February 4, 2005

Airing the Lottery Commission's "Chaos"

Justin Katz

The Providence Journal is urging "Governor Carcieri, House Speaker William Murphy and Senate President Joseph Montalbano to sit down together and work out some of the kinks in the implementation of separation of powers." While kinks should surely be worked out as quickly as possible, I'd prefer that these three Rhode Island leaders sit down before an audience for the discussion.

It's not that I distrust the governor to stand his ground, but the ordeal — especially when it comes to the $1.5-billion-a-year Lottery Commission — stinks so badly that all handling thereof ought to be done in the open air. The editorial uses the words "chaos" and "confusion," but as is often the case, putting all of the various pieces on the table, those qualities appear sown, not inherent.

At some point, the Lottery Commission hired lawyer John Tarantino to investigate whether the separation of powers amendment affected its composition. Tarantino, readers may recall, wrote a harsh commentary piece for the Projo attacking Ed Achorn for his "dangerous" rants about government corruption, and promised to offer his "honest opinion" about the "complex issue" that he was studying. Well, surprise, surprise, he's found as some folks, Ed Achorn perhaps among them, might have predicted:

Tarantino, of Adler Pollock & Sheehan, said the state Constitution grants the General Assembly "absolute power with respect to all matters pertaining to gambling. . ." He said separation of powers does not "appear explicitly or implicitly to undermine this precedent."

When I first read that Tarantino had been hired by the Commission itself, I thought the fact had a ring of independence. However, the same article reporting the fruits of his analysis explains that heretofore, the Commission consisted of three senators, three representatives, and three gubernatorial appointees. In other words, the question that the nine members charged the lawyer with answering was whether six of them could retain their positions.

In the meantime, House Speaker William Murphy and Senate President Joseph Montalbano raised questions "about the effect of the separation-of-powers amendment on the Lottery Commission and the Coastal Resources Management Council" (in Tarantino's words). As Ed Achorn says, the "political firestorm grew so hot that Speaker Murphy wisely backed off and pledged to respect the will of the people."

Even so, the three house representatives on the Lottery Commission insisted on staying put until Governor Carcieri's appointees are ready to take their place. And the Senate Judicary Committee has produced a perhaps prohibitively arduous questionnaire requiring those nominees — who are unpaid volunteers — to divulge full maps of their personal and financial lives since they turned eighteen.

The picture that emerges is of a legislature striving to keep its grip on the Lottery Commission for as long as possible. One can only imagine the nefarious intentions that the governor scuttled by maneuvering to keep the Commission attendance short of the five members needed to do any work at its first meeting of the year. But just to be safe, perhaps all negotiations and meetings ought to be pursued in full public view.