Auditor Suzanne Bump on Wednesday panned the idea of giving oversight of the burgeoning legal marijuana market to an independent authority akin to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, questioning the model put in place six years ago to oversee the expansion of legal gambling.
“Bad idea,” Bump said during an appearance on Boston Herald Radio, gasping as the host brought up the topic of putting legal marijuana regulation under an independent authority.
A new committee formed earlier this year to review and recommend changes to the ballot law passed in 2016 legalizing the adult use of marijuana has been openly considering whether to strip oversight from Treasurer Deborah Goldberg’s office and pursue a different model.
Some officials, including Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, have suggested the model used by legislators to license and oversee the creation of a casino industry could work with marijuana as well.
Bump, a Democrat, disagrees.
“I haven’t seen anything so all I’m going on is what I hear, and the Gaming Commission is responsible to no one. To no one. There’s no oversight of what they do. It’s not a good model,” she said.
Bump said that the not only does the Gaming Commission have its own revenue stream from the companies it licenses to operate gaming facilities, but she said there’s no check on how they spend that money.
“They have a board that’s supposed to ensure that everything is done according to the law and to regulation but it’s questionable whether that’s actually happening,” Bump said.
The Gaming Commission was established under the 2011 expanded Gaming Law to implement and oversee the licensing and operation of one slots parlor and up to three casinos. Plainridge Park Casino, a slots parlor, opened in 2015 and two casinos – one in Springfield and one in Everett – have been licensed and are under construction.
Overseen by a five-member board, the Gaming Commission is funded by an annual $600 fee per slot machine, as well as additional assessments and fees on licensees and applicants.
The chair of the board is appointed by the governor, and the attorney general and treasurer each appoint one member. The remaining two members are appointed by consensus of the governor, attorney general, and treasurer. No more than three members can be of the same political party.
Gaming Commission spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll said that “without question” the commission is accountible to the three appointing authorities, as well as the Legislature, the licensees, the media and the public.
“The gaming commission was appropriately designed by statute to be free from political influence, however, accountability and transparency are the bedrocks of our regulatory structure,” spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll said.
Bump said that the one recent audit of the Gaming Commission done by her office focused on the Plainridge Park Casino, and found that the commission failed to ensure that the slot parlor met its obligations for hiring minorities and residents of surrounding communities.
Published in November 2016, the audit also faulted the commission for failing to ensure that Plainridge intercepted and remitted approximately $65,000 of delinquent taxes and child-support payments, and did not correct funding errors in certain racing trust funds.
“To give an authority that much power by virtue of giving it a stream of revenue, which means that they’re accountable to nobody and no agency overseeing it, it’s a prescription for abuse in an area where we really don’t want to see that occur,” Bump said.
Driscoll said the commission was “diligent” in its response to Bump’s audit and works hard to make its decisions and deliberations as transparent as possible with live-streamed meetings and online archives.
“Although we have no opinion as to how to model the marijuana commission, we welcome the opportunity when asked to share our unique experience in establishing a state regulatory structure for a new industry, and hope that our insight is valuable to the Legislature as they decide how to best proceed,” Driscoll said.
Bump was not asked whether she thought oversight of the retail marijuana industry should remain with the treasurer, or if she had other ideas, and was not available later Wednesday for an interview.
The Committee on Marijuana Policy, which is chaired by Rep. Mark Cusack and Sen. Patricia Jehlen, is expected to make recommendations later this spring with the goal of having a bill on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk by July 1.