A months-long drama involving a state contracting oversight board culminated late Wednesday with the quiet death of a bill meant to safeguard its funding. But considering it began with a proposal to divert its authority and ended with a boost in resources, its chair is counting the session as a win.
Legislation shoring up the State Contracting Standards Board was among the bills that expired when the session ended at midnight Wednesday. Despite unanimous support in the Senate, House leaders said the bill was complicated by late feedback from agency commissioners within Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration.
Asked Thursday if the administration had directed agency heads to reach out and oppose the bill, Lamont deferred the question to his chief of staff Paul Mounds, Jr., who declined to say.
“I don’t want to get into — I would say the machinations of how bills become law, as you know it’s not the Schoolhouse Rock way here in the building,” Mounds said. “With that said, agencies have to speak up if they see that something’s going to constrain their ability to serve the people of Connecticut.”
Mounds told reporters the board did receive a substantial boost in funding under the $24 billion budget approved this week by the legislature. The package included more than $450,000 for the small panel to expand and for the first time hire an investigative staff.
On Thursday, Lawrence Fox, the board’s chair, said he was disappointed by the fate of the bill but looked at the session as an overall victory.
“It wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but we’re going to be able to fill positions that we could never fill before and that’s terrific,” Fox said. “The things that didn’t happen because this bill didn’t come down — they would have been useful, but they don’t take away from the fact that it’s really an opportunity to begin to function the way we should.”
It was a marked change in outlook as Fox began the session defending his board before the Government Administration and Elections Committee against continued under-funding and a proposal by Lamont to add staff to the state Auditors of Public Accounts and transfer the board’s enforcement authority there.
“So the impact, if this goes through the way it is, is that the board is basically dead,” Fox said at the time. “It’ll exist in name only.”
The proposal came as the Lamont administration was working to right its ship in the aftermath of revelations that a former deputy commissioner, Kosta Diamantis, was under federal investigation for apparently steering school construction and demolition contracts.
The resulting scandal found lawmakers from both parties aligned with the oversight board that has long been regarded with suspicion by Democratic and Republican governors alike. This year’s funding as well as the bill became a priority for many legislators.
“That’s something clearly that we need in the wake of some events that have happened recently,” Senate President Martin Looney said after the session ended early Thursday morning. “That’s something that should be fully supported and given the resources it needs to work.”
In addition to shielding the board from future budget slashes, the bill would have added requirements to state agencies seeking to enter privatization contracts. It required departments to post the information on their websites about emergency procurements and it limited when the Department of Administrative Services could use on-call construction consultants.
At midday press conference, Republican leaders said they too would have liked to see the bill passed.
“That was a bipartisan piece of legislation,” House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said. “House Republicans were pushing that in the GAE committee as well as the Senate Republicans. We wanted to provide that level of insight. It was unfortunate we couldn’t get it across the finish line.”
On Thursday, Sen. Mae Flexer, a Windham Democrat who co-chairs the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said she’s disappointed the legislation didn’t pass and even more disappointed that the concerns state agencies raised about the bill during the waning hours of the legislative session are already existing law.
She said the concerns — voiced by department heads to House leaders — about slowing down the procurement process were already addressed by statute and were unfounded.
“The conversation about full sunlight and transparency will continue,” Flexer said.
Fox agreed that many of the reservations expressed by executive agencies were regarding policies already on the books. He worried the administration viewed the board as an obstacle to efficient purchasing.
“I’m concerned that they’re concerned because it’s not our goal to be an impediment,” Fox said. “Our board doesn’t primarily want to play a game of gotcha. What we want to do is help the state … make sure they have systems in place to help these agencies do a better job.”