Sweetheart bills bypassing state bidding laws

By TIM KALICH,

A couple of years ago, the Mississippi Legislature enacted by the hardest some changes to how government entities in this state purchase goods and services.

The reforms, designed to save money and cut down on cronyism, were relatively modest. The biggest change was a requirement that most government purchasers use a reverse auction process for contracts of more than $50,000. The legislation also created an independent review board to oversee government purchasing and to rule on requested exemptions from the reverse-auction requirement.

The reforms were a significant step in the right direction, but they still left too many loopholes. Blanket exemptions to the new regulations were given to the Department of Transportation, the state’s four-year universities and technology purchases. Construction contracts were also allowed to continue to be awarded on a “lowest and best” basis, a vague standard that is ripe for awarding taxpayer-funded business to political supporters or other friends.

A recent story, though, from the Clarion Ledger indicates that some lawmakers don’t even worry with loopholes. They simply write legislation directing not just how money should be spent but specifying with whom it should be spent.

The Jackson paper’s investigation only looked at education spending, but chances are these earmarks are awarded in a lot of other areas as well.

Since 2016, according to the Clarion Ledger’s research, the Legislature has ordered the Department of Education to implement programs with a cumulative price tag of around $45 million. Of that total, $10 million was earmarked for 13 specified vendors — in essence, awarding them no-bid, minimal oversight contracts.

Not surprisingly, most of these beneficiaries were well-connected to lawmakers either directly or through the firms’ lobbying arms. A few of the recipients gave money to the campaigns of lawmakers who helped with the earmarks. A bunch used a third party — lobbyists — to wine, dine and otherwise bend the ear of lawmakers. Ninety percent of the earmarked money went to companies or nonprofit groups that spent nearly $800,000 on lobbyists. Wonder how much of that $800,000 was converted into gifts or other favors for lawmakers.

Some of these earmarks will be explained away as lawmakers looking after their hometowns, the same way that members of Congress have historically tried to steer federal contracts back to their home states.

Take the case of state Rep. Becky Currie, who helped a company in Brookhaven, where she lives, receive a legislative earmark of up to $250,000 to prepare students in a select number of high schools for college entrance exams.

Currie got defensive when questioned about the obvious home-cooking for the company, Jumpstart ACT.

“I would never promote something I didn’t think was good,” the Republican lawmaker told a Clarion Ledger reporter. “Come down and meet the algebra teacher and see what they’re doing before you make it political or whatever you’re trying to do.”

Jumpstart might be a good program, but that’s not the question. The question is whether it is better and less expensive than other companies that can provide the same service.

Prepping kids for the ACT is not exactly a proprietary endeavor. I searched in Google for “companies that help high school students prepare for college entrance exams.”  It produced 231 million results. Within that search, there are probably dozens of legitimate companies that offer ACT coaching and preparation. Is Jumpstart the best deal for the taxpayers? There’s no way without bidding out the service.

Regardless of who is doing it — whether a state agency, a local governmental body or lawmakers themselves — you can be certain that whenever the bid laws are circumvented, it’s not done to save the taxpayers any money.

It’s done to reward the people or companies that have done favors in the past for those bestowing the contracts, or to line up those expected to do favors in the future.

It’s the old “scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” method of operation — an attitude that, when taken to its logical extreme, produces bribes, kickbacks and other forms of corruption.

The waste and corruption in government procurement won’t end until the state enacts strict bid laws for every part of government and sticks by the rules.

Contact Tim Kalich at 662-581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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1. He drove a blue ‘77 Chevy Nova in high school. 2. He played on Jackson Prep’s 1985 and 1986 state championship basketball teams.