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The first substantive roll call of the new legislative session was to adopt a transparency amendment to the house rules. I had been working hard on the changes for over a year and I was grateful for the unanimous support of the leadership team and my colleagues on Thursday.
Speaker DeLeo sent a positive message through his support for the changes. In a formal statement, he said “These rules signal our continued commitment to making the house a more transparent, effective body. The rules, which drew bipartisan support, will help facilitate the legislative process while ensuring that we conduct the people’s business in an open manner.”
The story behind the change goes back to the fall of 2009. At that time, there was no consensus on the need for greater transparency in house operations. Some of us perceived greater transparency as an important priority, but there were many who perceived transparency as a secondary concern. Some opposed greater transparency, going so far as to argue that transparency just gives ammunition to relentlessly hostile members of the media.
We’ve come a long way over the last year. Last spring, we approved a measure putting the house checkbook online. All disbursement records have long been available through public records request, but that is a cumbersome process. The Governor and the newly elected Treasurer have committed to create the necessary website — every member of the public will soon be able to easily see just how every last dollar is being spent.
The concern which remained outstanding for me was the openness of house procurement. Coming from a municipal government background, I had a strong sense of the importance of competitive, open procurement: Every qualified bidder should have the opportunity to make a proposal on the larger contracts and, if they aren’t chosen, to know how the process worked.
The procurement laws and regulations that govern all other state and local agencies specifically exempt the legislature. Yet the legislature does issue some larger contracts — legislative operations have come to depend heavily on information technology.
The procedures that we adopted on Thursday follow in broad outline the procedures in other state agencies. They create accountability, specifically charging the house business office and house counsel to oversee procurement. They mandate use of existing state-wide purchasing agreements where practical . They require three bids for items over $5,000 and require publicly-noticed competitive bidding for items over $50,000. Finally, they require the maintenance of records of the procurement process in a file accessible to any house member. (General public access would be even better, but access by any member of any party will substantially open up the process.)
We also adopted an amendment offered by the Republicans which will strengthen the existing auditing rules of the house by requiring adherence to generally accepted government auditing standards.
In two years, we will have the opportunity to revisit legislative rules again. At that time, I hope that the Senate will adopt similar changes. This would allow us to then adopt competitive procurement for joint purchases — the joint expenditures are some of the largest.
I’m relieved to have these issues resolved for now and look forward to moving on to the larger challenges that we face in the coming session — clean energy, strengthening public education and fiscal responsibility, including the difficult issues around public employee retirement benefits).