PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has abruptly backed off an attempted power grab involving marijuana policy, even as Gov. Gina Raimondo continues to consider filing a lawsuit over the dispute.
At issue is a provision added to the state budget in June by the House Finance Committee, requiring that all new marijuana regulations get final approval from state lawmakers before taking effect. Though the governor declined to veto the budget over it, she and Common Cause Rhode Island have described the measure as violating separation of powers because it creates a “legislative veto.”
House leaders have previously said they were motivated by concerns about how the Raimondo administration was crafting cannabis rules and wanted more oversight. Privately, political observers also said the move would ensure marijuana companies needed to cultivate lawmakers – including with campaign donations – to get the rules they wanted.
But Mattiello’s team stopped defending the marijuana policy change late last week, soon after it emerged that the speaker’s 29-year-old deputy chief of staff, Grant Pilkington, is a shareholder in a hemp business whose principals also include two registered State House lobbyists.
Mattiello spokesperson Larry Berman said Monday the speaker now intends to pass a bill shortly after lawmakers return to Smith Hill in January that will eliminate the need for marijuana regulations to win legislative approval, confirming a comment in The Providence Journal.
“The General Assembly wanted to ensure that the regulatory process would be fair, open and transparent to everyone and deemed that additional oversight would accomplish this. However, the governor has strongly objected,” Berman said.
“As a result, our House legal counsel has already communicated with the governor’s legal counsel the intent to pass legislation in January to reverse that provision in the law,” he said. “The House intends to have discussions in the near future with the Senate.”
Yet Raimondo spokesperson Josh Block indicated the speaker’s move has not mollified the governor.
“Medical marijuana is a new and growing industry, and it’s critical that we regulate it in a way that’s open, transparent, and guarantees a level playing field for businesses,” Block said. “The House of Representatives giving itself veto power over these regulations undermines an otherwise public process and opens the door for behind-the-scenes influence on decisions with major job and economic development implications for our state.”
Block added, “The provisions of this budget article likewise pose a serious separation of powers violation, and we are currently exploring our legal options.”
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause, welcomed Mattiello’s change of heart.
“We are glad to see the speaker of the House retreat from his position that the Rhode Island Constitution allows for legislative approval of administrative regulations,” Marion said in an email. “Common Cause has testified against similar measures for almost a decade and the House should have known this violates the constitutional order.”
“Legislative meddling in administrative rule making would return us to the bad old days prior to the 2004 separation of powers amendments and Common Cause is committed to stopping us from going back,” he said.
Still, Berman insisted the House remains serious about stepping up oversight of marijuana regulations, even if it is abandoning the push for a legislative veto.
“The House continues to believe this is an issue that needs significantly enhanced oversight and will fulfill this function through our Oversight Committee,” he said.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook