The 2021 RI Rank Environmental Rankings for the Rhode Island General Assembly have been published and can be reviewed here. This year saw substantial improvements across the majority of members in both chambers. Part of this was due to an influx of progressive legislators voted into office last Fall, but ultimately more existing legislators are seeing the writing on the wall: we need to act now.
But action taken in the 2021 session did not even scratch the surface of what we are capable of and what we need to do as a state. Sadly, the conservative leadership group that dominates Rhode Island politics still fails to take climate change seriously, despite the writing on the wall, the IPCC’s damning report on what is to come, and overwhelming calls to action from constituents. They have failed year after year to meet this moment of urgency, choosing to side with big business, donors, and special interests. They have embraced irresponsible short-term thinking that will bring on devastating long-term results. If they do not grasp the urgency now in the face of such substantial evidence, I am afraid they never will. Calling them and expressing our concerns has not worked. Rhode Islanders have no choice but to vote out every single elected official who has failed to meet this critical moment in our existence. Replacing members of the General Assembly who are too corrupt or aloof to care is the only way we can move forward with the bold, immediate action needed to stave off disaster.
This year’s Environmental Rankings improved on our inaugural rankings with weighted scoring based on the importance and impact of each bill, as determined by the Environmental Council of Rhode Island. Last year, our data team raised concerns that legislators were getting away with poor environmental voting records because they were able to vote down impactful bills but vote in favor of less-impactful bills, leaving them with a much better score than they may have deserved. ECRI shared these concerns. So, as part of our continuing goal to improve the accountability of our rankings, we developed a weighting system in consultation with ECRI to award more points for bills that had the largest impact and were of most importance in preventing climate change, reducing pollution, and protecting your health. The result is a better picture of who is delivering for RI on climate, health, and conservation, and who is coming up short.
One area we are constantly brainstorming to account for is the role leadership plays in blocking good bills, not just for the environment, but throughout all of our rankings segments. As is the case in many state houses nationwide, the Speaker and leader of the Senate hold far too much power and essentially function as a one-member General Assembly. If your state Senator draws up a fantastic climate bill that checks all the right boxes, makes a lot of people happy, and has very little resistance – but Senate President Dominick Ruggerio hates it, guess what? The bill is dead. D-E-A-D. Even if nearly every Senator would have voted for in favor, if leadership does not want to put it up for a vote – be it because their palms are greased by big oil, they own stock in Exxon-Mobile, or they simply have a beef with some renewable firms that may benefit, the bill is never going to come to a vote. The power they hold is vast, but understood by very few voters.
Currently, there is a level of accountability for blocked bills, but it works differently in each chamber. In the Senate, President Ruggerio dictates which bills are to be killed. Those bills are taken up by the relevant committee, and that committee then votes to hold the bill for further study, killing it. Because the Senate President technically allows the bills to be voted on by committee, he cannot be held directly accountable. Instead, his committee members essentially fall on their swords for him, taking the hit to their ranking and all the other downsides that come with it. In the House, all bills are held for study upfront and then brought up only if the House Speaker allows it. This allows us to place the responsibility directly on the Speaker. Because there is no committee vote to hold the bill, only the Speaker can be held responsible. However, next year we are making a change and will assign accountability not only to the House Speaker but also to the relevant committee chairs. For example, if an important climate change bill comes up, is assigned to House Environment and Natural Resources, and then blocked – if membership stays as it is today, Speaker Shekarchi and Rep. Bennett (that committee’s chair) would be credited as blocking the bill. We continue to look into new ways to ensure that those responsible for blocking good bills are held accountable.