FORMER AND CURRENT POWER BROKERS Fox and Mattiello. [Photos by Richard McCaffrey]
Rhode Island’s operating budget for the current fiscal year is $8.2 billion, an amount known among political scientists as a “shitload of money.” To get a sense of how these funds are divvied out, flip through the Secretary of State’s Rhode Island Government Owner’s Manual 2013-2014 (which is actually a lot more interesting than it sounds). In the “State Departments and Agencies” section, you’ll see that The Department of Children Youth and Families, for example, has an annual budget of $211,457,278. The Rhode Island State Council on the Arts gets $2,564, 607. The Rhode Island Airport Corporation: $51,000,000. Office of the General Treasurer: $33,018,358. And so on.
But who makes these decisions?
True, the Governor of Rhode Island is constitutionally required to submit a proposed budget. But it’s the House of Representatives — specifically, the finance committee, and therefore the Speaker — which shapes this document before it’s sent to the Senate.
Darrell West breaks it down for us. “If you control the budget, everybody has to curry favor with you,” he says. “And so if you need to get a job for someone or if someone needs a contract, you have tremendous sway over those types of decisions.”
The state budget is simply the most important document that comes out of the state house every year, John Marion says. Thus, influence over the budget is perhaps the most potent source of political power in the state.
“Politics is about the authoritative allocation of resources,” he says. “Government allocates resources. . . It uses the coercive power of the state to take private resources — taxes — [and] distribute public resources: roads, welfare, whatever.”
Governor Lincoln Almond tried vetoing the budget when he was first elected in the mid 1990s, URI political science professor Maureen Moakley says. The House overrode it the next day.
After that, he stopped trying, Moakley says. “Because what was the point?”
One of the reasons the governor’s office is so toothless when it comes to a budget, is that Rhode Island is one of just six states where the governor doesn’t have some kind of line-item veto power — i.e., the ability to take a red pen, and mark certain components of a budget that he wants to change or X-out.
This is part of what makes the Rhode Island governor one of the weakest in the nation. But don’t take our word for it; listen to Thad Beyle, a poli sci professor at the University of North Carolina who’s famous for calculating and tracking gubernatorial power based on a composite score of veto power; budget power; gubernatorial party control; tenure potential (length of term and the number of terms allowed); considering whether positions like Attorney General, Treasurer, and Secretary of State are appointed or elected; and appointment powers in areas like corrections, education, health, and transportation. In 2007, the most recent year Beyle published a Governors’ Institutional Powers chart, Rhode Island ranked 49th, just ahead of Vermont.
This kinda puts the all chatter about the 2014 governor’s race into perspective, doesn’t it?
THE JOINT COMMITTEE ON LEGISLATIVE SERVICES
Having established that the governor doesn’t call many of the most important shots on Smith Hill, who else might potentially claim to be the “most powerful” politician in the state? Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed is a possibility.
But, as Elton John sings, “Then again, no.”
Aside from the fact that the Senate plays a backseat role in the budget-writing process (a huge deal), there is also their secondary position on the Joint Committee on Legislative Services.
You’ve probably never heard of the JCLS, unless you’re a policy wonk, a state rep or senator, or you’ve got a brother or cousin or aunt or nephew who works at the State House. But the committee is one of Rhode Island’s key political battlegrounds.
It’s here where the decisions about State House operations are made — “everything down to who can order pencils,” as Minority Leader Newberry says. And, thanks to the statute-prescribed makeup of the committee — three House members (Speaker, Majority Leader, Minority Leader), and two Senators (Senate President, Senate Minority Leader) — the scales of influence are forever tipped in the House’s favor.
“There’s a building there [with] a $38 million budget a year, or so,” John Marion says. Around 300 people work there, from committee clerks to Capital TV staffers to maintenance workers. “Who controls those jobs? Who controls that building?. . . Almost all of it is controlled by the Speaker.”
“Hypothetically speaking, if there was some bill that the Speaker of the House and House members wanted to get through and the Senate didn’t want to do it, the Speaker could, in theory, take away all the Senate office space,” Minority Leader Newberry says. “It sounds petty, but those are the kinds of buttons that can be pushed in politics to force things through.”
“It’s the culture,” he adds. “Everyone understands that the House has more power than the Senate.”
Side note: it’s astonishing how many people mentioned the ability to assign and re-assign State House parking spaces when assessing the Speaker’s power.
$1500 to the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter. $5000 to the Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket. $1500 to the Providence Northend 49ers Football & Cheerleading teams. $1000 to the Plum Beach Garden Club in North Kingstown.
This may not sound like a lot of money, but these 2014 legislative grants are examples of the annual goodies that the Speaker of the House can dispense at his discretion.
Hmmm, I wonder if those turn into political poker chips?
Speaking of poker chips, let’s talk about campaign donations.
If you look at Representative Gordon Fox’s campaign finance page (though he resigned as speaker, he vowed to stay on as rep through the rest of his term), you’ll see that it’s stocked with over $200,000. Other reps in Providence have more than $75,000 (Lombardi) and $30,000 (Blazejewski), but the bulk of them (Almeida, Diaz, Ajello, Slater, Cimini, Palangio, DeSimone) dwell in the sub-$10,000 range.
What’s going on here? Is Fox that much better of a representative?
“Joe Schmo has a fundraiser? You’re lucky if the lobbyists show up,” John Marion says. “Speaker Fox has a fundraiser?. . . You have to show up if you’re a lobbyist.”
“A rank and file legislator has a hard time raising money; it’s not easy,” he continues. “Because you have little to give the person in return who’s giving you the contribution. The Speaker has a lot to give, controlling the flow of legislation.”
At the same time, though, a Speaker is never going to need $200,000 to win his next election. This means he can re-gift his donations to other reps, thereby creating a huge lever of influence in a state where General Assembly elections are often won with less than $20,000.
We’ll say that again: the House Speaker can pass along his campaign donations to whichever candidate he likes. He can also do this with the more than $80,000 in funds from political action committees (PACs) set up by House leadership.
Oh, yeah. The Speaker can also pay for meals from his campaign accounts, if that particular outing for Veal Spezzardo or Beef Braciola at the Old Canteen falls within rules about using funds to maintain their elected office. “They wine and dine people to get their allegiance,” Marion says.
LIFE AFTER THE SPEAKERSHIP
We didn’t have much luck getting in touch with the Gordon Fox’s predecessors for this article. Phone calls to the offices of John Harwood (RI House Speaker from 1993-2002) and William Murphy (2003-2010) went unreturned.
But, then again, it’s hard to imagine what Murphy could have told us that would speak more loudly than his profile page on LobbyTracker, the Secretary of State’s web portal where lobbyists are required by law to submit information. Murphy’s page — in particular, the “Estimated Compensation” section — offers snapshot of the kind of power that remains with a Speaker after he hands over the gavel. In 2013, the payments he received for lobbying work included a $15,000 retainer from the 2nd Amendment Coalition, a $50,000 fee from Advance America Cash Advance Centers, Inc., a $25,000 fee from the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, and $10,000 per month in fees from UTGR, the company that owns Twin River.
It appears that being a former Speaker of the House of Rhode Island is very good for one’s financial health, after stepping down from the rostrum. That is, unless you resign from the office after the feds raid it.
But let’s not end on such a sour note.
Instead, we’ll remind you that in Massachusetts, the three men who preceded the state’s current Speaker — the men who held office from 1991 to 2009 — were convicted of felonies for tax evasion; perjury and obstruction of justice; and conspiracy and extortion, respectively. An Associated Press article once referred to the situation as a “hat trick of convictions.”
God bless America.
Philip Eil can be reached email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @phileil.