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Eye On Boise

Mon., July 14, 2014, 3:21 p.m.

Stung by IEN mess, lawmakers hail stricter rules for state contract oversight

Lawmakers on the Idaho Legislature's Joint Legislative Oversight Committee hear reports on Monday; a new state report says efforts to strengthen the state's contract management and oversight are making progress. (Betsy Russell)
Lawmakers on the Idaho Legislature's Joint Legislative Oversight Committee hear reports on Monday; a new state report says efforts to strengthen the state's contract management and oversight are making progress. (Betsy Russell)

Idaho’s state Division of Purchasing is making progress toward better monitoring of multimillion-dollar state contracts, according to a new state report to lawmakers. Incensed over big problems with big contracts, lawmakers have passed four pieces of legislation in the past two years calling for better oversight; as a result, the division has developed enhanced monitoring requirements for service contracts that are worth $5 million or more over the life of the contract, along with other measures. Though that figure accounts for just 45 current contracts, it covers $2.6 billion in state funding commitments.

“That’s big bucks – billions,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee and a member of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, which today received the new report from the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations. She said lawmakers were spurred by problems with the multimillion-dollar contract the state Department of Administration signed with Education Networks of America for a broadband network to connect state high schools; this year, that contract for the Idaho Education Network ended up costing the state millions more than expected due to questions over the original contract award holding up federal “e-rate” payments that were supposed to cover three-quarters of the cost.

“I think the eyes opened,” Bell said. “There were details that were troublesome.” Big contracts like that are happening at “all levels of government, and no one was paying attention,” she said.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, JLOC co-chair, said, “Clearly we’ve had some difficulties, and I’m very happy that people are paying attention. We’re going to have to very carefully monitor our progress on this and make sure that we’re getting results. I would say we’re part-way there … but I wouldn’t say we’re at the finish line yet.”

The new report, a follow-up to one issued in January of 2013 on how the state could strengthen its contract management, notes that an array of contracts still are exempt from state purchasing rules – those issued by the Legislature, the judiciary, and under the offices of statewide elected officials like the state schools superintendent. The 2013 report called for lawmakers to consider setting minimum standards for all state contracting, including those areas, but no legislation was introduced. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said today that he’s working with a group of lawmakers to address that and is hoping for bipartisan backing.

As a result of the legislation already passed, Bill Burns, head of the state Division of Purchasing, said administrative rule changes are in the works and will be presented to lawmakers in January to follow an array of recommendations from the 2013 report, from developing best practices for all agencies in contracting; to adding more oversight of big contracts, including from the division, the agency, and outside subject-matter experts; to notifying the Legislature prior to contract extensions and renewals. Burns said the division will ask lawmakers next year for a new training position to ensure the new requirements can be carried out; if the Legislature expands the division’s oversight to now-exempt agencies, it may need another position as well, he said.

Ringo said, “This is a direction we need to go, and I think that we’re making progress.”




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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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