Transparency in Procurement

Last week, a political battle that I started in 2010 ended quietly.  With leadership support on both sides, the Senate and the House adopted joint rules codifying sound business practices for procurement.

In late 2009, I learned that the legislature was procuring goods and services without any codified competitive process and without any public disclosure of contracts awarded.  The legislature had exempted its own purchasing activity from the rules that apply to other state agencies.

Through a public records request to the state comptroller’s office, I found that in the previous 5 years, the legislature had procured $25 million in goods and services — mostly technology.  I got nervous when I realized that a substantial portion of that spending went to three companies that were owned by the same individual.  The name changes, although not necessarily improper, seemed like a red flag.

I called for an audit and a change in the rules.  When it seemed to me that the leadership response was to duck and cover, I felt compelled to resign from the leadership team.

Later in the spring of 2010, I prepared for a public debate to force the necessary rules changes as part of the budget process.

The House leadership team incorporated into their budget draft a proposal to make all state spending records available online,  including legislative spending records — a sound step towards improved transparency.  And as the debate neared, they offered to add tax credit transparency to the proposal, provided I would back down and not force debate on my proposed procurement changes.

In what was the most difficult legislative decision I have made so far, I agreed to hold off on my amendments and damaging public debate about them.  I had to admit that the alternative progress offered was very real, and also that the amendments I offered probably really belonged in the legislative rules as opposed to the budget.  Speaker DeLeo promised to entertain rules changes that I offered at a later date.

The Speaker honored his promise and, in January 2011, in the next House rules debate, the House adopted rules requiring competitive procurement for larger purchases and allowing member access to review procurement records.

The Senate did not, at that time, adopt parallel changes and so, in the joint House-Senate spending account, the largest procurement account, there was still no codified procurement procedure.  When I arrived last year in the Senate, I was, in the back of my mind, dreading the possibility that I would face a similar fight over procurement rules when the biennial rules debate came around in 2013.

I was thrilled when Senate leadership welcomed a codification of procurement procedures and both the House and the Senate adopted rules requiring competitive procurement and member access to procurement records for their joint spending.

The only remaining improvement I might advocate would be direct public access to review procurement records.  However, since, due to the 2010 legislation, all spending is now available online,  any journalist with concerns can determine the right questions to ask and should be able to get a member to help them find the answers.

Looking back, I’ll never know whether I could have achieved the same results on the House side in 2010 with a more patient and less confrontational approach.  Uncertainty over tactics is a permanent condition of the legislative process — even the most experienced legislators fly blind much of the time.

All is well that ends well.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.