Another Set of Eyes
Could Rhode Island streamline its government and save taxpayers from waste, fraud and abuse? A retired Army officer from Portsmouth is pushing state officials to follow the lead of a dozen other states and appoint an inspector general. This week he tells Jim Hummel what an IG would - and wouldn’t do - in a state where the budget has increased more than 30 percent over the past decade and 70 percent in the last 15 years.
It has become a familiar challenge at the Rhode Island State House over the past decade: figuring out a way to close the annual budget deficit.
This year’s $9.2 billion budget relies on the governor coming up with $25 million of yet-to-be specified cuts, and the legislature scooping millions of dollars in reserves from agencies like The Narragansett Bay Commission.
But what if there was more money available - without having to raise taxes, fees or use other financial gimmicks? Ray Berberick of Portsmouth has a suggestion:
Berberick: ``Create an office of the inspector general’
It’s a pitch that he gave to Governor Lincoln Chafee five years a ago when Berberick and others were fighting a proposal to toll vehicles on the Sakonnet River Bridge. Politicians, trying to close yet another budget gap, had asked the opponents: in lieu of tolls, where would you find the money?
Berberick’s answer was simple and direct:
Berberick: ``Create an office of the inspector general. Let them do their work and they will find scores of millions of dollars in funds that are spent incorrectly.’’
Berberick served for two years as an inspector general when he was stationed with the U.S. Army at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma in the mid-1990s. He had be trained before taking over the position.
Berberick: ``During the training I said `My God’ if only half the people in the world knew the concepts of what the inspector general can bring to the table to make things more efficient and effective - then there would be a lot less, not fraud waste and abuse from criminal intent, but just streamlined procedures and save everybody time.’’
Berberick and other proponents envision an inspector general, whose duties lie somewhere between the state’s auditor general, and the Rhode Island Attorney General - with a focused mission of looking for waste, fraud and abuse.
And if the IG comes across potential criminal activity, he or she would immediately stop and refer it to the attorney general.
Berberick: ``The inspector general does not investigate or inspect people. If you go and look at all of the states that have inspectors general and read all of the annual reports, it’s all about systems. It’s all about fraud, waste and abuse and inefficiencies. Not once did they investigate one person because they did something bad a couple of years ago,’’
Massachusetts was the first in the country to create the position 35 years ago and is one of 12 states nationwide to have an IG.
And, Berberick says, Florida has taken it one step further.
Berberick: ``They have 26 agencies each with their own inspector general: education, the jails, schools, Dade County, the list goes on.’’
In Rhode Island an inspector general bill has been filed each session for nearly a decade - including two on the House side and two on the Senate side in 2017. But they’ve gone nowhere. Berberick testified in May before the House Finance committee along with the lead sponsor of one of the bills, Rep. Robert Lancia, a Cranston Republican.
Hummel: ``What do you sense the hesitancy is on this?”
Lancia: ``Despite, I think, the gains that could be made financially, I mean I think there’s some worry that you’re giving up some authority or power. I get it, but ultimately the pros do outweigh the cons. I think we’ve seen Massachusetts and other states, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been saved.’’
Hummel: ``What do you think the biggest misconception is?’’
Berberick: ``That they’re attacked dogs, they’re political tools to torpedo people. And that’s a 180 from the truth.’’
One potential obstacle: who appoints the inspector general. Lancia’s bill calls for the governor, the general treasurer and attorney general to make the selection.. Another bill, sponsored by Representatives Jean Phillippe Barros of Pawtucket and Evan Shanley of Warwick, both Democrats, would have the Speaker decide, with confirmation by the Senate.
Hummel: ``What do you see as the pros and cons of each: having the Speaker appoint, as opposed to the governor?’’
Lancia: ``Nothing against this speaker per se, but you know as well as I do the history in this building, going back with Gordon Fox and Mr. Gallison and former Speakers. We’ve had a bit of a difficult history with these types of folks in these positions… I just think that they’re too close to the situation. We need somebody that would be not involved at all.’’
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello told us he is still studying the issue. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio was non-committal and Governor Raimondo said she is quote: ``open to examining this concept more closely.’’
Berberick said a Rhode Island Inspector General could start with something as simple as looking at the state fleet of cars, as he did when he was in Oklahoma.
Berberick: ``We found out there was a lot of extra military vehicles that were being licensed, insured, but not used. And we saved the post a couple of hundred thousand dollars. That’s small potatoes. But that could be something here, very easily implemented that absolutely would not put a person in the crosshairs. It would say let’s take inventory of all of the physical trucks and cars that are state licensed plated right now. What is the cost of those and are there ways to reduce the expense we’re paying for those?’’
Berberick is already looking to the 2018 session. He has created a website, Facebook Page and Twitter Account. And he’s determined to convince those in leadership this could help them in the long run.
Berberick: ``It will help protect the governor, it will help protect the five elected, senior officers of the state. Because unfortunately….I wouldn’t say it would put you out of a job, but gee wouldn’t it be nice if they got the bad news first from the IG, someone they know and trust, as opposed to going home and watching it on TV?’’
Lancia: ``People argue sometimes about things being preordained, and sometimes they are, you know, for a variety of reasons. But if you make the case, people will see the value and move forward.’’
Berberick: ``Give it a shot for five or 10 or 15 years, if it doesn’t work, can it. And I think everybody would be pleasantly surprised. And the leadership that has the courage to put this in, they’ll be heroes.: 16
At the State House, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.