August 27, 2018 9:38:46 AM
The legislature is about to create a $30 million a year slush fund for Gov. Phil Bryant at this special session.
With so much attention on the merits of a lottery and on how to split up the proceeds of one, there's been almost no focus on how to run one. Gov. Bryant's proposed legislation sets up a corporation to run the lottery -- independent of the state -- with a board of directors appointed by him and a president subject to his veto. After paying prizes and sending money to the state, it would have about $30 million each year left over.
This $30 million could be used to contract with lobbyists, lawyers, consultants, public relations entities, advisors, promoters -- almost anyone, anywhere, any time, for any amount of money -- with no controls. Not being a state entity, it would be exempt from the state's ethics laws. Indeed, it would be exempt from every safeguard against cronyism.
It could hire legislators. It could hire the governor's friends and relatives. Heck, it could even contract with the governor himself.
This bill is being rushed through at lightning speed. We convened Thursday at 10 a.m. and by late afternoon, it had worked its way through the Highways Committee (obviously, an entity with keen knowledge of how to set up a lottery) and it had passed the Senate. Some of us tried to slow things down so we could at least study the bill overnight and so the public might find out what's in it, but we were run over. (After all, we were told, the bill had been emailed to us at 9:30 p.m. the previous evening.)
Why on earth do we need to set up a new corporation to run the lottery? Why can't an existing agency handle it? What do other states do? Have there been scandals in similar set-ups elsewhere? Why does it cost $30 million? Honestly, I don't know. But I do know we need to take the time to find out.
This is how bad it is: The bill exempted this corporation from the open meetings and open records laws. Some of us tried to change that, but, again, we lost. After Gov. Bryant told reporters he opposed those exemptions, the House removed them. The governor said he didn't know about them.
But it's his bill! The exemptions were in the call he issued the day before! If the governor doesn't know what's in his own bill, how are legislators supposed to know?
Maybe the governor really doesn't understand how this unregulated corporation is set up. Although they were told over and over, maybe legislators don't really understand. But the lobbyists and others watching this process do understand. They roll their eyes and say -- jokingly -- "Wow, I wanna be president of that corporation." (They're a cynical crowd.)
Let me make this point for the umpteenth time: At this special session we're making long range decisions without understanding what we are doing. Apart from the lottery, billions of dollars are at stake. We're being pressured to act quickly.
Instead, we need to adjourn this session and have open committee meetings to discuss these proposals. Then, the legislature can vote when its members -- and the other three million Mississippians -- and perhaps even the governor -- find out what it's voting on.
Hob Bryan is a state Senator from Amory.
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