Indeed, it was only through the enterprising reporting of the Wall Street Journal that we recently learned Houston billionaire John Arnold, a former Enron trader and hedge fund manager who has backed pension reform across the country, wrote a six-figure check to the group.

There is no evidence that Arnold or any of EngageRI's other, unknown donors have benefitted from the pension legislation or their association with Raimondo. And the treasurer, herself, recently called on EngageRI to disclose its funders.

But independent expenditures raise all kinds of thorny questions about influence. This summer, for instance, the New York Times reported that gambling interests made large donations to the Committee to Save New York, an independent group backing Governor Andrew Cuomo's agenda, just as he was crafting a plan to expand gambling in the state.

Large independent expenditures can be particularly potent in a small state like Rhode Island, with part-time legislators ill-equipped to stand up to the kind of pressure they can buy.

Indeed, small-time lobbyists — with less cash at their disposal — have exerted tremendous influence on the state's citizen legislature for years now.

One way to create a General Assembly more independent of lobbyists and better positioned to vet big, complex ideas, is to professionalize the place — to make legislators full-time employees and give each of them a staffer.

Of course, there's probably limited appetite for such a move among a public deeply suspicious of Smith Hill. But good government advocates say the state could take an important interim step: professionalizing the existing staff that serves the legislature.

The House and Senate fiscal staffs are generally well regarded. But it's tough for rank-and-file legislators to get access to analysts if they are not in leadership's good graces.

Insiders add that the House's non-fiscal staff is small, packed with patronage hires, and unable to conduct quality research on health care, the environment, and other tough issues the legislature confronts — or should be confronting — on a regular basis.

Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, chastened by the 38 Studios blow-up, seems willing to consider a more professional staff and, broadly speaking, better legislative oversight of state government.

That's not a cure-all for Rhode Island's chronic case of amateurism. But it would be a start.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at  dscharfenberg@phx.com.Follow him on Twitter @d_scharfenberg.

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