Reformers call passage a ‘dramatic, historic step forward’

The House and Senate today unanimously approved legislation to restore the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction over the General Assembly.

The joint resolution (2016-H 8189A, 2016-S 2953A), sponsored by Speaker of the House Nicholas A. Mattiello and President of the Senate M. Teresa Paiva Weed puts a constitutional amendment before voters at the November general election that would close the legislative immunity loophole.

The legislation passed on votes of 72-0 in the House and 38-0 in the Senate. Each chamber will now forward its bill to the other chamber for approval in concurrence before it can be sent to the governor’s desk.

“There is no room at the General Assembly for those who put self-interest before our state’s best interest,” said Speaker Mattiello (D-Dist. 15, Cranston). “This reform, if approved by the voters, will bring a strong sense of accountability to our chambers.”

Senate President Paiva Weed (D-Dist. 13, Newport, Jamestown) said, “Rhode Island’s Ethics Commission is among the strongest in the nation, and this legislation ensures its full jurisdiction over every elected official in the state. Today’s action will increase transparency and accountability, and will help ensure the confidence of the citizens in their government. I am grateful for the hard work of the Judiciary Committee, my colleagues in the Senate, advocacy groups and many members of the public whose contributions have aided in the development of this important legislation.”

“Today’s vote is a dramatic, historic step forward,” said Phil West, who is the former executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “The Speaker and Senate President’s ballot question will allow voters to establish the same ethics accountability for all public officials in Rhode Island. It will again allow legislators to think through potential conflicts of interest and to seek advisory opinions from the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. No other state has anything better than this.”

In 2009, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that the state constitution’s “speech in debate clause” conferred legislative immunity upon General Assembly members. As a result, legislators stood outside the purview of the Ethics Commission. A constitutional amendment is necessary to restore the Ethics Commission’s oversight of the legislature.

“Since the Irons decision, Common Cause has dedicated itself to closing the ‘legislative immunity’ loophole,” said Common Cause Executive Director John Marion. “We thank Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Paiva Weed for their leadership in sponsoring the resolutions that give the voters the opportunity to restore full jurisdiction to the Ethics Commission. We have no doubt that this measure will increase transparency and accountability in our legislature.”

The resolution adopted by the House and Senate did not include a campaign blackout period for filing complaints.

“We met with several groups and decided that the Constitution was an inappropriate place for a moratorium on filing complaints,” said Speaker Mattiello. “I have confidence that the Ethics Commission will consider and determine the proper approach for dealing with frivolous, politically charged complaints.”

The legislation is the latest of several reforms calling for more transparency in government and elections. In 2014, the General Assembly approved the removal of the “master lever,” which abolished the practice of one-line, straight-party voting. Last year, the Assembly approved sweeping campaign finance reforms to increase disclosure of campaign account activity, and this year lobbying reform was enacted.

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