As the Democratic primary elections for House District 34 the candidates vying for the seat discussed their views on ethics reform, community/legislative grant process and the state budget process.
In House District 34 race to represent Narragansett, Peace Dale and Wakefield, incumbent Teresa Tanzi will face South Kingstown Town Councilor Rachel Clough and pharmacist Ewa Dzwierzynski.
After several years, the General Assembly passed an ethics bill that will put a question on the November ballot asking if voters wish to restore Ethics Commission oversight over public employees and elected officials. A law requiring such oversight was struck down in 2009, but judges said the voters can remedy the situation through a constitutional amendment. Since that time, ethics reform had been stagnant in the Statehouse, but a series of ethics issues – the resignation of House Speaker Gordon Fox, now imprisoned for financial crimes; the resignation of Chairman of House Finance Rep. Ray Gallison Jr. amid word he was the subject of a federal investigation and questions about community service grants his nonprofit was given by the General Assembly; and the removal of Vice Chairman of House Finance Rep. John Carnevale from House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s leadership team after allegations Carnevale did not live in the district he represented – led to an ethics reform bill being passed in the last session.
Clough said she wants to see the effect of the new ethics bill before lawmakers decide if further measures need to be taken.
Dzwierzynski said she generally favors any measure that holds legislators accountable for their actions, voting record and conflicts of interest. She said reform should be thoughtful and fair, and the ethics amendment would be “a positive first step to strip away immunity from Ethics Commission investigation and prosecution in cases involving core legislative functions.”
Tanzi said there is more work to be done. She wants the state’s revolving door policy expanded to two years. Currently it prohibits exiting lawmakers from seeking paid government positions for at least one year after leaving office. Tanzi also would like to see separation of powers clarified in cases of “dual office holders,” such as lawmakers who are municipal judges. “I do not see how an individual can simultaneously be a member of two branches of government,” Tanzi said.
Community and legislative grants came under scrutiny after questions were raised about a nonprofit run by Gallison, which received community service grants, but whose business proceedings were in disarray. In the aftermath, many legislators amended required financial disclosure forms in order to make public their ties to nonprofits that have received such grants.
In June, Mattiello announced reforms to the community grant process so recipients will receive direct appropriations listed as line items in a state department budget, in order to make the process more transparent. Legislative grants will still be issued at the behest of the Speaker. Community groups file a six page application for these grants, which must be sponsored by a lawmaker.
Tanzi said there should be more accountability and oversight, and said the House fiscal staff should clearly present community grants in the context of the requesting agency and issuing department’s budgets; how the money was used; and the agency’s spending history. She said agency representatives should be required to appear at a hearing to answer questions. As for legislative grants, Tanzi said more safeguards should be in place. She said sponsoring legislators sign off on “skeletal, at best” applications, and lawmakers should sponsor applications when there are clear deadlines for using the funds. The agency should also file compliance paperwork, she said.
Clough and Dzwierzynski said there should be more accountability and transparency with the process. Clough added taxpayer dollars “should never be given out” without full transparency.
Historically, General Assembly sessions in June have spanned hours, ending late at night, or in the wee hours of the next morning, as lawmakers rush to pass the budgets and other bills before the session closes. When passing the fiscal year 2016-17 budget, lawmakers began hearings at a 4 p.m. session and did not make the final vote until the next morning at 6:30.
Candidates said they favored a change.
Clough said the process should include a curfew, and would prefer lawmakers extend the debate over several days, rather than making “hasty decisions when exhausted.”
Dzwierzynski wants the deliberation process to start earlier and with a set deadline to complete it, in order to improve time management.
Tanzi said there should be one two-hour extension allowed for Assembly hearings that run later than 11 p.m., then they should be adjourned.