The Day – Contracting funny business just got harder to cover up

In several editorials over the last couple of years, we have advocated for adding a relatively small expenditure to state spending because it could generate positive results and big savings. We’re happy to write about it one more time to report success.

The budget recently approved by the Connecticut General Assembly contains about $ 450,000 to fully fund the State Contracting Standards Board.

As names go, it doesn’t get much more bureaucratic sounding than that one. The mission of the Freedom of Information Commission is spelled out in its title. Who could be against making sure citizens are free to access information about the workings of their government? Likewise, it is clear what the Office of State Ethics was created to accomplish.

Despite its arcane title, the task of the Contracting Standards Board is no less important. Created in 2007, it was a big part of the reforms approved by the Democrat-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell in response to the scandal that drove Republican Gov. John G. Rowland from office and into federal prison for a year. Rowland admitted to accepting gifts to steer state contracts.

The legislature empowered the 14-member volunteer board to review state contracts to make sure they complied with state law and used tax dollars efficiently. It had the power to investigate concerns brought to it and suspend purchases found inappropriate.

Yet subsequent legislatures and governors never adequately provided the board with the professional resources to accomplish its mission. Funding covered only one full-time position, that of an executive director. Even with that limitation, the board has had some success in exposing malfeasance, including exposing the Capital Region Development Authority’s faulty contracting process for the Dillon Stadium renovation in Hartford and delving the procedural lapses that have dogged the Connecticut Port Authority since its creation.

But to be fully effective the board needed staffing. Now it will have it. The expenditure approved by the legislature will allow the board to hire the chief procurement officer, accounts examiner, staff attorney and research analyst it says it needs.

Gov. Ned Lamont, like his predecessor Dannel P. Malloy, did not consider giving the board greater ability to carry around contracts to be a high priority. And while Gov. Lamont never took us up on our recommendation that he reverse course and embrace the funding, he did ultimately relent, telling our editorial board in March, “I think we’ll probably make a change.”

In other words, Lamont agreed not to stand in the way of the legislature’s bipartisan support for funding the board.

The legislation is not perfect. Efforts to give the board added protection, by prohibiting a governor from imposing cuts during the fiscal year, faltered. The FOI Commission and Ethics have that protection. But a governor who cut the board’s funding would be placing a huge political target on his or her back. It seems unlikely.

And the board does not have authority concerning contracts negotiated by quasi-public agencies, such as the Connecticut Lottery Corporation and the Connecticut Green Bank, although the legislature previously carved out an exception to let it review the port authority. But we suspect these quasi-publics are now on notice that they best paint within the lines or see the legislature target them for additional scrutiny too.

Which highlights perhaps the greatest benefit of giving the Contracting Standards Board more bite. It is an added incentive for state agencies to do the contracting process right.

While funding for the board had broad support among the region’s delegation in Hartford, special credit goes to state Sen. Cathy Osten, who serves the 19th District that includes the communities of Ledyard, Montville, Norwich, Sprague and Lisbon. In her capacity as Senate chair of the Appropriations Committee, Osten persistently pushed for the added funding. That persistence proved critical in getting her fellow Democrat, Lamont, to ultimately get out of the way.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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