Shadow government may refer to a government run by an unelected bureaucracy. Rhode Island’s own version comes in the form of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation. Founded on March 8, 2010, by the General Assembly, the corporation is a quasi-public agency “having an existence separate and apart from state, with the power and authority to acquire and develop property within the state and to provide financing for the purpose set forth above.” The Commerce Corporation was not the legislature’s first attempt to establish a shadow government. In 1974 the assembly established the R.I. Economic Development Corporation.
The name change in 2010 was an attempt by the assembly to not only distance itself from the counterproductive Economic Development Corp. and its myriad scandals but to try and make it appear that there is no connection between the Commerce Corporation and the EDC. The quasi-public agency was established by the assembly, in part, as a device to insulate itself from any negative fallout due to actions taken in the name of state government that are arbitrary, controversial, unethical, and unpopular with the electorate.
Regardless of the name change, the functions and the organization are the same. The pass-and-forget legislation provides no provision for monitoring or oversight of these quasi-government agencies. Thus, when a scandal involving a shadow government occurs, lawmakers can plead ignorance as they have done in the past, especially in the wake of the Studio 38 fiasco.
The assembly created these shadow governments staffed by unelected officials and provided them with the state’s authority, complete with an open budget, with little or no accountability. “The board of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation shall be responsible for establishing accountability standards, reporting standards and outcome measurements for each of its programs to include, but not limited to, the use of tax credits, loans, loan guarantees and other financial transactions managed or utilized by the corporation.”
Monitoring and oversight of the corporation consists of a requirement that the board submit an annual report to the R.I. House and Senate summarizing its accomplishments. Thus, the shadow government is empowered to determine its own programs together with an open budget. No one knows where the money comes from or where it goes. The shadow government determines its own board’s compensation and evaluates its own performance. The shadow government is empowered to create other shadow governments.
One such second tier shadow government is the Rhode Island Airport Corporation. With its flow-down authority conferred by Commerce Corporation, the airport corporation is free to acquire private property by eminent domain as it has done and is attempting to do in Westerly. The stated reason for the acquisition and control of additional lands and airspace around the Westerly State Airport is to improve safety. However, the airport corporation has maintained a long-term plan to expand the use of the Westerly State Airport.
So much for a government of the people, by the people and for the people.