February: Shine light on contract process

2005 Columns

The State of Wisconsin Elections Board enters into a $13 million contract with Accenture to create a statewide voter registration system. Certain lawmakers and pundits go wild, accusing Accenture of incompetence and threatening a legal challenge to the Elections Board’s action. Do these critics have a point? How did the Board settle on Accenture?

The state Department of Transportation awards a $685,000 website design contract to two firms whose employees have given more than $50,000 in campaign contributions to Gov. Jim Doyle. Critics complain that $685,000 is a lot of money for a web site and assert that something smells fishy about this deal. Did campaign cash have anything to do with this contract, and how do you justify spending more than a half-million dollars on a web site?

A Milwaukee firm with close ties to a former lawmaker convicted of taking kickbacks for state work is found to have overbilled the state by more than a quarter million dollars on state contracts. Was this a case of sloppy bookkeeping or Capitol corruption?

All of these are good questions that the public has a right to have answered. But that may never happen, because of the way our state contracting system currently works.

Under current law, if you want to change the fine for stealing a shopping cart or make the polka the official state dance, you must register with the Ethics Board and report all your activity. But if you are making a play for a $93 million Medicaid contract, a $13 million voter registration list, or a $600,000 web site, you get to do it completely in the dark.

The individuals cutting deals for hundreds of millions in taxpayer-funded contracts or projects are allowed to do so in virtual anonymity. That is a gaping hole in Wisconsin’s tradition of open government that I intend to close.

That’s why I am introducing the Contract Sunshine Act. This bill is a comprehensive reform that will make Wisconsin’s contracting and procurement system more open and accountable to the public.

It’s really pretty simple. The bill requires those seeking to influence any state agency with regard to any state procurement contract to register and report their activity to the state Ethics Board, in the same way that lobbyists or principals currently must do.

The problem with our current contracting system is not that it fosters corruption. The problem is that it fosters uncertainty. I am not saying that any of the controversial state contracts referenced above are illegitimate or a bad deal for taxpayers.

Unfortunately, though, because our current system has no disclosure requirement, I also can’t assure you that these contracts were above-board and legitimate. That sort of secrecy breeds uncertainty; uncertainty breeds suspicion; suspicion breeds cynicism, and cynicism erodes the public trust in their democratically elected representatives.

The goal of the Contract Sunshine Act is to help restore that trust. I want to make sure that the next time there’s a controversy over a state contract, lawmakers, the press and the public alike can go to the Ethics Board, follow the process from the start, and get complete and reliable information about who is trying to influence what decisions and how. With that information, we will all be able to make an honest judgment about whether everything is on the up-and-up.

Having the state enter contracts with the private sector is always going to be controversial. Some groups, like public employee unions, will always seek to protect their own turf by opposing all contracting. Others, including me, believe that contracting often provides government a worthwhile way to provide valuable services while reducing state costs.

In the end, perhaps the controversial nature of contracting itself provides the strongest argument for the Contract Sunshine Act. On an issue this inherently controversial, why would we want to compound uncertainty and suspicion through a closed, secret process?

Passing the Contract Sunshine Act can help ensure that whoever is doing the work – state employees or private contractors – is giving taxpayers the best possible deal.

John G. Gard (R-Pestigo) is the Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly. Your Right to Know is a monthly column produced by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, devoted to protecting public access to meetings and records.