- Associated Press - Monday, July 6, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - When former House Speaker Gordon Fox was sentenced for corruption, his lawyer spoke about how difficult it was for him to maintain a career as a public servant in the state’s part-time legislature and as a solo law practitioner.

While few lawmakers abuse their positions, the high commitment and low pay has driven some away from the job and perhaps deterred others from seeking office.

Current House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said it might be time for the public to consider a change. Voters would have to approve a constitutional amendment to pay lawmakers more or to shift to a full-time legislature.

“However we proceed forward, you have to compensate people appropriately so you attract the right people - talented people, well-educated people - to do these jobs,” said Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat and lawyer.

Several lawmakers said it’s worth re-evaluating the current setup - not everyone can leave their jobs in the mid-afternoon three days a week during the session, from January to June.

But many others said they like having a citizen legislature, not a professional one.

“There’s always time commitments that you’re fighting, but all in all, I like the idea of having people who come here pretty much because of their public commitment and take their life experiences and their career with them,” said House Majority Leader John DeSimone, a Providence Democrat and an attorney. “That adds to the debate.”

Members of the General Assembly are entitled to $15,414 annually. The House speaker and Senate president make double. Most of the 113 lawmakers maintain a job outside the statehouse.

Nine other states have a part-time legislature similar to Rhode Island’s, while six states have part-time legislatures with lower pay and smaller staffs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

An effort in the Rhode Island Senate to raise lawmakers’ pay substantially didn’t gain traction in 2010.

Many people have told John Marion, the executive director of the open-government group Common Cause, that Rhode Island should have a full-time legislature to allow lawmakers to focus on the issues and possibly reduce corruption.

“I receive a fair amount of unsolicited ideas for how to fix the legislative process in Rhode Island and going to a full-time legislature is probably the No. 1 option I hear,” he said.

Full-time, professionalized legislatures aren’t necessarily a barrier to corruption. There have been a series of convictions of top leaders in Pennsylvania’s professional legislature in recent years.

Rhode Island House Minority Leader Brian Newberry said changing to a full-time legislature or paying more in Rhode Island won’t change human nature.

“People who are dishonest and corrupt are going to be dishonest and corrupt,” said Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican and a lawyer.

Newberry said he would be in favor, however, of starting the session later in the day and shortening it by two months so more people can serve.

Fox, who represented Providence for 11 terms, reports to prison Tuesday to serve three years on charges of bribery, wire fraud and filing a false tax return. William Murphy, Fox’s lawyer and predecessor as House speaker, told a judge at the June 11 sentencing that Fox’s work in the General Assembly became his main career, to the detriment of his law practice, and he “found himself beyond his means.”

Mattiello agreed with Murphy’s basic premise that there’s a sacrifice in serving but said no one should break the law.

Mattiello said he tells young professionals not to run for office until they build their careers so they can afford to serve. The issues are more complex than ever before and dealing with them is a full-time job, he added.

“It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but it comes at a personal economic cost,” Mattiello said.

Democratic Rep. Donald Lally Jr., a veteran member of the House, resigned in March, saying his General Assembly work had become a year-round commitment.

On Wednesday, the start of the new fiscal year, lawmakers received a cost-of-living increase of $242.71. Some turned it down.

One lawmaker suggested giving committee chairmen a stipend for the extra hours they put in. Another said a full-time legislature could be an option, as long as there were term limits.

“People don’t want to see you making a career out of this,” said Sen. James Sheehan, a teacher and North Kingstown Democrat who declined the raise. “If you get too comfortable, you could take the public’s interest for granted and become part of the political machine.”

Marion, of Common Cause, said he doesn’t see a right answer and it may be time to look at the question again.

“State government plays a bigger role in society,” he said. “The legislature may need to change to reflect that.”


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