Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Forty days and 40 nights

That cliché of the day indicates the number of days state legislators have to negotiate major spending and revenue proposals before they’re scheduled to adjourn their spring session May 31. With ethics reforms, health care negotiations and construction projects in the mix today, alone, lawmakers have a ton of work to do in the next five and a half weeks.

Government reforms
By Bethany Jaeger
Today marked the first time that Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission directly interacted with the joint legislative committee on government reform, both of which are working separately on some of the very same topics.

Today, however, the commission was asked to narrow its testimony to state procurement and contracting practices. The focus conveniently skipped over one of the commission’s most controversial proposals: limiting campaign contributions. So-called contribution limits topped the commission’s first set of recommendations late last month.

It’s hard to avoid the link between campaign contributions and state procurement decisions, said Commissioner David Hoffman, inspector general for the City of Chicago, particularly when repeated investigations reveal that public funds flow through contracts to the same companies that shovel large amounts of money into candidates' political campaigns. “You’ve got to get to both sides of the equation, the pay side and the play side,” he said.

But the commission abided by the committee’s request and focused on ideas for state procurement reforms. The commission’s recommendations are intended to improve transparency and insulate the process from political influence, preventing such alleged scandals as requiring state contractors to go through political fundraiser Bill Cellini. Commissioner Patrick Collins, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said Cellini was not a state employee, but prosecutors allege that he exercised significant influence over which firms received state business.

“We are entering a critical period in the next 40 days,” Collins said. “The state will learn much about itself. This is a gut-check time. … The nation is watching.”

The Illinois Reform Commission suggests creating a new department to house all state procurement officers, making them independent from the state agencies and from the governor’s office. A new procurement monitor also would oversee and review contracts.

The state already has a Procurement Policy Board to oversee contracts; yet, Hoffman said because members are appointed by the governor and the legislative leaders, they’re powerless to resist political pressure. Hoffman said the goal is not to change the procurement rules but to change whom the procurement officials report to.

Legislators and some state officials aren’t fully on board with the commission’s idea to consolidate procurement officers into a new department because needs are so different when hiring companies for road construction, power supply or higher education material.

Auditor General Bill Holland added that consolidation efforts under Blagojevich resulted in members of the governor’s inner circle playing key roles in selecting the companies that received state contracts. In one instance, a state contract was granted to an agency that did not yet exist. (See Holland’s 2005 audit for background.)

The commission plans to release its second set of recommendations next week, marking 100 days since the panel started holding public hearings throughout the state.

Senate President John Cullerton said the committee will consider all of the commission’s recommendations, but he also intends to speak with Quinn to find out what he wants to pursue. House Speaker Michael Madigan indicated the legislative committee and the governor’s commission would work closely together to draft legislation.

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