- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Hoping to show it’s cleaning up its act, the Rhode Island General Assembly is moving quickly on changes that would put lawmakers under the watch of an ethics commission and strengthen lobbying rules.

Democratic leaders are urging passage of ethics legislation they recently introduced, with just weeks left in the session. It would ask voters in November to approve a constitutional amendment giving the state’s Ethics Commission power to punish lawmakers for conflicts of interest.

The swiftness with which the State House leadership is taking action, after years of reluctance, reflects what some legislators say is an attempt to restore the trust of fed-up voters before the November election.

“The House is under an ethical cloud,” said Rep. Michael Marcello, a Scituate Democrat who has tried unsuccessfully for years to pass an ethics bill. “One of our members has resigned under a scandal. There’s a real effort now to get it right and show the voters we care. It’s unfortunate we have to wait for a scandal because the bill’s been around since 2011.”

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THE SPARK

Lawmakers have been reeling since the May 3 resignation of Democratic House Finance Chairman Raymond Gallison, who quit amid a federal investigation. The scope of that investigation has not been made public, but it’s brought scrutiny to legislative grants that paid Gallison’s salary for a nonprofit organization he runs.

That, in turn, has led to an onslaught of local news reports shining light on other lawmakers with close ties to organizations that receive grants approved by the General Assembly.

“It’s a flawed and tainted program,” said Republican state Rep. Patricia Morgan, who publicly confronted Gallison about the grants a decade ago. “Rather than giving it to insiders, for no-show jobs or for political cronies, we should be allowing that money to stay in the wallets of average Rhode Islanders.”

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ETHICS BILL

How much Ethics Commission scrutiny would solve the problem of questionable grants is unclear. But open government advocates have recognized the need for a constitutional amendment since the state’s Supreme Court in 2009 ruled that lawmakers were immune from the commission’s oversight.

The state’s two most powerful lawmakers - House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, both Democrats - have jointly introduced legislation calling for a ballot initiative to restore the commission’s power. Mattiello, who rarely introduces bills, even testified about it before the House Judiciary Committee last week.

“It’s the only bill of substance that the speaker and president have sponsored this year, which is a real sign it’s a leadership-driven thing,” said open government advocate John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island. “It’s also a sign it’s going to pass.”

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PART-TIME WORK

Marcello, whose own bill is similar but doesn’t have the leadership’s support, said he’s still pleased that something is moving forward.

He said it will give the public confidence if the commission has power to investigate and sanction lawmakers, and it will give legislators confidence they’re acting properly once the commission begins offering advisory opinions, as it did before 2009. That advice is particularly important in a small state where part-time lawmakers have day jobs elsewhere, Marcello said.

“The fact that our sole source of income is not from the legislature naturally will create conflicts,” he said.

A spokesman for Mattiello said Monday that the language of the proposed constitutional amendment is still being finalized. Among the unresolved questions is whether to include a moratorium on ethics complaints before an election.

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LOBBYING BILL

Also on top lawmakers’ agenda before the end of the session is a bill to tighten oversight of lobbyists.

“Rhode Island’s lobbying laws are unenforceable as they’re currently written,” Marion said. “We’ve seen a parade of people who’ve thumbed their noses at disclosing their lobbying.”

The reform measure has been championed by Democratic Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who helped draft the bill and would be in charge of keeping track of lobbyists if it passes.

The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the lobbying reform bill Tuesday. A companion bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and could get a full Senate vote soon.

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