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Scott MacKay Commentary: What RI Lawmakers Need To Do Now

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The recent 38 Studios lawsuit disclosures have provided an inside view of how Rhode Island state government let you down. RIPR political analyst Scott...

The recent 38 Studios lawsuit disclosures have provided an inside view of how Rhode Island state government let you down. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay points to other state agencies in dire need of oversight.

One of the most damning aspects of the 38  Studios disaster was the utter lack of monitoring of the $75 million taxpayer-backed subsidy to the failed video game company.  Investors were promised that IBM would offer an independent, third-party check on the firm and its performance.

But, in the rush to get the deal done before the deal’s prime opponent, Lincoln Chafee, took office as governor, the monitoring agreement was never signed. That meant no independent scrutiny of the fledgling company’s development schedule for its first video game and scant oversight of its budget.

Well, we all know how that turned out – with taxpayers on the hook for millions in state-backed bonds when the company went belly up.

Sadly, while 38 Studios is the most egregious failure of Rhode Island’s government in recent years, it isn’t the only one.

Just last week, RIPR Statehouse reporter Ian Donnis broke a story that has to leave a bitter taste in the taxpayers’ collective mouth. It turns out that the state Department of Transportation is negotiating a likely consent decree with the federal government due to environmental damage caused by years of poor oversight of runoff from highways around the state.

These possible violations of the federal Clean Water Act should frost all Rhode Islanders. The state and federal governments have spent more than $1 billion on programs to reduce pollution in Narragansett Bay, which was once a near-open sewer. Now we discover that DOT doesn’t even know the locations of 25,000 storm water catch basins across the Ocean State.

It’s fine for Gov. Gina Raimondo to roll out a fancy new $4 million plus initiative to promote Rhode Island tourism. Yet, all this advertising and p.r. won’t amount to a hill of beans if highway runoff contributes to water pollution. Tourists can’t swim at closed beaches.

And don’t be surprised if the feds penalize our state government for this mess. Any fines that are levied will be paid by, guess who,  – you.

Then there is the troubling news from the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. This agency that is supposed to help troubled children has signed millions of dollars in contracts with no financial controls or oversight.

An audit revealed that DCYF didn’t follow basic accounting practices. Contracts were let without competitive bidding, purchase orders or performance measures. A Harvard University expert called it the worst case of financial mismanagement he had ever seen at a child welfare agency.

Now under new leadership, the agency must be reorganized. And the problems don’t stop there.

 

Cranston is home to the Eleanor Slater, the state-run hospital for seriously disabled patients and those with profound psychiatric needs. The hospital is now under an order to correct a plethora of problems in order to retain its license.

This hospital named for the late, and legendary, state senator Slater serves more than 280 patients with a budget of roughly $116 million a year, half of which is state funding. Fixing those deficiencies is sure to cost even more state money.

All of these examples point to a glaring Statehouse pitfall. That’s the lack of oversight and accountability in the General Assembly. Lawmakers talk a good game when it comes to oversight, but little ever gets done.

We’ve heard all the excuses over the years. For instance, the Smith Hill crowd likes to say, hey, we’re a part-time citizen legislature and we don’t have the staff or expertise to undertake big investigations. Or they play the blame game, pointing fingers at the governor’s top administrators, who run the government.

Yet anyone who understands the working of the Assembly know that is just so much baloney. Lawmakers do very little in the opening months of January and February, when committees barely have agendas and the floor sessions often last just a few minutes.

Lawmakers always have enough time to spout off on Capitol Television about their pet peeve of the day. Or to introduce the girls basketball team that the whole town is so proud of. And then spend their evenings at one of the endless fund-raising `times’ that fill the capital city’s hotel and restaurant function rooms.

After the 38 Studios fiasco, no serious attempt was made on Smith Hill to figure out what went wrong. Or to try to discern what lessons could be gleaned from this mistake. The lawsuit disclosures lead to the conclusion that the Statehouse leadership, especially than House Speaker Gordon Fox and then House Finance Committee Chairman Steven Costantino, wanted to keep the public in the dark about their involvement. It also appears Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed was in no mood to get to the bottom of this.

If Smith Hill really wants change, here’s what lawmakers can do. They can establish strong and effective oversight committees that dig beneath the veneer of state programs and agencies. They could also set up an inspector general’s office with the staff and resources to provide ongoing monitoring of state spending.

Rhode Island taxpayers deserve more accountability and less of the same-old, same old at the people’s Statehouse.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard  every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org

Lawmakers ought to establish strong oversight committees, to keep things from being
Lawmakers ought to establish strong oversight committees, to keep things from being "politics as usual."