With the state using more and more outside vendors, transforming the state government as a broker of contracts, less attention is being given to managing those contracts.
As a result, say critics, all too often contractors and their lobbyists outwit and outman the state at the negotiating table.
“For a government employee, going and buying something new is hard,’’ Wilkins said. They have to create a process and sort through the vendors’ options “so when they award a contract they are usually very happy to keep that vendor in place.’’
The state not only needs better performance standards in its contracting system, he said, it needs more competition — and that means more than just the veneer of competition.
“Competition is the secret to all this stuff and you’ve got to get people interested so the vendor has to believe it’s not wired,’’ he said. “If a vendor is going to spend $1 million on a procurement, if it’s wired, then they’ve really made a bad business decision.”
But writing contracts to benefit vendors is the job of the legions of lobbyists. Using last-minute amendments to the budget, lobbyists write narrowly crafted budget language into the “special categories” section in the back of the annual appropriations bill or tweak language in other bills.
Here are some recent examples:
• Former Senate President Mike Haridopolos used his influence to get lawmakers to insert millions into the budget at the final stage of the budget process to pay for a state law enforcement radio system the agencies didn’t ask for, a juvenile justice contract that agency didn’t seek and the extension of a contract to expand broadband service in rural areas.
• A lobbyist close to former House Speaker Dean Cannon persuaded lawmakers to insert language allowing billboards on state lands, using language disguised as “public information systems,” into a must-pass bill to fund water management districts.
• The former Senate chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, signed a no-bid $5.5 million contract with a company to develop and lease a budget transparency website for lawmakers that was paid for but never used.
Former Senate President Jeff Atwater, now the state’s chief financial officer, as well as Scott, have both launched initiatives aimed at making the state’s contracting corps more professional. Atwater recalled how he watched in dismay when, as Senate president, items appeared in the final budget that were intended to benefit individual companies without a public hearing.
“It was an eye-opener,’’ Atwater recalled in an interview with the Herald/Times. “I’d say, did the agency want this? No? Then who did want this? They’d throw out the name of a lobbyist and so I’d cross it off.”
Longtime Senate budget chairman and former Sen. J.D. Alexander said the blame also lies in the state’s largest agencies, each of which have their own procurement system, bid process and overhead.
Every time a company loses a contract, they hire someone to come back to the Legislature to write them back in, he said. “It works, so who wouldn’t keep trying?” said Alexander.
The Government Efficiency Task Force also is studying the state’s contracting system and has found plenty of fault with lawmakers. In its report, it noted that because of exceptions written into law, the Department of Management Services is barred from seeking competitive bids for legal services, health services, artistic services, lectures, training and education services and substance abuse and mental health contracts — services estimated at $8.4 billion a year.