Commentary

The Pa. Gaming Control Board is a patronage dumping ground. It’s time to fix it | Mark O’Keefe

March 18, 2021 6:30 am

Former House Minority Leader Frank Dermody speaks at a press conference with Gov. Tom Wolf on July 2, 2019. (The Office of Governor Tom Wolf)

Despite a massive outcry over several recent questionable appointments to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, it appears as if the dust has settled with no changes in sight.

The hirings included Democrat Frank Dermody, of Allegheny County, and Republican Frances Regan of York County.

Dermody, the former Democratic floor leader in the state House, lost his bid for a 16th term in the state House last November. Three months later, he was appointed to the board by House Democrats at a salary of $145,000, which is significantly higher than the $90,330 pay he was earning as a lawmaker.

Those opposed to the hiring said lawmakers should establish a waiting period for former colleagues so that they can’t move immediately from an elected position to an appointed one in state government.

According to the investigative news outlet Spotlight PA, of 31 appointments to the board, which the legislature formed in 2004, 16 have been employees in state government, the Legislature, or former lawmakers.

It noted that the appointment could be a “golden parachute” as the state bases retirement benefits on years in service and the three years of highest salaries.

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Frances Regan, meanwhile, is the wife of state Sen. Mike Regan, a Republican who represents parts of Cumberland and York counties. Critics said it showed the need for an anti-nepotism policy in appointments to state boards, restoring some integrity to the selection process.

While Democrats announced Dermody’s appointment in a press release, Regan took office during a private ceremony with no fanfare.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, appointed Regan to the post. He praised her qualifications, noting she worked for 24 years conducting background and criminal investigations for the federal probation office.

“Just because your husband is involved in public service doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be,” Corman told Spotlight PA, adding that Frances Regan is “a friend” he could trust.

Khalif Ali, executive director of Pennsylvania Common Cause, opposed the appointment.

“We’re in a climate that is showing decreasing confidence in our democracy,” said Ali, noting the appointments don’t “build confidence in the democratic system, and that worries us.”

Pat Christmas, policy director at the good government group Committee of Seventy, told the Capital-Star that friendship and family ties shouldn’t be part of the hiring process.

“There’s no reason lawmakers should have direct appointments on the Gaming Control Board, and no reason former lawmakers should be serving on it,” Christmas told the Capital-Star.

However, despite the furor raised over the appointments, don’t expect any changes to the process. The problem, at least for taxpayers, is that everyone gets a piece of the action. Of the seven board appointments, the governor receives three picks, and the Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate get one selection apiece.

The appointments are made without any hearings and don’t require the state Senate’s approval as other appointments, especially by the governor.

Also, there are no clear skills or abilities necessary for membership on the board.

It all leads to more significant questions such as precisely what these board members do to earn such high salaries and why are seven board members needed.

It’s especially questionable, considering that the board’s heavy lifting involved the licensing of the state’s 12 casinos in the mid-2000s. Even then, some raised questions about the board’s work.

Instead of putting the licenses out for bid and awarding the gaming permits to the highest bidder, subject to comprehensive background checks, the board granted licenses based on subjective assertions such as economic impacts and gaming markets.

In all probability, the board’s employees who do the hard work involved in operating the casinos make much less than the board members, who are only required to attend one or two board meetings a month.

In the end, the questions about the board should go much deeper than the controversial appointments to the panel. Exactly, what expertise do board members bring to this multi-billion dollar industry?

Consider as an alternative the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which manages the distribution of alcohol in the state. It was established in conjunction with the repeal of prohibition in 1933, just four days before the sale of alcohol became legal in Pennsylvania.

The board has only three members. The governor appoints them to four-year terms. Two-thirds of the state Senate must approve them.

Two members make $78,751, with the chairman taking home an extra $3,000. That sounds much better than the way the Gaming Control Board operates.

Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. 

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