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Wednesday, April 29, 2009 01:02 am

Reforming state’s contract system is harder than you think

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Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich

By far the most ironic aspect of this entire post-Rod Blagojevich push to reform Illinois has to be the last paragraph of Gov. Pat Quinn’s much-praised reform commission report.

“All Constitutional officers should issue executive orders, comparable to George Ryan’s Executive Order #2 (1999), prohibiting their campaign funds from accepting contributions from state employees under their control.”

Former Gov. Ryan issued that executive order because his crooked campaign fundraising operation at his old secretary of state’s office had triggered a federal corruption probe and he was looking for some political cover. That investigation, of course, eventually put Ryan in prison.

Gov. Quinn’s reform commission chairman Pat Collins — who presided over the insertion of that rare Ryan praise into the commission report — was the chief prosecutor at Ryan’s trial. Ryan’s executive order didn’t prevent Collins’ feds from also convicting his campaign committee. A few years before he issued that EO, Ryan pushed through widely hailed reforms of the state’s lobbyist registration and disclosure laws in the run-up to his successful 1994 reelection campaign against noted reformer Pat Quinn. Several of Ryan’s lobbyist pals got caught up in his federal prosecution.

The irony just never stops in this state.

The lesson from this ought to be that passing new laws, no matter how enlightened and reasonable and strict, will not stop the bad guys from being bad guys. They are what they are. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich are living proof of that hard and fast law of the universe.

Obviously, though, we’ve got a real problem here in Illinois and some changes have to be made. But making those changes — and making sure they actually work and don’t break something else in the process — isn’t nearly as easy as the newspaper editorial boards and some of the reformers always make it sound.

For instance, last week, some members of the governor’s reform commission testified to the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Government Reform. The focus of the testimony was the commission’s proposal to revamp state procurement laws.

Stories are legion of how Blagojevich and his goons shook down state contractors for campaign contributions. Besides the really hinky stuff, they allegedly did things like delay final contract decisions to at least make it appear as though a contractor might not get the job, and then put the arm on nervous and otherwise honest businesspeople. Those who had won new contracts reportedly received phone calls from campaign higher-ups demanding tribute, with the implication that this might be the last contract they ever got.

See, you don’t always need to steer a contract towards somebody to make out like a bandit. You just have to make it look like you can give it to someone else.

That’s a big reason why the state needs a far more open, transparent and fair contracting system. If the system looks and feels clean to contractors and the state employees who run it, the goons will have a tougher time gaming it.

The problem is getting there without harming the underlying system itself. The governor’s reform commission found out last week that while their ideas might address one problem, they could make another problem worse.

Their proposal to centralize and insulate procurement directors was hammered by one business consultant as a “waste” of money and effort because it could exacerbate the far more pressing problems of bottlenecks and gross inefficiencies in the system itself. The farther procurement officers get from the agencies, the less they may understand the urgency or importance of certain contracts. And since the state lets $7 billion in contracts every year, this is a hugely vital function of government which can’t be trifled with.

The reform commission’s proposal to headquarter independent contract monitors in the auditor general’s office was thoroughly shot down by Auditor General Bill Holland, a man of unquestioned integrity. Holland said the plan would drag his office into policymaking, and that would directly contradict his constitutional role in the auditing process.

Holland also took a shot at the commission’s procurement centralization proposal by reminding everyone that Rod Blagojevich had once “reformed” the system by centralizing procurement officers under one roof.

“The process does not corrupt the process,” Holland said. “People corrupt the process.”

Still, it’s beyond clear that we need a new process here. Just keep your fingers crossed that the “fix” doesn’t break something else.


Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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