Real progress in fight for good state government

Mississippi has made a huge step in the right direction. Gov. Phil Bryant has signed into law significant reform of our bidding and procurement laws.

State Rep. Jerry Turner, chairman of the House committee on Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency, rated the new laws a “10 on a scale of 1 to 10.”

Turner has been fighting this fight for 15 years. If he says it’s a “10,” we have cause for celebration.

This is no small potatoes. Including special purpose funds and federal grants, the total state budget of Mississippi is $20 billion. Much of this money is allocated through the bidding and procurement process.

Over the years, I have watched in dismay as crony contracts have wasted billions in state tax dollars. Mississippi bidding and procurement laws have been some of the worst in the nation. Graft has run rampant.

It frustrated me. It frustrated anyone who was in a position to know the score. It frustrated Turner, a Baldwyn businessman, who fought for years with minimal success to reform the system.

Good government is huge. Corruption is enormously expensive, robbing people of a high standard of living and discouraging entrepreneurs. Nobody wants to play when the game is rigged. Progress in Mississippi is dependent on reform.

Now we see progress. We have campaign finance reform. We have bidding and procurement reform. We are moving forward.

As a journalist, I spend a lot of time criticizing government. It is a great relief to be able to say, “Job well done.” This is how government is supposed to work. I’m proud of my state.

Don’t get me wrong. There is still much to be done. But Turner’s bill was a huge step in the right direction. What is more encouraging was the teamwork that came together, from the governor’s special task force, John Polk in the Senate, our governor, the speaker, the lieutenant governor, all down the line. There was minimal opposition, which is, quite frankly, amazing.

We are now going to have an independent Public Procurement Review Board. In the past, this board was run by the very agency heads it was supposed to oversee. This new consolidated, independent board will have enhanced power to adopt regulations to ensure competitive bidding throughout the state.

Here are some other positives:

• New broad language stating that online bidding “reverse auction” procedures are to be the standard way of procuring public goods and services in Mississippi. In a reverse auction, the buyers (the government in this case) allow sellers (contractors) to bid on the lowest price until a specific time period.

• Power for the new Public Procurement Review Board to oversee counties, cities and other governing authorities when they bid out contracts in excess of $50,000.

• Any governmental authority, including cities and counties, deviating from reverse auction bidding procedures must get approval from the new state public procurement board for an alternative procedure.

• Extensive regulations on the Request for Proposal (RFP) procedures to ensure transparency and competition for government service contracts.

• Requiring reverse auctions to be done online and transparently.

 

Government procurement and bidding reform has been one of my editorial crusades for more than a decade. I have read dozens of statutes from different states. I have talked to the authors of the model procurement laws written by the American Bar Association.

My newspapers have reported innumerable bidding scandals and corrupt contracts. It occurs throughout the state at every level of government. It has been depressing to watch, highlighted by the Chris Epps bribery scandal at the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

I know something about this subject. I have carefully read House Bill 1106 and 1109. It’s real reform. Both these bills can be viewed online at the state Legislature’s website.

Here’s an example: Over the last few decades competitive sealed bidding has given way to “Requests for Proposals.” Unfortunately, there were almost no regulations on the procedures involved with RFPs. Governing authorities were basically free to do whatever they wanted.

Here in Jackson, for instance, the city could issue an RFP and then negotiate with only one party, excluding the rest. The RFP process had become the antithesis of competitive bidding. It gave governing authorities free rein to play favorites, especially with service contracts.

House Bill 1109 ends the party, setting up strict procedures for the RFP process with full oversight by an independent, central state procurement review board. Much, much better.

There is still more to be done. There are exemptions, such as institutions of higher learning. Our procurement statutes are still fragmented and need to be consolidated in one section of the code. “Lowest and best” still appears in certain sections of the code instead of “lowest responsive bid.”

Presumably, once we have a truly independent centralized procurement review board up and running, it can serve as an agent for further improvement to our laws.

Jerry Turner is the real hero here. This man almost single-handedly made this happen. It was a two-decade struggle. I recall years when he was discouraged. When I talked to him this week, he was a happy camper.

“I’m very pleased with the legislation we passed this year. I feel like it’s almost comprehensive.”

“You know it started back in 2005 when I was looking at the agricultural land lease program at Parchman and it went on into the commissary contracts with the MDOC. It’s just been a never-ending deal.”

Turner gave a lot of credit to state Sen. John Polk, chairman of the Senate Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee. “He brought a wealth of help to this program.”

Also credit goes to the governor’s task force on procurement reform: co-chairman Andy Taggart and Robert Gibbs, along with Bill Crawford, Mike Moore and Constance Slaughter-Harvey.

James Barber, head of PEER, and Laura Jackson, head of the governor’s Department of Finance and Administration, both played important roles, as did Erin King, counsel for the House Accountability Committee. There were many more who made this happen.

Turner said, “We went to NASPO (the National Association of State Procurement Officials) and we picked the best practices that were in the United States of America. We took the best from different states and compiled this into some policy for the state of Mississippi.”

I hesitate to include one comment from Turner because it seems like self-promotion. But in this age of fake news, Facebook and struggling newspapers, people need to realize the contribution of professional journalists at traditional newspapers. The money saved by improved bidding laws in Mississippi will be greater than the cost of all the newspaper subscriptions in this state in perpetuity.

Here’s the first thing Turner said to me and I quote:

“I’ve got to give you credit in this because without your investigative reporting some of this would have never come to light and we would never have gotten this passed.

“Your reporting really made a difference and got the attention of the governor and some other people who might not have been as enthused about this as I have been since 2012. Once they were made aware by good reporting of the existence of what was going on out there, I got a lot of support from it and I want to thank you for it. Thank you.”

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