PROVIDENCE -- It’s not your imagination: Although the Rhode Island General Assembly meets for six months each year, much of the real action doesn’t happen until late in the legislative session.
Each year, the part-time legislature introduces a blizzard of legislation after convening soon in January. But last year, just 21 percent of the acts introduced in January and 18 percent of the acts introduced in February ended up becoming law, according to a new data tool unveiled on Thursday by Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea.
By contrast, the legislature enacted 72 percent of the legislation introduced in June 2019, showing that the chances of success rise dramatically as the session heats up, nearing a conclusion.
“We’ve long known that the General Assembly leaves most of its work for the final weeks,” said John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “The secretary of state’s new tool shows us just how dramatic a rush there is in June.”
That annual sprint to the finish has implications for the public, he said.
“When the bulk of legislation is passed in the final weeks of the Assembly session, it is difficult -- if not impossible -- for the public to follow what is happening,” Marion said. “The result is legislation that has not received the scrutiny it deserves, and an opaque process where professional lobbyists thrive.”
Gorbea’s office launched a “Lobbying and Legislation Data Exploration Tool,” saying it will let the public easily sort years of lobbying and legislative information using dozens of search functions.
“We’ve taken public data on lobbying and legislation and turned it into a resource that empowers Rhode Islanders to hold their elected officials accountable,” Gorbea said.
All the lobbying and legislative information has been public in years past, but now it is easily sorted so that people can, for example, find out the number of registered lobbyists in a given year or the number of bills introduced on a particular subject. Users can also narrow their focus to explore the activity of an individual lobbyist or the progress of an individual bill.
The data visualization tool shows the Assembly introduced 2,309 bills last year. That included 1,791 acts and 518 resolutions. Resolutions include matters of congratulations, condolences, and marriage ceremonies, and are much more likely to pass.
Last year, 82 percent of the proposed resolutions passed, and 25 percent of the proposed acts became law.
The data show that, in general, the chances of an act becoming law, rises along with the temperature.
Of the 405 acts introduced in January 2019, 21 percent became law, and of the 716 acts introduced in February 2019, 18 percent became law.
By comparison, of the 141 acts introduced in May 2019, 40 percent became law, and of the 102 acts introduced in June 2019, 72 percent became law.
Marion said that this year the General Assembly is showing it can act on substantive legislation early in the session. For example, legislators have been acting on a proposed ban on 3D guns, and removing a "legislative veto" provision from state marijuana regulations.
But historically, the many legislative decision get pushed off until the end of the session, partly for strategic reasons, Marion said. For example, legislative leaders gain leverage if they hold onto bills until after the state budget passes near the end of the session, he said.
“It ends up at the end every year,” Marion said. “It’s natural that you procrastinate, much like you did in school, but that’s not an excuse for not taking up more substantive legislation earlier in the session.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org