WEEK IN REVIEW
BILLS FILED TO REIN IN SPENDING, CONTRACT ABUSE
(Austin) — Lawmakers this week considered bills aimed at lowering the spending cap and providing stronger oversight over agency contracting practices. The Senate Finance Committee debated a bill that would revamp regulatory control over state agencies who contract for products or services with private sector companies. This is a very common practice across agencies, according to Finance Chair Jane Nelson, who said state agencies were committed to contracts with outside vendors worth more than $60 billion in 2010. The committee first looked at this issue last month, when testimony from the State Auditor's Office revealed that out of 14 audited agencies, only two met all contracting guidelines. One contract for telecom services at the Health and Human Services Commission was found to have serious conflicts of interest, increasing costs and lack of oversight over payments and service delivery. Committee members expressed dismay at the findings and promised future action. "It's outrageous, we're going to get to the bottom of it and we're going to fix it," Nelson told members at the February 18 meeting.
The fix comes in the form of Senate Bill 20, authored by Nelson. It would strengthen reporting requirements, require agency heads to sign off on contracts worth more than $1 million, and require agencies to post a list of all contracts on their state website. "These contracts are paid for with taxpayer dollars," Nelson said. "We must ensure that they are awarded with the highest degree of ethics and transparency." She told members she intends to hold a vote on the bill at a meeting next week.
Another bill filed this week would use a different metric to set the state spending limit, which its author said will result in a more conservative spending cap. Senator Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills filed SB 9 this week, which would tie the spending cap to population growth plus inflation. "This is a false measurement and effectively eviscerates the constitutional spending limit," Hancock said of the current metric, personal income growth. The constitution limits the growth of the state budget to no more than the growth of the state economy.
Also this week, a new Senate committee looked at the issue of deferred maintenance across state agencies. This refers to routine upkeep costs that get put off because agencies haven't been appropriated enough money to cover repairs and renovations in a given biennium. According to Tyler Senator Kevin Eltife, the Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Government Facilities, agencies need $1.5 billion to fix state facilities, up from $400 million in 2006. "People need to understand, deferred maintenance has a cascading effect," he told members. "If you don't fix the roof, it's not just the cost of the roof five years out, it's the cost of the walls. It's the cost of the carpet, and repairs."
Eltife set out the goals for his committee at a Thursday meeting. First, he wants to create an accurate picture of all the deferred maintenance needs across all agencies. Then, he wants to generate a four-year plan to meet all these needs. He also wants to consider the creation of a special account to pay for maintenance going forward, one that contains adequate safeguards to ensure that taxpayer dollars aren't wasted. "It's insane not to take care of the facilities you own," said Eltife. "If we're going to own them, we ought to maintain them. If we can't afford to maintain them, get rid of them."
The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 16 at 2 p.m.