Local historian Patrick Conley is defending using an envisioned new state lottery game to help develop a Rhode Island history center in Bristol, although a former state official calls the funding approach misguided and fiscally irresponsible.
A bill introduced last week by state Rep. Ken Marshall (D-Bristol) calls for a new "instant game known as the 'Heritage Hall of Fame Baseball Lottery Game" to be created to help pay for "the construction of a Hall of Fame and Rhode Island History Center Building in Bristol." The bill has been referred to the House Finance Committee.
Conley said he hopes the envisioned lottery game would generate up to $1 million toward the estimated $15 million cost of the project, which is planned for a site on Route 136 next to Roger Williams University. He said the center would rectify a situation in which Rhode Island is one of only a few states without a state history museum.
"A hall of fame that extols and honors the achievements of Rhode Islanders over the last four centuries, I think, would counteract the negative self-image that Rhode Island has," Conley said Monday. "I think it would be a source of pride and inspiration, and a very good thing for the state of Rhode Island."
Conley said state lotteries have been used in the past for such specific purposes as Rhode Island's 1976 independence celebration and to help the arts in 2007. "So I don't think it's a precedent," he said. "People want to criticize, no matter what you do. People will criticize, no matter how high-minded it is."
Gary Sasse, director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University, a former state Revenue director and longtime former head of a business-backed fiscal watchdog group, said creating a new lottery for a particular purpose is a slippery slope.
"It's a very bad idea," Sasse said. "It's fiscally irresponsible. If you dedicate revenues for a specific program, there should be a link between those revenues and the way they're being used. So for example, if you dedicate gasoline tax money to fix roads, that's a legitimate form of dedicating revenue, because there's a user. If you dedicated water surcharge for reservoir conservation, that's another example of how you can use dedicated monies."
Sasse said establishing a new lottery game to fund a particular purpose would set a dangerous precedent, in part since it could encourage special interests to seek lottery funding.
"If you just kind of willy-nilly say, well, we could pick the lottery and add a new game and use it for historical preservation, historical preservation is certainly a good thing," Sasse said. "But what happens five years from now if there is an unanticipated uptick in problem gambling? You'd want to use the lottery money if you could earmark money to deal with that kind of issue. This is totally inappropriate. It's an abuse of sound fiscal policy."
Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, said the bill to create a new lottery game to help fund the museum "is not on the speaker's radar."
Conley said using a lottery, even if it's for a small portion of the overall project cost, is a good idea.
"Because every little bit counts," he said. "And I think that a lottery publicizes the hall of fame, publicizes its mission, and probably will stimulate additional public support for the facility. So it's a good promotional vehicle as well as a fundraising vehicle."
The bill to create a new lottery game to fund the local history center is co-sponsored by state Rep. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick). Shekarchi's sister, Mary, was listed as the recording secretary for the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in a 2014 tax document, but is no longer listed in that role on the hall's web site. Shekarchi said his sister left the secretary position more than a year ago.
Conley said a formal fundraising effort for the museum will start June 14 at Conley's Wharf Building on Allens Avenue in Providence. He said he hopes to attract financial support from large foundations, and that Roger Williams University is willing to support the museum effort.
Previous attempts to create a Rhode Island history museum, most recently the so-called Heritage Harbor project in Providence, have failed to move forward.