Moore: RI Senate Makes Another Power Play Against the House of Representatives

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The now annual power struggle between the two houses of the legislature is brewing again. 

State Senator Ryan Pearson (D-Cumberland, Lincoln) wants to amend the state constitution to create a “budget reconciliation process” between the House and Senate. He’s not alone. There are 33 other cosponsors. The Senate has 38 members. 

He also wants to amend the constitution to give the Governor a line item veto. A line item  veto would allow the Governor to veto a specific portion of the budget. Currently, the Governor can only veto the whole budget as opposed to specific lines. 

Here’s the thing: this might sound like inside baseball, but it would fundamentally alter the balance of power at the statehouse. 

Violating Unwritten Rules

For decades, the state budget has originated in the House. After it’s passed, it gets sent to the Senate. The budget is negotiated beforehand, so there’s seldom, if ever any changes once it get presented. 

Last year, House leaders, including Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston), were furious when the Senate moved to amend the budget after it passed the House of Representatives.

House leaders believed they already had a deal with Senate leaders and that the bargain was violated. Mattiello refused to budge, and the Senate later caved, returning to session and passing the House budget. 

“While there has been great public discussion regarding the line item veto, a line item veto alone is not enough to ensure a transparent and accountable budget process,” said Senator Ryan Pearson, who serves as secretary of the Senate Finance Committee, in a press release.

“By tradition the House has taken a first pass at the budget, however, there is no constitutional requirement for this. Both the House and Senate Finance Committees put in countless hours of hearings and review of the budget each year, these efforts should produce a budget from each chamber.”

Why Not Have A Convention?

Pearson wants to create a process that would have both houses pass their own budgets. The legislature would create conference committees. The committees would merge the two budgets and pass a budget based on compromise. 

Yet that’s basically what’s done already. Pearson’s proposal would, perhaps, make the process a bit more transparent. But it’s not going to be endorsed by the House of Representatives, since they perceive it would weaken the power of the lower chamber. The Senate would gain more power, without losing any of its perks–such as affirming judicial appointments. 

And if the Senate is so interested in making sweeping constitutional changes, why didn’t more of the members of the Senate support a Constitutional Convention during the 2016 election? What changed between then and now? 

Russell Moore
Russell J. Moore is the publisher and founder of rirelevant.com. He’s been writing about Rhode Island since 2005. You should definitely follow him on twitter @russmoore713. If you want to send him email, you can send it to russmoore713@gmail.com
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