Tom Kacich: Change in purchasing laws may be ahead

Tom Kacich: Change in purchasing laws may be ahead

Big budget cuts are inevitable this year — both in the current year's budget and the one beginning July 1 — but Republican lawmakers in Springfield are doing their best to lessen the impact by promoting relief from mandates.

The strategy was on full display last week when public university presidents testified in House and Senate committees on the potential impact of Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposed cuts, followed by representatives of the state procurement office.

The presidents of the University of Illinois and Illinois State were pressed by committee members to suggest how much procurement laws — instituted in the aftermath of the conviction of former Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich — were costing universities. UI President Robert Easter said he had heard one estimate that it cost the UI $70 million a year in waste and inefficiency in the purchase of equipment, supplies and services.

Seventy million dollars in procurement relief, noted Republican Sen. Chapin Rose of Mahomet, would cancel out one-third of Rauner's proposed budget cuts to the UI next year.

"The governor's entire life has been taking over a company and making it more efficient. This is the kind of stuff that drives him nuts," Rose said of Rauner. "And across the board, what you're hearing from him is that you have to substantially reform government first before you do anything else.

"Now is the time to raise this issue. We've got a governor who's interested in it. Does it get done this fiscal year? I don't know. But on the other hand, all we're hearing about are the cuts, cuts, cuts from Rauner. You have other options here that are worth real money. We can give mandate relief. And this isn't just higher ed. This is local government and K-12 schools. You go talk to any superintendent of schools and ask about mandate relief and they'll go through the roof."

Ben Bagby, the state's chief procurement officer for higher education, acknowledged that changes "absolutely" are needed.

"There are too many situations where we have to qualify a vendor before they submit a bid and if they make a mistake, because the way the law is written, we have to disqualify them. That means we go to the next high vendor. Sometimes we've reached up to the 10th vendor before we can get somebody who actually meets all the requirements of the procurement code. I'm not talking about whether they have a good product or a good price or not, but just the basic statutory requirements."

And it's not just higher education that's hamstrung by the procurement laws, he said.

"These issues we're having with higher ed are the same issues the (state) agencies are having," Bagby said. "If the cost to the University of Illinois through regulation of the process of procurement results in a $70 million cost, extrapolating that to the other universities, that's about $135 million. And extrapolating that to the other agencies is $540 million because they expend about four times the amount that the universities do.

"So that is a big number. I'm not sure I agree with that number, or that that dollar amount is out there. But there definitely is a cost to the state of Illinois to disqualify vendors or to rebid. Or just the lack of competition because it is so difficult. It does make it more difficult for us to get full and open competition and the best price from the market."

In one case, Bagby said, "Eastern Illinois University told me that at one time in one procurement they lost $230,000 because of these particular types of issues. It's usually the inability of the vendor to qualify or to understand the documents or the law itself. It's very complicated. I've been doing this about 38 years. I don't get it all right all the time myself. It really needs to be simplified."

It's worth noting that the tougher procurement laws were their own reform in that aftermath of corrupt administrations.

"There was a cost to the state from corruption, and the fact that the process wasn't thoroughly reviewed and didn't go through the scrutiny it should have gone through," noted Sen. Dan Kotowski, D-Park Ridge. "When we have situations where we have previous governors who were indicted and convicted, we take steps to remedy the problem. Sometimes we may overcompensate for that.

"But there was a cost that was never really indicated to taxpayers in the fact that these contracts were being given out. I remember the testimony on the Senate floor about people writing their own requirements for RFPs due to the fact that they had given a campaign contribution."

Rose agreed.

"Did we need procurement reform after Blagojevich? Hell yes, we needed it," he said. "But did we need a trailer bill to fix the problems from that procurement bill? Absolutely, we've needed it for five years and nobody's cared. Now we have a governor who cares."

Scott Bennett fund

It's been a little more than two months since Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, was appointed to succeed State Treasurer Mike Frerichs in the Illinois Senate, and a little more than a month since he established a campaign committee.

A day after the fund was established, Bennett got his first itemized campaign contribution: $2,500 from Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago. In the last week, though, he reported $11,600 more in donations from the Illinois Pipe Trades PAC, the Illinois Laborers PAC, the Illinois Trial Lawyers and the Illinois State Medical Society and a few other groups.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 217-351-5221 or at