speaker mattiello ethics reform

Guest View: It’s Time for Ethics Reform

By Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello

When I became Speaker of the House of Representatives two years ago, I wanted to send a clear message that reform was critical to moving our state forward.

We moved swiftly to tackle one of the most important good government issues of our time and banned further use of the master lever.

Then, last year, we tackled loopholes in our campaign finance system and passed meaningful and comprehensive reforms to ensure the integrity of our electoral process.

Now, many Rhode Islanders share my frustration with the recent events concerning elected officials in our state. The bottom line is that we should be able to trust our government instead of worrying about what scandal is around the next corner.

That is why I have worked over the last few months on a bill to restore Ethics Commission oversight of the General Assembly: to give the public and the business community faith that our government is working for them.

The General Assembly has been outside the jurisdiction of the state’s Ethics Commission since a Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling in 2009.  The court ruled that the “speech in debate” clause in our Constitution prevented enforcement of the Code of Ethics against members of the legislature while performing their core legislative duties. My bill calls for a Constitutional amendment to remove this legislative immunity.

There is no place in our legislature for self-interest or conflicts of interest.  Our constituents should never doubt whether a legislator has ulterior motives.  They should have confidence that our debate is focused on what is best for Rhode Island.

Ethics Commission jurisdiction over the General Assembly will be a meaningful step forward for our state.  If this legislation passes, I ask all Rhode Islanders to support the forthcoming ballot question in November. Good government experts say that Rhode Island has the strongest Ethics Commission in the nation.  However, since 2009, the Ethics Commission has been powerless to enforce the Ethics Code with members of the General Assembly.  With the support of the voters, my legislation will change that.

I want to thank Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed for submitting identical legislation. We have had very productive discussions in recent weeks and I am proud that the House and Senate leaders are on the same page on this critical matter.  This is an important step forward for reform in Rhode Island.

Our reform proposal is the product of lengthy talks with good government advocates like John Marion and Phil West. Phil, the well-respected former executive director of Common Cause, joined us when we unveiled the bill and stated that this legislation is “a huge step forward.”

Amending our Constitution is about more than adding accountability. It will also send a strong message to our citizens that we will not tolerate public corruption.  Rhode Island has suffered from an image problem for far too long.  Embarrassments in public office substantially harm our state’s reputation. Now is the time to say we will no longer tolerate such abuses of power and that we need to move our state forward in a transparent and open manner.

We have made progress in recent years to tackle the economic woes facing our middle class. Unemployment is down and our economy is moving in the right direction. We are working hard every day to attract investment and spur economic development.  Unfortunately, those efforts are undermined by greed and corruption in our government. Businesses may be reluctant to invest in a state where the morality of elected officials is questioned. Ethics Commission jurisdiction over the legislature is more than good law – it is sound economic policy.

I welcome the Ethics Commission’s scrutiny and oversight into the House chamber.  The faith and trust of the people is critical to a thriving democracy.  I urge Rhode Islanders to support ethics reform so that we can move forward and collectively focus on how we create jobs, improve the economy and grow our middle class.

Nicholas A. Mattiello is the Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives.  He is a Democrat from District 15 in Cranston.