Lawmaker proposes full-time legislature

Lawmaker proposes full-time legislature

Lawmaker proposes full-time legislature

01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, May 10, 2007

By Steve Peoples

Journal State House Bureau, The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE – A government watchdog group testified yesterday against a plan to take Rhode Island’s legislature full-time. But Christine Lopes, executive director for Common Cause, was the only opponent to appear before the Senate Committee on Constitutional and Regulatory Issues.

“Can our budget support this?” she asked the handful of lawmakers gathered inside Room 211.

The proposal – which would require voters to amend the state Constitution – effectively creates 113 full-time state jobs. The lawmakers – 75 in the House of Representatives and 38 in the Senate – would make $85,000 a year. Annual salaries for the House speaker and the Senate president would be $145,000. And the pay rates would be adjusted annually “to reflect changes in the cost of living, as determined by the United States government.”

Lawmakers would continue to receive state-paid health insurance.

“It would put us in the same structure the [United States] Congress works under,” bill sponsor Sen. Frank A. Ciccone III, said. “Let the voters decide.”

Lopes noted that costs would include additional office space, larger staffs, and further strain on the state pension system.

Legislators are currently paid $13,089 a year – the Senate president and House speaker twice that – plus fully paid health insurance. They meet three nights a week, for about six months a year. Most have day jobs.

Supporters of the full-time proposal – an issue which has been discussed in years past – say it would eliminate conflict-of-interest allegations that arise when lawmakers write, introduce or vote on bills that affect industries in which they work.

Ciccone, for example, is sometimes criticized for his work as a field representative for the Rhode Island Laborers’ District Council. The plan, Ciccone said, would allow legislators to focus on their work at the General Assembly. It might also attract more qualified candidates.

“It’s hard for teachers to run,” said committee member Sen. Paul Jabour, D-Providence. “I don’t think any police officers could run . What would make Common Cause support this bill?”

Lopes did not have an answer. Nor did she offer detailed alternatives to Ciccone’s legislation when asked by Jabour.

The elimination of conflicts of interest, Lopes said, could be reduced by strengthening ethics and disclosure laws.

The crux of Common Cause’s opposition voiced yesterday is the cost of the proposal.

Lopes said that the $85,000-a-year salary would make Rhode Island lawmakers the second-highest paid in the nation behind California, which pays its members more than $110,000. Massachusetts pays its full-time legislators $55,500.

And while the number of lawmakers in each state is similar, the number of constituents they represent is not.

Each California member represents roughly 900,000 people, Lopes said. Rhode Island lawmakers each represent about 28,000 people.

Ciccone noted that the average pay for legislators in full-time legislatures was around $67,000, adding that his bill wouldn’t allow some of the perks given to lawmakers in other states. His proposal doesn’t include reimbursement for mileage, meals or the use of a state car, he said.

A spokesman for the House of Representatives said the leadership was open to the idea.

House Speaker William J. Murphy, D-West Warwick, has “expressed support for looking into it, exploring it, having a discussion,” spokesman Larry Berman said. “House leadership has mentioned it might be a good idea to debate and discuss.”

Meanwhile, committees in the House and Senate debated a bid for a constitutional amendment to make state lawmakers contribute the same amount toward their health insurance that state employees do.

The House Finance Committee rebuffed an offer by the sponsor, Rep. Amy Rice, D-Portsmouth, to produce a check on the spot for a share of her family package. Rep. John Loughlin, R-Tiverton, brought charts showing Rhode Island is one of only seven states that provide fully paid health insurance to its lawmakers, and one of only two that offer them a free array of health, dental and vision-care benefits. “So we certainly are a leader among states,” said Loughlin wryly. “We’re leaders in the wrong direction.”

He also offered up an analogy: in the military, the leaders “eat” last.

But no vote was taken and when asked the bill’s chances, House Finance Chairman Steven M. Costantino said: “unlikely.” Why? “I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t think people making $10-to-$12,000 a year should be compared to people making $144,000 a year. Make us full-time and we’ll consider the proposal.”

With reports from Katherine Gregg of the Journal State House Bureau

Date: 5/10/2007 12:00:00 AM