Legislative committee gets an education in contracts

In the aftermath of several education contract controversies, a legislative committee began the job of unraveling the state’s purchasing process.

And on Wednesday morning, lawmakers began their job by hearing some staggering numbers:

  • In 2013-14, Idaho awarded 41,434 contracts worth more than $1.5 billion.
  • The state has about 12 ½ full-time staffers in its division of purchasing, the agency that handles many of the state’s most lucrative and visible contracts.
  • However, that figure doesn’t include more than 63 full-time purchasing jobs across the rest of state government. For instance, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra has assigned nearly 1 ½ full-time positions to contracting — but is the only statewide elected official to have a contracting team in place.

The job of the Legislature’s Purchasing Laws Interim Committee is to sort through the contract process. The committee will scrutinize state laws that date back to the 1970s and are “antiquated,” according to the legislative resolution authorizing the committee.

Martin New
Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise

There are other legislative interim committees working this summer, including one that is focusing on the state’s broadband needs. These committees have important tasks, said Sen. Fred Martin, co-chairman of the purchasing panel, “but none more important than this one.”

That sense of importance is reflected in some of the 10 appointees to the purchasing committee: Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, who is also on the broadband interim committee; two members of House GOP leadership, Reps. John Vander Woude and Brent Crane of Nampa; and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the longtime co-chairwoman of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

Left unaddressed, at least through Wednesday morning’s overviews, are some of the state’s high-profile contract problems. That list includes the $60 million contract for the Idaho Education Network broadband system, a contract thrown out in a Boise district court; a contract for the statewide Schoolnet instructional management system, a $61 million project that the state is phasing out; and a multiyear high school Wi-Fi contract that blindsides lawmakers in 2013.

Anderson New
Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot

After Wednesday’s first meeting, committee members will hit the road. The next meeting is slated for Sept. 30 in Pocatello, and will include a public comment period. The committee hasn’t ruled out a North Idaho hearing.

The end goal, heading into the 2016 legislative session, is to foster public confidence in the bidding process, and to make sure the state has a fair purchasing system in place.

“And we may have that already,” said Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, co-chairman of the committee.

Disclosure: The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which funds Idaho Education News, provided $19.4 million in grants for the Schoolnet project.