State could tighten contract rules

In the wake of controversy over two school Internet contracts, the state’s Division of Purchasing wants to beef up its oversight role.

The division of the state Department of Administration would enhance its planning and monitoring of contracts totaling more than $5 million. That’s a fraction of state contracts — only 45 of the state’s 443 service contracts exceed $5 million. But these are by far the most lucrative contracts; these 45 contracts total $2.6 billion, while the rest come to $163.6 million.

The enhanced planning would come in the form of a change in state rule, which would be subject to legislative review in 2015.

“We consider the proposed rules for high-dollar service contracts to be an adequate and practical framework for contract monitoring that will enhance the state’s ability to mitigate risks for most of the authorized contract spending,” the Office of Performance Evaluations, the Legislature’s auditing arm, said in a report to lawmakers issued Monday. (Click here for a one-page report summary.)

The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee received the report Monday.

“I think the eyes opened,” Rep. Maxine Bell, a Jerome Republican and co-chair of JLOC, told Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review. Big contracts were being signed at “all levels of government, and no one was paying attention.”

“I would say we’re part-way there,” Rep. Shirley Ringo, a Moscow Democrat and JLOC co-chair, told Russell, “but I wouldn’t say we’re at the finish line yet.”

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Bell, Ringo and fellow legislative budget-writers were caught off-guard in January, when they learned about an ongoing delay in federally authorized payments for the Idaho Education Network broadband system. The Legislature forked over $11.4 million to keep the system intact until February.

Some lawmakers have also questioned a state-funded contract to install WiFi in high schools and junior high schools, saying they had no idea the State Department of Education was contemplating a deal that could run 15 years and $33 million. The 2014 Legislature allowed districts to opt out of the WiFi contract and receive state funding for their own systems.

While the 2015 Legislature will likely consider contract rule changes from the Department of Administration, other changes might have to come of lawmakers’ own volition.

The OPE report also recommends statewide monitoring for all high-dollar contracts — even if they are issued by state agencies or offices that do not fall under the Administration Department’s purview. The Legislature did not act on this idea in 2013 or 2014.

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, told Russell he is working on such a bill, and hopes to generate bipartisan backing.

More reading: More from Monday’s meeting from Kimberlee Kruesi of the Associated Press.

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