The Cranston Herald: Lobbying reform bill a chance for RI to shine

Openness. Inclusiveness. Transparency. Trust. Integrity. Fairness. When we consider the ideals to which our government ought to strive, words such as these come to mind.

When many believe the system has been weighted heavily in favor of certain groups and interests, the democratic process falters. The corrosive forces of cynicism and apathy take root and, over time, prove deeply difficulty to counter.

“It’s like the air you breathe…when you don’t have ethical and transparent government, you notice it,” Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said during a recent interview at the Warwick Beacon office.

Cognizant of the frustration many Rhode Islanders feel regarding their government, and the perception among many that the system is indeed broken, Gorbea has made lobbying reform a centerpiece of her agenda during her first months in office. The Lobbying Reform Act of 2015, which State Rep. Robert Jacquard of Cranston and state Sen. Erin Lynch of Warwick introduced in their respective chambers on her behalf, has already gone before the House Judiciary Committee and is soon set for discussion before its counterpart panel in the Senate.

The legislation seeks a wide-ranging overhaul of lobbying rules, eliminating the current structure – in which different regulatory guidelines are laid out for the executive and legislative branches – in favor of a streamlined, comprehensive approach.

It would also address what Gorbea says are weaknesses in the current laws, such as lack of clarity, insufficient penalties for violators and a lack of administrative subpoena power. Maximum penalties would be more than doubled, from $2,000 to $5,000. The investigative tools available to the secretary of state’s office would be strengthened. Definitions would be clarified, reporting guidelines simplified and easy, understandable public access to information improved.

“The preservation of responsible government requires that the people of the state be afforded the fullest opportunity to petition their government officials and to express their opinions,” the bill reads. “Public confidence in the integrity of our government is strengthened by the identification of those who seek to influence governmental actions and by the disclosure of funds expended in that effort.”

Gorbea pointed to the work of a Lobbying Advisory Task Force, which brought a range of stakeholders and constituencies to the table in helping to develop the legislation. She also frames the bill as part of the broader push for a Rhode Island renewal among the newly elected slate of statewide officeholders, including Gov. Gina Raimondo’s economic and infrastructure initiatives.

“Lobby reform is another kind of infrastructure development,” she said, in that it helps build confidence in the political process among citizens and businesses.

Gorbea is “cautiously optimistic” the lobbying legislation will garner the needed approval, and hopes it can serve as a model for municipalities and other states. In the end, she said, the proposal is “about regulating and setting a level playing field.”

“This is a real opportunity for Rhode Island to shine,” Gorbea told the Beacon.

We agree and urge lawmakers to support her plan.