It started with two and now there are five.
They’ve been dubbed the “gang of five,” but no question they would welcome others to join their ranks. They are bound by the causes they support, not the party labels they wear, which in this day of divisive politics makes them unusual.
It started during the last legislative session when Republican Rep. Robert Lancia of Cranston introduced legislation to create an Office of Inspector General that would rout out government waste and fraud. Freshman Democrat Evan Shanley of Warwick was also thinking of an inspector general and was interested to hear what Lancia had to say. The two ended up working on a bill that didn’t make it into law, at least not last year.
Now another Republican Rep. Kenneth J. Mendonça of Middletown and two Democrats, Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson of Warwick and Rep. Moria Walsh of Providence have joined their ranks. They agree on the need for an inspector general and more. In the wake of the disclosure that $10 million in fees collected for 911 Call Center have been siphoned into the general fund, which Lancia brought to light, they favor what has become the restricted receipts bill.
The gang of five also favor lunch shaming legislation to prevent schools from taking back a lunch or requiring a student to perform chores if they cannot pay for the lunch.
House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi hadn’t heard of the gang of five, although he knows them all. The fact they have become an item didn’t stop him from applauding the cooperation from across the aisle.
“I always think it is good when reps from both parties work together…when we work together we’re stronger,” he said.
However, Shekarchi isn’t convinced the state needs another state office in the form of an inspector general. He points out that the state has an auditor general who is keeping an eye on state contracts and expenditures.
Lancia notes 34 states have inspector generals. He’s concerned by the cost of Rhode Island government and the state budget of more than $9 billion that he said has doubled in the past 10 years. He put the per capita cost of state government at $8,700 as compared to $6,700 nationwide. He said states with inspector generals average $6,700 and that Florida is the best example, where the average is $3,900. Lancia questions why Rhode Island government is so costly when Maine and New Hampshire have state budgets of $7.1 billion and $5.7 billion, respectively.
Shanley likewise wants to see greater oversight of spending. Shanley believes an inspector general would more than pay for him or herself.
“They would be dedicated to finding holes in the budget,” he said. “I don’t think we have anyone responsible for that…an independent watchdog.”
Mendonça said his predecessor, Rep. Daniel Riley, advocated for an inspector general.
“Bob Lancia picked up the ball,” he said. He pointed out that state police should be called in when there is evidence of fraud and corruption, but that they can’t be dedicated to ferreting it out. That would be the task of an inspector general.
“Let’s try it and give it a term limit,” he said. He suggests a five-year trial at a cost of $5 million to $10 million. He believes it would pay for itself 10 times over.
What of working with legislators from the opposite side of the political aisle?
“I think multiple perspectives creates the best final product,” said Shanley.
“We’ve got different outlooks,” said Lancia. “We work on what we can work on together,” he said. Lancia said 30 legislators have co-signed onto the inspector general bill.
How did they become known as the “gang of five?”
Lancia said Pat Ford of Coalition Radio coined the phrase when he was interviewing Lancia on air.