The Register-Guard editorial staff may be on to something for all states to consider
Last week's firing of Jack Roberts as director of the Oregon Lottery offers Oregonians a warning: A governance structure established by voters 30 years ago for a small-time scratch-off ticket operation may be poorly suited to the billion-dollar enterprise the lottery has become. The 2017 Legislature should study whether existing systems of oversight and control are adequate, and refer any needed improvements to the voters.
Gov. Kate Brown fired Roberts after he refused to resign, citing "management problems." According to The (Portland) Oregonian, Roberts said he had placed a deputy on paid leave pending an investigation of allegations that he had harassed a subordinate. This would be standard procedure. But the governor's office maintains that the deputy might have protected status as a whistleblower. Roberts knew nothing of this, and his questions about what the deputy may have been blowing a whistle about were unanswered.
Brown didn't need a reason to dismiss Roberts. The voter-approved section of the Oregon Constitution relating to the lottery gives the governor the full authority to appoint the director, subject to Senate confirmation. The same section says the director "shall be qualified by training and experience" to do the job, but there are no standards. Roberts has a long resume as a lawyer, Lane County commissioner, labor commissioner and head of the Lane Metro Partnership, but had no background in lottery operations when Gov. John Kitzhaber named him director in 2013.
The Legislature, except through the confirmation process, has no leverage over the lottery director. It also has no power over the distribution of the lottery's $1 billion per biennium in profits, which are divided in accordance with voter-approved constitutional provisions. A constitutionally mandated Lottery Commission is charged with ensuring the "integrity, security, honesty and fairness" of the lottery, but its members are also appointed by the governor and its operations are managed by the director.
This setup means the governor, through his or her proxy, has near-total control over a 400-employee agency that has expanded to become the state's No. 2 source of general-fund revenue, after the income tax. Not surprisingly, appointments to the position of lottery director will be scrutinized for evidence of patronage. People are waiting to see whether Brown removed Roberts to make way for someone on whom she intends to bestow a plum.
Those are not ideal circumstances for a lottery director or for the lottery, which depends on public trust while offering greater opportunities for corruption than the average state agency. Any hint of corruption would be a disaster, for a governor and for an important source of revenue. The lottery's governance should be structured in a way that offers the greatest possible insulation from political influence, and the strongest possible safeguards against corruption.
The Legislature should examine ways of strengthening protections of the lottery's integrity. One possibility would be to empower the Lottery Commission to hire the director, and give the Legislature a voice in appointments to the commission. Authority over — and accountability for — the lottery would then be divided between two branches of government rather than concentrated in one. Other changes could also be considered. But both Roberts' arrival and his departure as lottery director highlight the unchecked nature of the governor's power over an important position and an important agency — and undiluted power always brings with it the risk of abuse.