State law could cost UI millions in research funding
URBANA – The University of Illinois could lose millions of dollars in federal grant money for a single researcher because a California company is balking at the paperwork and guarantees required by a state law designed to fight corruption.
Scott White, a professor of aerospace engineering, might not be able to use about $11.5 million in two Air Force grants for materials research, because his California supplier decided it wasn't worth the trouble, for a roughly $70,000 sale, to follow the requirements under Public Act 96-0795, a law aimed at preventing corruption in a state infamous for it.
"I feel an extreme sense of frustration after many months of trying to make this work," said White, one of the Urbana campus' best-known researchers.
An autoclave – a device he employs to cure a self-healing composite material – is no longer functional, and White said he would not be able to meet the conditions of his grants without one.
White said he hoped there was a workaround.
"I have to think that somebody will wake up somehow and make it work, but I don't know how that would happen," he said.
Asked if his frustrations could lead to looking for a university position outside Illinois, White said, "if I can't do the kind of research I need to do, and deliver on that kind of research, this is not a viable situation."
The bill creates the requirements for many state institutions, including all state schools, without giving them additional money to enact its reforms.
The Urbana campus could also be slow in paying its vendors and will face much greater time demands for purchases, under the law, which began to go into effect in July.
White may not the only researcher who has major grant money in danger, said Robin Kaler, the chief spokeswoman for the Urbana campus.
"It's a statewide problem," she said.
Kaler said many UI employees are unhappy with the unintended consequences of the law, passed in the wake of the troubled Blagojevich administration.
"I would say the intention behind the law is good and honorable," Kaler said. "In practice, it is creating obstacles that could adversely affect the university and its ability to attract the best faculty. That's true for every public institution" of public learning.
Kaler said White's problem is not unique. When a profit is not high, a company may decide it's not worth the expense of time and effort, including registering as a company doing business to Illinois.
"They have no compelling reason to comply with all of the rules and paperwork expenses that it would take to be able to sell this part to us," she said.
"I don't know of anyone else here (having White's problem) right now, but I'm sure it will impact hundreds of purchases in the coming year."
The bill's area co-sponsors include state Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, and state Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville. Frerichs could not be reached for comment Friday.
Black said he's heard some complaints from vendors.
"We tried over the years to reform this. You take a step forward and a step back. Change never comes easily. If we have a made a mistake, there will be a will to fine-tune any bill that we do. The old system was rife with problems; if the new system has some rough edges, let's sand those down," he said.
Black said Illinois has a long history of no-bid contract and sole-source contracts.
"Change is coming very slowly to Illinois. We just spend an awful lot of money, and I'm not always convinced we're getting the best value for the taxpayer."
But in the meantime, UI employees are learning to work with a much more complex procurement process.
Catherine Reisner, the associate director of purchasing, told department heads Friday to expect delays and more paperwork under the law.
"Start early," she advised the staffers ordering purchases or services.
According to UI documents, the law is especially stringent for higher-level purchases – over $20,000 for professional and artist purposes, $51,300 for commodities, services and equipment, and $72,000 for construction.
Under a UI timeline, a bid could require 30 days for preparation, more for complex proposals; a minimum 14 days for bulletin posting; an indeterminate time for review responses.
After the contract is signed, the timeline notes, a 30-day review period starts, followed by 60 days' lead time for board of trustees action, and then the vote by the board.
Reisner has also worked at the required Wednesday hearings for complaints by vendors who are not selected, whether anybody shows up or not.
"I often talk to four walls. I have a script I have to read," she said.
The law has also created new hierarchies of administration.
UI Comptroller Walter Knorr used to be the university's chief procurement officer, but the state now has a compliance administrator and office for all higher education in Illinois, headed by Ben Bagby in Springfield.