HARTFORD – With the state legislature’s session coming to a close at midnight, the fate of an effort to safeguard funding for the state’s contracting watchdog is still up in the air as lawmakers work to address state agency concerns that the bill will restrict their procurement processes.
The bill – which passed out of the Senate unanimously on Friday – would protect the State Contracting Standards Board from what has become common practice by the Office of the Governor to cut the board’s funding – something that has frustrated the board and lawmakers.
Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, told reporters on Wednesday morning that he didn’t personally have concerns with the bill but said he was hearing from commissioners in state departments who did.
“[The Department of Children and Family Services] felt that, you know, they have mandates, and they have to move very, very quickly, and they feel that [the bill] was restrictive,” Ritter said. “The fact that people are making changes means they were probably right.”
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said he communicated with State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, Tuesday night, and said she was working with agencies and the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont to address those concerns.
Lawmakers in the Senate already begrudgingly removed a provision that would have expanded the board’s oversight to include all quasi-public agencies, responding to pressure from those agencies, who said the bill would have jeopardized their ability to be flexible and work quickly when dealing with the private sector.
Department of Children and Family Services Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes said in a statement to CT Examiner that the department approaches procurement for every contract through a “racial justice and cultural health lens,” and gives preference to applicants with a commitment to racial equity and providing care to people with diverse cultural backgrounds, languages and beliefs.
The department believes that the bill’s requirement that agencies submit project management plans to the board duplicates the procurement plans they already submit to the Office of Policy and Management, creating the potential for conflicting oversight.
The bill also calls for the board to work with the Department of Administrative Services to establish standards for privatizing government services, and procurements under $50,000. Since the Department of Children and Family Services doesn’t answer to DAS for its human service contracts, those standards would be written without input from anyone with experience in those contracts, the department said.
“Human Services Agencies have unique contracting needs driven by the end results of procurement and contracts that serve Connecticut’s most vulnerable populations,” Dorantes said. “This bill enhances a disparate regulatory structure to which Human Service Agencies are responsible. This in turn has the potential to disrupt the continuity of care for children and families.”
“It’s always a tricky thing… when someone says, ‘Run the bill, it’ll be fine. The governor’s office is making it up,’ and then [Department of Children and Family Services] is like, ‘You’ve caused a major problem for us,” Ritter said. “I’ve seen that happen up here, so we’re going to be cautious when it comes to things like that.”
Lawmakers approved a budget adjustment Tuesday night that restored $454,355 in funding to the State Contracting Standards Board to hire five additional staff for the upcoming fiscal year, which was required to lapse in the original budget passed last year. The volunteer board has been staffed by one full-time employee – Executive Director David Guay, who is expected to retire later this year.
“There isn’t a person around this circle who hasn’t said we need to do this,” State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, told Senators before they voted on the budget adjustment Tuesday. “This is the right thing to do, this is what has to happen.”