HARTFORD – As the State Contracting Standards Board again warned that its ability to review state procurements is at risk without additional staffing, lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee said they were committed to finally safeguarding its funding this session.
State Contracting Standards Board Chairman Larry Fox said that Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposal to fund new positions in the Auditors of Public Accounts instead of adding staff that the standards board has been requesting for years would effectively end its ability to review procurements in state agencies when its executive director David Guay retires later this year.
“I feel like deja vu in our conversations,” State Rep. David Wilson, R-Bethlehem, said during an Appropriations Committee meeting to review Lamont’s proposal on Thursday afternoon.
Last year, lawmakers appropriated $454,355 to fund five additional positions for the board that is currently staffed by Guay, one intern, and its volunteer board members. Lamont then removed that funding from a bill to implement the budget.
This year, the board requested funding for the same five positions, but Lamont instead proposed creating a “contract integrity unit” in the office of the Auditors of Public Accounts, with three new auditor positions to support the board members in their reviews and recommend “corrective actions.”
The administration has said that it’s a way to give more support to the hamstrung board. Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw told the Appropriations Committee last week that the auditors could conduct investigations for the board, or in partnership with it, and then recommend actions for the board to take.
“The Governor’s proposal does not make any changes to the authority of the Contracting Standards Board,” McCaw said. “Now more than ever, obviously we’re depending on them to ensure the integrity of state contracting.”
But Fox said the language in a bill Lamont proposed, that the board can “refer a contract or procurement of a state contracting agency to the Auditors of Public Accounts,” effectively takes the board’s power to investigate and hands it to the auditors.
“That’s the end of us,” Fox said. “That’s the end of us being able to do independent investigation.”
Fox said the board can and does work with the auditors already, and supports giving their office more staff to do their work. But the board and the auditors have different functions, he said. While the auditors are “embedded” in state agencies and make regular reports about deficiencies in each of them, they don’t have the power to take any action other than write reports, he said.
The board, on the other hand, has the power to suspend procurements or contractors, and can highlight practices that are legal, but still harm an open, fair contracting process, he said.
Fox pointed to a study the board conducted in 2018 that found OPM was awarding waivers for competitive bidding on close to 70 percent of personal service contracts, costing the state $174 to $260 million a year.
It was legal for billions of dollars of contracts to be awarded through sole-source bidding, as long as OPM approved a waiver for each project, Fox said – so it’s not something the auditors would look at.
“OPM was giving out waivers like chocolate bars on Halloween,” Fox said. “[The board] said ‘no, no, no, no, no – we’re supposed to do competitive bidding in this state. This needs to change. It’s really bad, it’s expensive, it discriminates against minority and women contractors.’”
Fox said the board’s function is especially important in light of recent reports by the Connecticut Mirror showing how school construction projects were steered toward a select group of contractors. Those reports, and comments OPM Undersecretary for Legislative Affairs Jeff Beckham made at a Connecticut Port Authority meeting last year – that the board doesn’t need to exist – create a “scary” situation for the state, Fox said.
Some lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee expressed confusion – and others frustration – that this issue has not been resolved despite being raised year after year. State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, said that since the board was established by Gov. Jodi Rell, each subsequent administration has tried to limit the board’s resources.
“[The legislature] has put in money year after year, and tried to get it funded year after year,” Osten said. “And governor after governor says, ‘No way.’ That’s why we need to resolve this issue this year.”
State Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, told Fox that the legislature had a “significant level of commitment” to straighten out the board’s long-running staffing woes. He said the timing of Lamont’s proposal was troubling, and that he hoped lawmakers could unravel “what I hope was just a mistake.”
Osten said she and other lawmakers from southeastern Connecticut have proposed a bill that would move the board under the Office of Legislative Management to protect it from any governor who sought to pull its funding or staffing. She said they had sought legal advice to determine if that was the best way forward, or if the legislature could “firewall” the board while keeping it within the executive branch.
“My goal is for the Contracting Standards Board to be funded the way that it should be, and to allow it to do the mission it was established to do,” Osten told CT Examiner.