Last week, officials from the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals were called to speak in front of the House Oversight Committee. The reason was to answer questions about what’s been going on at the state-run Zambarano Hospital. Shortly thereafter, the resignation of the director of that agency was made public.
Unlike the other standing committees in the General Assembly, the House Oversight Committee doesn’t consider testimony on proposed legislation. Rather, it is our job to take a look at the state agencies that work for the executive branch and make sure they’re doing their jobs and following the laws that the legislative branch has enacted.
That makes us a watchdog for Rhode Island and it is a job we take very seriously. Over the last three decades, state legislatures have begun to take a more active role in overseeing the operations of the executive branch. As we assume greater responsibilities for government programs and services, the importance of legislative oversight cannot be overstated.
And it sometimes causes frictions between the legislative and executive branches, because, let’s face it, nobody likes to have anyone peeking over their shoulder. But it is an integral and necessary part of representative government. We are here to review the work of those state agencies, to evaluate their operation and performance, and review the rules and regulations developed by those agencies to implement law.
Since the current membership of the Oversight Committee first met five years ago, we’ve put state agencies under a microscope and demanded accountability from the directors. In that time we’ve demanded answers for the months-long delay in tax refunds, resulting in a streamlining of that system.
We probed the $364 million botched rollout of the state’s health and human services computer system, the United Health Infrastructure Project, which led to the resignation of the director of Human Services.
We investigated child fatalities in the state when several children in the care of the Department of Children, Youth and Families died from neglect. We also probed abuses at a Pawtucket group home, which led to the state ending a contract with that facility.
We reviewed hundreds of complaints lodged against a vendor that provides transportation to Medicaid beneficiaries, the elderly and handicapped. It eventually led to a $1 million fine and a renegotiated contract.
Starting this year, we began a review of the way the state is spending emergency funds in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, including $1.25 billion from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
We also met to investigate reports that the state Council on Postsecondary Education hired an out-of-state firm to help Rhode Island College close a $10-million deficit. The firm was hired with a no-bid contract on Dec. 14 at $76,000 a week. After the meeting, the contract was canceled.
These are just a few examples of the work we’ve done. And we mention them because it’s not enough for the General Assembly to pass laws. We have to stay vigilant and make sure that the laws we pass are being enforced, and that the money we appropriate is being spent properly.
That system of checks and balances is a big part of the American system of government; and without it, democracy and representation simply do not work. Because whenever agencies are given autonomy to go about their business unchecked and unfettered, abuses are sure to follow. It’s the nature of the beast.
But rest assured, those agencies will never operate in a vacuum. As long as the House Oversight Committee exists, we will always be there to make sure they’re doing the job fairly and efficiently. We will always be there to hold their feet to the fire.
Rep. Patricia A. Serpa is the chairwomen on the House Oversight Committee. She represents District 27 and resides in West Warwick. Rep. Julie A. Casimiro is the first vice chairwoman of the committee. She represents District 31 and resides in North Kingstown.