The idea of abolishing the legislator-dominated Rhode Island Lottery Commission got its first hearing — and a warm welcome from the governor — at the General Assembly last night.
The question of what to do with the board — which is responsible for the state's third-largest revenue source — has been an issue since the November passage of a separation-of-powers constitutional amendment. The amendment bars lawmakers from sitting on state boards and commissions with executive functions.
The Lottery Commission had comprised three House members, three Senate members and three public members. Only the House members, who insisted they retained their right to serve, have come to meetings since the start of the year, leaving the board without a quorum.
At one point, House Speaker William J. Murphy, D-West Warwick, had suggested the House might go to the state Supreme Court seeking a ruling supporting his contention that lawmakers retained the right to sit on the board because the state Constitution gives them powers to oversee lotteries.
Murphy later backed away from that challenge. The House has yet to set a hearing on the proposal to abolish the Lottery Commission, introduced first by Rep. Paul Crowley, D-Newport. But yesterday, a matching bill, sponsored by Sen. David Bates, R-Barrington, was aired by the Senate Committee on Government Oversight.
Committee Chairman J. Michael Lenihan, D-East Greenwich, said he wanted members to have heard the issue in case the House bill surfaces next week in what could be the closing days of the session.
The bills propose to create a "division of state lottery" within the Department of Administration to perform the day-to-day lottery functions, including licensing ticket sellers, operating lottery games, overseeing slot machine operations, entering into promotional contracts, preparing monthly financial reports, and paying out prizes.
The Assembly would decide how many video-slot machines could be installed in any "pari-mutuel license facilities," and how that revenue is divided.
The bills would also create a "Permanent Joint Committee on State Lottery," with four members each from the House and Senate, to watch over the operations of the state lottery.
Jeffrey Grybowski, Governor Carcieri's deputy chief of staff, said the proposal is "exactly what separation of powers was about." He said Carcieri had "no problem" with the Assembly setting the number of slot machines, calling it akin to having the tax rate set in the state budget, and a tax administrator to implement it.
H. Philip West, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, said his group would have preferred to retain and restructure the Lottery Commission. But West said Common Cause recognized the bill was an alternative route, and called its division of responsibilities "appropriate."
Greta Abbott, of the League of Women Voters, was the only one to speak against the bill. Abbott said lawmakers needed to flesh out more details of how the proposed oversight commission would work.
When Crowley introduced his bill, the head of Operation Clean Government blasted the idea, calling it "outrageous" and a "violation of the spirit and intent" of the constitutional amendment. But yesterday, no representative of the group testified on the proposal.
Meanwhile, Governor Carcieri followed through on promised vetoes of four additional separation-of-powers bills, adding to one he had rejected a day earlier.
Among the boards covered by the vetoed bills are the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, the State Investment Commission, the Higher Education Assistance Authority, and the State Properties Committee.
As in his earlier veto message, the governor maintained that the Assembly had given him too much direction on what types of people he would have to appoint to board seats.
"I regret the necessity of returning these bills for reconsideration because of the importance of moving forward on the people's mandate for separation of powers," Carcieri wrote. "However, this work must be done properly and I cannot allow known violations of the Constitution to occur."
Carcieri said lawmakers should resubmit the bills with "minor language changes," such as making some appointees nonvoting members.
Lenihan and Rep. Elaine Coderre, D-Pawtucket, chairwoman of the House Separation of Powers Committee, said they did not know yet how the Assembly would respond.