(TNS) Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday that the need for more oversight and transparency in state contracting is so great that it cannot wait for official action from lawmakers.
In a letter to all state agency heads, Abbott ordered them by next week to comply with the provisions of a new bill aimed at addressing problems highlighted by a no-bid contract scandal.
The Republican governor acknowledged he does not have the power to unilaterally change state law or agency rules, but said "immediate action is necessary" because "there is no reason to wait and no time to waste."
"We recognize that this legislation may be amended as it proceeds through the legislative process, however until the law eventually takes effect, state agencies must begin to implement the reforms outlined in this letter immediately," he wrote.
The directive was Abbott's most significant action yet in response to the scandal over a $110 million contract given by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission without any competition to Austin technology company 21CT. Earlier this month, he appointed a "strike force" to review the commission, which he met with on his first full day as governor.
The legislation he referenced, Senate Bill 353, introduced by state Senate budget writer Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would require the board chair or head of all agencies to sign all contracts worth more than a $1 million and publicly explain the reason for the lack of competition in any no-bid deal.
It also would reiterate that state contract managers must disclose conflicts of interest and that officials cannot give a deal to a company in which they have a financial interest. State employees already are required by ethics laws to disclose conflicts and are prohibited from profiting from state business.
"If enacted, SB 353 would impose meaningful reforms on state contracting processes that would improve transparency and foster accountability in the contracting process," Abbott wrote.
He added that he expects state agencies to use a competitive bidding process "not only when it is required by law, but also at all times that it is feasible to do so," meaning when it is not an emergency.
State agencies already are required to use competitive processes when they seek to contract with a private company for almost all projects, except in emergencies and certain types of work in which only one vendor is able to provide the services.
The controversial health commission deal went through a process at the Department of Information Resources called the Cooperative Contracts program, which pre-approves vendors, allowing agencies to avoid doing its own competitive bidding.
The contract also was scheduled to grow from an initial $20 million to $110 million before questions from the Houston Chronicle and Austin American-Statesman led the state to cancel it last month.
Former health commission top lawyer Jack Stick, who brokered the contract while serving as the agency's deputy inspector general, resigned the day that contract was canceled, and three other high-ranking officials have resigned amid an investigation.
Nelson's proposal is one of several expected this session to deal with contracting. State House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, put requirements regarding oversight and transparency into the first draft of his chamber's budget, and another bill is expected from state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.
Several government watchdogs earlier this week said the proposals on the table so far would not do enough to address the problems. Tom "Smitty" Smith, of Public Citizen Texas, compared them to "shutting the barn door after the horse has escaped."
Smith and others suggested a cap on contract expansions without competition and limits on the size of deals that can be awarded through the Cooperative Contracts program.
Abbott wrote in his letter Wednesday that he plans to work with lawmakers on more stringent reforms.
©2015 the Houston Chronicle