Regulation Conversation: As new industries enter the RI economy, there’s one DBR to rule them all

After policy-makers craft the details, who is the person behind the regulation of new industries? We take a look into the decision-making process of Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation Director Elizabeth Tanner.

The Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation (DBR) oversees many key industries, from real estate appraisal to the state’s medical cannabis program.

Recently, DBR has been at the forefront of local conversation, as an evolving stream of emerging industries makes its way into RI’s economy, including Governor Raimondo’s recently proposed package that would legalize some aspects of recreational cannabis use in the state.

This pivot toward the legalization of cannabis, paired with recent legislation that legalized sports betting and mobile sports betting, along with the emergence of blockchain technology, has set DBR up as a central portal that manages critical elements of RI’s future.

Rhode Island recently announced that former Colorado “cannabis czar” Andrew Freedman would take on the same role in the Ocean State, ostensibly determining the best paths forward for the ins and outs of the state’s cannabis programs. However, Director Tanner and the DBR will ultimately regulate such an operation.

During a recent wide-ranging interview on The Bartholomewtown Podcast, Director Tanner offered some insight into the process by which she determines best practices for regulating and enforcing within the areas that she oversees, or the Four B’s, as she calls them: Banking, Boxing, Bombs and Bongs.

Bill Bartholomew (Motif): There’s some legislation to legalize prostitution and recreational cannabis use, and gambling is already in motion. How do you look at these sorts of vice issues, or what used to be blue issues in RI? Do you feel like you are ahead of the curve right now? For example, do you think, “If prostitution is legalized, here’s how we’re going to go about it”? You’re not really lobbying for anything, you’re just kind of getting prepared for the potential wind change, right?

Liz Tanner (DBR): You know, it’s interesting being in this position from a social level because I get a lot of people who will say, “Well, what do you think about marijuana? What do you think about gambling? What do you think about prostitution?” And the answer is, “I don’t entitle myself to an opinion because I shouldn’t have an opinion.” It’s my job to regulate. It’s my job to see what laws were passed and figure out how I’m going to set up a licensing structure and how we’re going to charge a fee.

Then, on the flip side, I have to properly prevent a problem from happening; I also [have to] punish [offenders] as need be for whatever violation may or may not be happening. So, I don’t allow myself a personal opinion. Instead, I follow the law and try to regulate.

We’re also big on making sure that we can be flexible in certain ways, especially when something is new. We try to make sure that everybody knows what they’re getting into as a new law may be in place.

A  great example is food trucks. We’re starting to regulate food trucks. [Until recently] they’ve been regulated from a municipal standpoint. And one of the reasons that we’ve tried to bring them together in the state is it was very inconsistent across municipalities. So, by bringing in the state via the DBR, they’ll have one set of rules to follow. We’ve spent a lot of time talking to lots of food truck operators to figure out what’s easiest. But, we’ve also had to listen to the municipalities because they care very strongly about where those food trucks are parked and things like that. So, we take a really open-door approach to hearing what people have to say and then we come up with the best answers. If we don’t get them right, then we have to change them, you know, six months, a year down the road.

BB: What do you think is going to be the biggest change that you’ll see during your time as director?  

LT: Well, you know, something that I’m super passionate about and that I really care about is making it easier to do business. So for me, the idea that people still have to take time out of work to drive to a town hall or a state agency, fill out a paper form and hand it in with a paper check, and sometimes, nothing can be done on that form until that check clears. That’s got to go away.

I mean, the reality is, you think about some of the largest software companies in the world and how people order things, whether it be Amazon or anything else — we’ve got to change [our paper system]. It’s labor intensive. It’s prone to error. So, DBR is doing whatever we can to get things online in some way. We don’t want to take away paper forever and it certainly fits in certain circumstances. But, I think it’s really important for RI to get into a new era of being able to exchange and share information and be able to do things remotely.

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