In the Phoenix: Amateurism

In today's Phoenix - our year-in-review spectacular - I've got a cover story on the amateurism coursing through Rhode Island politics. We saw it in spades in 2012r: from the epic collapse of the taxpayer-supported 38 Studios video game company to the misguided Congressional campaigns of Democrat Anthony Gemma and Republican Michael Riley.

Toward the end of the story, I suggest that the General Assembly might avoid future folly by professionalizing its staff so that it can more thoroughly vet the big, bad ideas that too often make their way through the legislature.

Reporting the story, I spoke with longtime Smith Hill observer, staffer, and consultant Gary Sasse. In 1993, he chaired the Blue Ribbon Commission on the General Assembly, which made a number of reform suggestions. A couple of big ideas became reality: shrinking the legislature and cutting lawmakers pensions.

But a series of proposals aimed at professionalizing the legislature - creating formal job descriptions for legislative staff, giving rank-and-file legislators better access to analysts, giving each legislator a 20-hour-per-week intern or fellow of his own, and hiring research staff for committees - did not.

Sasse told me that the General Assembly, even if it had balked at these ideas, had made some improvements in professionalizing staff since the 1993 report. But he was still pushing some of its core recommendations

He said there needs to be a formal system of classifying staffers: job descriptions, a defined pay scale, and a clear professional ladder. The system, of course, will never be entirely free of political influence. But limiting that influence as much as possible - and obtaining the best counsel available - should be the goal. Indeed, merely adding to the staff without these structural changes will not do much good, Sasse said.

This sort of effort won't grab headlines. But it could go a long way toward preventing the next 38 Studios debacle and, just as important, curbing the influence of money on politics.

At the moment, lobbyists with the time and wherewithal are drafting much of the legislation filed on Smith Hill. A better, more professional staff could better vet that legislation and give lawmakers a chance to develop more of their own ideas.

Sasse and John Marion, of good government group Common Cause Rhode Island, made the case for this kind of reform just a couple of years ago under the guise of Citizens for an Accountable Legislature. They didn't have any greater luck than the Blue Ribbon Commission of 1993. Perhaps the high-profile failures of of the past year will allow for a better result this time around.

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