Procurement changes welcome

Procurement changes welcome

If Illinois can make progress on low-profile important issues, why not high-profile important ones?

For those incurable optimists who insist on seeing a glass as one-eighth full rather than seven-eighths empty, there is some good news from Illinois state government.

Gov. Bruce Rauner signed bipartisan legislation last week that should make it easier for the state to make required purchases at lower costs for taxpayers. The Republican governor and Democratic General Assembly actually achieving something positive by working together — who'd a thunk it?

Even better, S.B. 8 has particularly positive ramifications for public universities throughout Illinois, which explains why Rauner signed the bill at the University of Illinois with a pleased President Timothy Killeen looking on.

The legislation is intended to make the procurement process more efficient and transparent by undoing restrictive rules that were put into place after the scandals of the administrations of former Govs. Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan. They created bureaucratic nightmares, the undoing of which Rauner said will "make it easier for small and midsize businesses to bid on contracts."

It also will make it easier for public entities to accept the lowest bid. That may seem like common sense, but in Illinois, it's revolutionary political reform.

Killeen cited several problems UI officials endured under the old rules that he expects to be addressed by the new law.

He said that "our libraries will be able to purchase academic journals that are staples throughout higher education without going through unnecessary and time-consuming procurement reviews" and "will avert delays that have slowed research and frustrated top faculty, threatening to chase them and their nearly $1 billion in annual research funding to states with less-cumbersome procurement guidelines.

"For instance, our chemistry and biology researchers will be able to order a specialized microscope that is available from just a single source without jumping through hoops to attract other vendors that don't exist," Killeen said.

That's important because the UI is a huge institution, including three campuses, 80,000 students and 24,000 faculty members. Even more important, the UI is just one of hundreds of public entities that must abide by procurement rules, no matter how ill-conceived they may be.

The goal of limiting public corruption under the old approach was well intended. Given the criminal instincts that pervade government in this state, they can hardly be ignored.

But there are limits to what bureaucratic rules can achieve in pursuit of the noble but challenging goal of legislating honesty. They can become counter-productive when they have the effect of paralyzing the process — in this case, the procurement process.

Still, it must be noted that procurement reform — even considering the great sense that it makes — is hardly a sexy issue. It's difficult to imagine impassioned throngs of people crowding the public square to salute this low-profile government reform.

Perhaps that's why the General Assembly passed it at the behest of public universities and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce with bipartisan Democratic and Republican support.

Legislators could have done the same thing on the long-standing budget standoff, which caused immense harm during its two-year run. They could do the same thing on the current controversy involving the K-12 school-funding formula. Legislators also could have approved some of the economic-reform proposals Rauner requested that are necessary to lift Illinois' lagging economy out of the doldrums.

Alas, they didn't, because politics intruded on those issues but didn't on procurement and on township government consolidation, a low-profile-but-important issue that is the subject of another bill awaiting Rauner's expected signature.

Effective government in Illinois doesn't have to be an impossible dream.

Republicans and Democrats don't have to be almost constantly at each others' throats.

Republican Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan aren't forbidden from occasionally getting together and belting out a chorus of "Kumbaya," particularly if their cooperation is in the broad public interest.

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