roe v. Wade is flipped arguably, probably all of those laws that are on our books become active again and abortion is immediately illegal in the state of Rhode Island. It is not a niche issue, it’s something that I hear about every day. It has a huge percentage of the communications I have with my constituents. I hear from people about choice all the time.’’
Quattrocchi sits on the House Finance Committee, one of the highest-profile and time-consuming committee assignments.
Hummel: ``Does it blow you away that we have a $9.2 billion and then we never seem to have enough money?’’
Quattrocchi: ``I have said it many times I find it to be an obscene amount of money, especially if you at a state like New Hampshire, which is much larger than Rhode Island and operates at nearly half the budget and with no sales tax and without state income tax. So, where is all this money going?’’
Hummel: ``We talked last year, you came (to the State House) for the 38 Studios stuff and you were sitting in the audience and now you’re sitting there. Did your perspective change at all being on the other side of the microphone, listening?’’
Quattrocchi: ``Well certainly, I’ve seen a lot more and listened to a lot more of what’s going on. I’m just really baffled at how many departments can never get enough. It’s never enough. It’s like, okay: we may be in a deficit, but we need more.’’
Hummel: ``The state has faced some challengers. The budget is always a problem and it’s going to get worse this year, UHIP has been an issue, you’ll have the Pawsox coming up. I’m wondering being on the inside now, does it look any different from the inside than it did from the outside?’’
Casimiro; `` I think it’s more frustrating on the inside, I’m particularly alarmed by what’s going on with DCYF, having come from the child welfare world, and I think it’s more alarming on the inside because it’s right there in your face, as opposed to the average citizen reading about it in the newspaper, it’s up close and personal, so the UHIP disaster, DCYF, it’s right there for you. UHIP is the biggest example of frustration for elected officials. We know there’s a problem and it’s just not being fixed.’’
Calkin: ``It’s one of those things that really frustrates me, considering the amount of money that we spent on it, the amount of time. I worked for large corporations that were able to do things because either through efficiencies or having in- person staff. And I look at that whole thing and I go: There’s got to be a better way. How did it take so long and cost all of that money?’’
Knight talked about the struggle between voting his conscience and representing those who may disagree philosophically or politically.
Knight: ``When you run for this job, you say to yourself `I want to do the right thing’ I want to go up there and try to make the best policy decisions I can for Rhode Island and for my community. You come up here and you learn that every decision you make has a political value, either positive or negative. And so there’s I think a natural tendency for a certain kind of person to start making their votes strictly on that political value. I try to make the best decisions on a policy basis for Rhode Island and some of those decisions are going to be unpopular: 48
Quattrocchi, as one of only 11 Republicans in the House, said he knows it’s a challenge getting legislation passed as a member of the minority party.
Quattrocchi: ``I’ve always lived by the philosophy that it’s hard to get worked up about what you can’t control. I’ll try and control what I can and add what I can, as best as I can.’’
As for knowing now what they didn’t know a year ago?
Calkin: ``A lot about the process, obviously being a new legislator there’s a lot of things you learn on the fly. I used to say it’s like trying to catch a bus that’s driving down the street.’’
Knight: ``There’s a lot that goes on around here that nobody’s going to tell you about, there’s a lot that goes on that you have to find out for yourself and you come in, in the next year with that accumulated knowledge - you’re not starting from zero.’’
Casimiro: ``The first year is a real learning challenge. I mean you’ve got to learn how to get things done, but you’re also building relationships and friendships. Now I think I’m going to hit the ground running. I’m a lot stronger this year.
At the State House, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.