The Increasingly Fine Line Between Legal and Illegal Government Spending

Rhode Island’s new “chief marketing officer” wasn’t implicated in allegations of wrongdoing during her time in Massachusetts, but this anecdote from Kate Bramson’s Providence Journal article today is interesting nonetheless:

The Patrick administration’s travel and trade missions — and millions in tourism dollars allocated to Wall’s work — were the subject of Boston Herald reports last spring. They questioned whether his administration diverted state money into secret funds to pay for those expenses. State Rep. David Linsky, chairman of the auditing committee in the state House of Representatives, investigated. By mid-June, he told the Boston Globe he had turned up no evidence of wrongdoing.

Everything appears to have been technically within the law, but it should cause pause among the voting public that it’s getting difficult to tell whether innovated funding, debt, and spending methods that are proliferating throughout government really match with our constitutional principles.  Consider that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s economic development slush fund was brought into being by refinancing taxpayer debt — repurposing debt for activities of which voters had no opportunity to approve or disapprove — and much of it will be spent through CommerceRI.

One need only back up to the beginning of Bramson’s article for a related point to consider:

The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation announced Wednesday it has hired as the state’s chief marketing officer the woman who led the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism for eight years during former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s administration.

Betsy Wall, of Winchester, Mass., will earn $135,000 in her new job, where she will lead the state’s efforts to rebrand Rhode Island and create a compelling message that draws people and companies to Rhode Island, the Commerce Corporation announced.

I’ve asked this frequently, lately, but really: What is a quasi-public agency doing hiring somebody to act as the employee who “will lead the state’s efforts to rebrand Rhode Island”?  The question is all the more relevant now that the state government has an office of Commerce, complete with a Commerce Secretary.  As a consequence, for example, although Wall’s pay and employment information will be public, for those requesting it directly from CommerceRI, it won’t be included as a matter of course in state-government transparency initiatives.

What’s gained by moving this role one more step away from democratic accountability?  Put differently, how many steps away from the voting public can government activities get before they stop being legitimate and start being suspect, whether or not they’re technically illegal?

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